Famed movie director Frank Capra called it his “ShangriLa for script writing.” It was at the La Quinta Resorts and Club in La Quinta, Calif., near Palm Springs that he — together with co-writer Robert Riskin — penned the Oscar-winning “It Happened One Night.”
The site proved ideal for this year’s Western Candy Conference (March 21-25), providing attendees with a spectacular backdrop for WCC’s 85th anniversary and its GENerational theme. And the stars were definitely in attendance, such as 50-year conference attendees Herm Rowland Sr. of Jelly Belly; John Brooks Sr. and Tempe Brooks from Adams & Brooks; Pierson Clair of Brown & Haley; Jack Zachary of Zachary Candies; and Marion Saroni of Batory Foods, as well as their spouses and family members.
But as conference chairman Patrick Murnane reminded everyone, this conference wasn’t only about reflecting on past glory days, but on ushering in the next generation of confectionery glitterati. And the first day of morning seminars certainly echoed that thought.
Peter Greer, president and ceo of HOPE International Mission Drift — a global faith-based microfinance organization, moderated the three panels focused on GENerations, GENerosity and inGENuity.
Noting his own “passion of entrepreneurship,” which he said can contribute “an incredible amount of good,” Greer pointed out few family businesses — 85 percent don’t survive past five years — last into the third generation. And yet, here at the WCC’s conference, companies with centennial-plus legacies were commonplace, as demonstrated by the morning panelists. 
Herman Rowland, Sr., chairman of Jelly Belly Candy Co.; Frank Murnane Jr., president of Murnane Cos.; and Mitchell Goetze, ceo of Goetze’s Candy Co., detailed their experiences working in a family business. Each recalled how early struggles ranging from 5:30 wake-up calls as youngsters to admonitions about one’s place in the business shaped their growth.
As Murnane explained, the rule of thumb was that “unless you work in the company, you don’t get a piece of the company.”
And Goetze echoed that statement, recounting to the audience how, “My grandfather reminded me that just because my last name is on the door doesn’t mean I own the place.”
The second panel zeroed in on generosity, which happens to permeate the confectionery industry. As Greer emphasized, “You never know the full impact of your generosity.” In regards to WCC participants, he reaffirmed that “you are a community of givers.”
Lisa Rowland Brasher, president and ceo of Jelly Belly Candy Co., and Rob Nelson, chairman and ceo of Elmer Chocolate, each spoke about the various ways companies give, as well as what kind of impact each has on communities locally and globally.
Brasher cited Jelly Belly Candy Co.’s close connection to the U.S. military and children’s charities, which takes the form of product donations to military units serving overseas to sponsoring a fund-raising celebrity golf outing. Nelson discussed his company’s involvement in raising the skill and pay level of his employees through a community college training program designed to match the demands of increased automation and technology now found in his facility and in the industry.
For the final panel, which explored ingenuity, Ann Taylor, assistant dean for distance learning at Pennsylvania State University, moderated the session. Prior to kicking off the discussion, Taylor touched on the enormous changes that have taken place on college campuses, everything from videography to learning pods.
Katherine Clark, v.p. of sales of Capol, LLC; Richard Kay, president and ceo of Sweet Candy Co.; and David Taiclet, retired president, 1-800Flowers.com, food division, shared their thoughts on the demand for innovation and ways to foster that process.
As Kay explained, “Innovating in manufacturing is easy, but making it viable is what’s difficult. Making candy is easy, but making money selling candy is harder.”
But as Taiclet pointed out, it’s not just innovation in manufacturing that’s possible; other areas such as finance and human resources are ripe for innovative changes.
Of course, innovation can’t operate in a vacuum, particularly as it applies to ingredients. In this era of “farm to fork,” consumers are looking at ingredient labels closely. In addition, government regulations and the availability of raw materials affect costs, Clark said. As a result, being creative and innovative in dealing with such challenges plays a key role in a company’s growth and prosperity.
Lunch with John Downs, president and ceo of the National Confectioners Association, followed the panel sessions. Among the various updates, Downs provided