Nashville Stars

by James Dudlicek

Through business and outreach, Purity Dairies continues to expand its voice in the community.

“We’ve got 10,000 customers, but we think there’s more customers to have,” says Mark Ezell, president of Purity Dairies, looking ahead to the future.
Nearly a decade since Dean Foods’ acquisition of the Nashville, Tenn.-based processor from the founding family that continues to manage it, times continue to be good for Purity, whether that’s perpetuating a tradition of top-quality products and service or continuing a history of philanthropy toward the community that helped make the company what it is today.
What it is, is a company growing so much that only doubling its cooler space will adequately contain the output that’s pushing annual sales up toward $170 million.
It’s a company that brought home a record-setting four gold medals from the last World Dairy Expo for its 2% milk, buttermilk, sour cream and raspberry sherbet. It’s a company whose award-winning marketing efforts have included spokesmen such as the late Jim Varney (back before the world knew him as Ernest) and the stars of the Grand Ole Opry and TV’s “Nashville Star.”
It’s a company that just plain knows Nashville, its people and what they want from their hometown dairy. “In our marketplace, we think consumers expect Purity to be the leader,” Ezell says. “We’ve established that position, so we want to make sure we are.”
Products Made Perfect
Part of that means helping milk secure its rightful place in the wellness spectrum.
“It is more difficult to position it as a fun and exciting beverage, so we should own the health category,” Ezell says. “How can we do that? Whatever the right ways are to continue to get the next generation to believe in milk as a needed beverage in their diet and healthy lifestyle.”
Purity is already ahead of the curve on probiotics and plans to take every opportunity to let people know that. “I hope we can really get that out,” says Tim White, milk sales manager, noting that Purity launched Sweet Acidophilus milk 30 years ago, “way before it was in vogue.”
In fact, White notes, Sweet Acidophilus and its fat-free cousin Zero Plus (reformulated from Half Plus a year ago) make up 30 percent of Purity’s brand market share in a 150-square-mile marketing area that stretches in all directions outward from Nashville and into Alabama and Kentucky.
Purity reports a 24 share for its cottage cheese and 26.5 share for its milk overall; its chocolate milk commands a 44 share, due in no small part to its World Dairy Expo gold medal in 2005. “The timing was perfect, because we hadn’t really finished planning our ad campaign for the following year,” White says. “We started promoting it on TV and radio, FSI’s, some consumer contests. We had shirts made for our route salesmen with ‘World’s Best Chocolate Milk’ on them. It was a totally integrated, focused program.”
Market share rose 38 percent during the promotion. “What was really cool about it, too, was that more people were made aware of chocolate milk in general,” White says. “And you can’t be in a bad mood while drinking chocolate milk.”
On the ice cream side, light is the heavy growth area after a revamp to that product line.
“It went from about 3 percent of our total ice cream sales to 10 percent,” says Tim Tracy, ice cream sales manager, explaining Purity’s recent “Choose Your Moose” billboard campaign featuring regular, chocolate and light varieties of its popular Moose Tracks flavor. “Our best-selling light SKU is Moose Tracks; second would be vanilla.” Vanilla and Butter Pecan will join a no-sugar-added light line.
Elsewhere on the better-for-you front, Purity worked within new state and federal school nutritional guidelines to develop 98 percent fat-free vanilla and chocolate ice cream cups, along with a new 98 percent fat-free mini ice cream sandwich.
“This year, we’re putting a lot of emphasis on Purity frozen yogurt,” Tracy says. “Our frozen yogurt is 15 percent of our packaged sales business. For most dairies, that runs about 2 percent, and at dairies in the Southeast it runs about 5 percent. So we really have got a good following on our frozen yogurt. A couple of our top sellers are, of course, vanilla, and then second is Heavenly Hash — chocolate with a vanilla swirl and chocolate-covered almonds.”
New frozen yogurt flavors launching in 2007 are Chocolate Moose Tracks and Blueberry Granola, with cartons carrying a “Probiotics: Health for Life” stamp.
Other plans call for a new focus on Purity’s multiple varieties of vanilla ice cream (Vanilla, Vanilla Bean, French Vanilla and Homemade Vanilla), which account for 30 percent of total ice cream sales. Meanwhile, Purity continues to manufacture flavors that win the annual ice cream recipe contest held as a fundraiser for Nashville’s Martha O’Bryan Center, a Christian family resource center. The 2006 winner, Chocolate Praline Crunch, will be named the official ice cream of Nashville’s 200th anniversary celebration. The previous winner, Heavenly Hawaiian — coconut ice cream with pineapple and pecans — will “make you talk in your sleep,” Tracy brags. This feature flavor is now a permanent member of the lineup.
Purity has also found success as a distributor, not only of its own products and those of sister dairy Mayfield in middle Tennessee and northern Alabama, but of Edy’s and Unilever brand products as well.  
Leading the Way
But developing its own new products and continuing to be a leader in quality will drive growth at Purity, Ezell says. “For us, we really think it all starts with how good a product it is,” he says. “We’re focusing on drink lines this year, as well as new flavors on the ice cream side. We think consumers want to keep seeing us get better. Their foundation is, is what I’m about to buy a great-tasting product that makes me keep coming back? So, one of our biggest factors is to continue producing quality products and then keep telling the world about them.”
The company is watching the organic trend but has no immediate plans to dive in. “It’s a blessing we have Dean Foods with the Horizon label and the soy label of Silk. Could  they be regional products? Could Purity Dairies do a good job with them and take them to a new level as far as market share?” Ezell says. “Clearly, the industry still needs new, innovative products.”
Purity folks are also watching the rBGH issue and how their parent company has started, in some of its regional units, to reject milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones. “It has not been an issue from a consumer standpoint in the Tennessee-Alabama market. It’s been a product that’s been safe. We have dairy farmers using rBGH,” Ezell says. “Dean has either led the market or followed the market where there became a great consumer demand to change, in the Northeast and Texas. But for our market, it’s a non-issue for our consumers, because they’ve seen us give them a safe product for many years, and we haven’t seen the need to introduce anything different in the process. Having said that, if the market changes, we’ll follow, or possibly lead, depending on the customer.”
The artificial hormone issue is just one of the challenges with which the industry will have to contend moving forward, Ezell says. “I think that, long-term, our industry has got to move out of being a commodity milk business and move into the beverage business. That’s how we’ve been the last 30 years — thinking we’re really trying to get share of stomach, not just share of the milk case. I think Dean Foods clearly believes in this,” he says. “If we don’t market a product that we can sell profitably and then, therefore, reinvest in our people and our plants, then our industry will go the way that many commodity industries have gone. [It’s] technology, innovation, new products, having good people taking care of the product and the customer, reinvesting in your plants. Some in the industry are doing that, but then some are still not.”
Investment, too, in the people responsible for making it all work. But are the younger generations seeking careers in dairy like they did in years past?
“I’ve got a staff of 10 supervisors, and I’ve got some pretty young ones,” says milk plant manager Tommy Biggs, who has been at Purity for 51 years. “So on my side, I’m pretty well blessed with some of the young people stepping up. That team of supervisors helped Purity win Manufacturer of the Year in Middle Tennessee in 2006.”
Ice cream plant manager Ronnie Gaw has another take. “More than just supervisors coming in and taking responsibility, it’s the work force from the top to the bottom coming in that presents challenges. The thing I see, it’s harder for us to develop the good young supervisors,” Gaw says. “But for those folks that want to take the initiative and accept the responsibility, the sky’s the limit on what they can do.
“When I was coming up, you did whatever you had to do for 50 cents an hour more. That attitude is rare today, and those are the ones we have to nurture. It’s harder to find that personality in today’s work force than it used to be.”
Purity Pride
You could point to many things that make Purity unique. For one, its home delivery service, a fading icon of the dairy industry.
“I love having home delivery,” Ezell says, noting that while it’s not very profitable, it’s invaluable for staying in touch with consumers. “It’s a training ground for a driver to be able, for example, to explain to Mrs. Smith why Sweet Acidophilus is good for her. We get immediate feedback.”
Perhaps it’s a sense of ownership, one that even compels the company president himself to pick up bits of trash on the front lawn during a tour. “I think everybody here feels a sense of ownership in what they’re doing,” says distribution manager Roger Roberts. “We’ve got guys on the front lines on routes, they’d work as many days in a row without any rest as you’d ask them to, if you asked them to. We don’t, but they would. I’ve got two supervisors that, if something happens, they don’t ask me — they’re down here on Saturday or Sunday or at night, whenever — they just show up.”
Or is it the people? “The biggest thing we’ve got going for us is our employees, like our route salesmen,” White says. “I give credit to Mark and his family for being able to recruit and build the work ethic that you find at Purity. And good attracts good. We have some fantastic, dedicated people who aren’t told what to do — they just get it done.”
The company isn’t shy when it comes to bragging about its people’s accomplishments, whether that’s in “The Good Moos” employee newsletter or a special brochure announcing Purity’s World Dairy Expo victories, with photos of all the team members involved with the winning products.
And it’s common to see the same last name many times on the employee roster at Purity — not an issue when they’re all putting out 100 percent effort. “To me, it’s no greater complement for a job well done for a company and for a manager as when one of your employees comes and says, ‘My son needs a job,’” Gaw says, “and they think enough about where they work to consider that a place of employment for a family member. It has worked well for us.”
According to Ezell, “it has to start with our quality. We believe we have the best dairy products we can make. We try to match that with a good delivery system. It’s got to be a passion, and for 600 people to have a passion is key. It drives us every day to be excellent.”
Chalk it all up to Purity pride, the folks here say. “From the most senior person we have working at Purity to the newest employee we’ve just hired, it’s the commitment and dedication to a quality product and service to our customers,” Gaw says. “That’s what we’ve built our reputation on, our livelihood and our families. In my opinion, all 600 employees that work for Purity Dairies are salesmen, not just the guys in the trucks. I can remember my dad — he never worked a day in sales in his life, but I don’t think we ever went to a restaurant that he didn’t ask what kind of milk they served or why they didn’t serve Purity.”
Such a commitment will be essential as Purity continues to grow. “We’d like to grow market share; we’d like to see those numbers be over 30 percent in the next five years,” Ezell says. “There are also some territorial opportunities we think make sense within our brand. We’re not going to go really far, because we want to make sure we continue to take care of the customer first. But there are some cities that are close enough that we think we could do a good job on a distribution basis, once we get the cooler done. That will really give us an opportunity to take the blinders off a bit. We’re just really excited about that.”
Long before Ben & Jerry’s made it fashionable to donate profits to causes, Purity Dairies was giving back to the community that helped make it a success.
“Work hard, make money and spend wisely,” Purity founder Miles Ezell Sr., affectionately called Pop, once wrote. “Share your earthly goods as well as your time and talent with those in need.”
That commitment continues today. “Our dad was really philanthropic in his ideas even before he had money to do much,” Miles Ezell Jr., Purity senior chairman, recalls of the family’s Ezell Foundation that his father established in 1961. “I think he started it with a thousand dollars, hoping it would grow over time. When he died, most of his estate went to the foundation. As he’d hoped, the money had grown. He would have been very proud.”
Continuing the family tradition of giving was a question when the Ezells decided to sell Purity to Dean Foods in 1998, four years after Miles Ezell Sr.’s death at age 89.
“One of the things we were talking about as a part of the sale would be how would Pop have felt about us selling the company,” Miles Jr. explains. “We were honestly concerned about how he would look at this, because he was really interested in seeing new generations of the family come into this business.”
Miles Jr. and his brother, Bill, joined their father in the business, followed by Pop’s grandsons Stan and Mark (Purity’s current president), Bill’s son-in-law John Robinson and other family members.
“As a family business in 1998, the more we looked at selling the business, we said maybe this is the way we need to go,” Miles Jr. says. “But again, how would Pop feel about it? … So we agreed that running the business with strong family values, a Christian ministry and supporting our community and the Ezell Foundation would stay a priority for us.  Because of that, and since we knew the family would stay involved, we felt good about selling the business to Dean Foods. We felt that we could carry out a lot of Pop’s wishes even after the business sold.
“Through the years, we always felt great responsibility to give. Because of that, we were generous in our giving. We’d give it to colleges, back to the foundation, other things — every year we’d give to the community, mainly because of the example that he set. … So it’s always been a big part of the moral side of the corporate philosophy, that we owed all this to the community and we want to pay it back when we can, and when we sold the company, we were able to do more than we were ever able to do before.”
In addition to many local Nashville causes, the family foundation has helped to finance health clinics in Central America. More recently, Mark Ezell received the President’s Call to Service Award from President George W. Bush for his work as co-founder of Rocketown Nashville, a youth services facility equipped with a skate park, music venue and coffee shop. 
Further, the Ezells established the Purity Foundation as a vehicle through which the company could be strengthened through charitable giving.
“We wanted to let the company continue to get the benefit,” Mark Ezell explains. “Most of our giving is done because of our moral responsibility, so we agreed that running the business with strong family and religious values and supporting our community and the Ezell Foundation would stay a priority for us. Credit isn’t something we shoot for, but we do think it’s reasonable to give the company credit for things, because that’s good business.”
Mark Ezell serves as president of the Purity Foundation and served for six years as board chair for Rocketown. He also donates his time as vice chair of the board of governors for the Nashville Chamber of Commerce; president of the Tennessee Dairy Products Association; board member for the American Red Cross; founding board member of Jovenes en Camino, a children’s home in Honduras; board member for Second Harvest Food Bank; and numerous other boards.
In 1925, Miles Ezell was a young newlywed loading milk trucks for the Nashville Pure Milk Co. He and his wife, Estelle, lived with his parents on a small dairy farm owned by C.N. Cowden, a successful Nashville-area physician.
Cowden asked Ezell if he wanted to purchase his dairy operation. Ezell liked the idea, but his only asset was a 1923 Ford coupe. Cowden gave Ezell the option of renting the milking operation — including 60 cows, equipment and an old delivery truck — for $450 per month. With Cowden’s help, Ezell secured a $600 loan and Ezell’s Dairy was born.
The following year, financial difficulties led Cowden to sell his cows, but he offered his equipment to Ezell, who accepted. Ezell bought a few dozen cows on credit, traded his Ford for a delivery truck and rented a 200-acre farm.
At the time, there were about 200 dairies in Nashville, so with one route and a fresh start, Ezell had nowhere to go but up.
During the Great Depression, Ezell’s Dairy continued to grow despite having to relocate many times over the next 15 years. Then in 1945, Ezell’s farm had to be shut down due to wartime expansion. What seemed like a detriment to his business was actually a blessing in disguise; the displacement made Ezell eligible for a small business loan. He secured $60,000, merged with Rosebank Dairies, moved the entire operation to the present location on Murfreesboro Road and Purity Dairies was born.
Over the years, Purity launched many innovative operations and packaging breakthroughs, many shared or copied by Purity competitors (some of which today are sister companies within Dean Foods). Innovations such as refrigerated tanks on dairy farms, vacuum pasteurization (which removes off flavors from milk), non-wax milk cartons and the famous yellow plastic jug are just a few of the reasons Purity remains a leader in quality, freshness and delivery.
In 1998, after 72 years as a family-owned business, Purity Dairies was acquired by Dean Foods, the largest U.S. dairy processor and distributor. Still managed by the Ezell family, Purity is the only remaining dairy in Davidson County, Tenn., offering retail products as well as home delivery. Nearly 600 employees make up the Purity family, offering more than 100 different milk, ice cream and cultured products throughout Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky.
In one of many letters to his family, Miles Ezell wrote: “In order to succeed, think big, dream, work hard and be honest” — words from a man who not only believed this way, but lived this way.
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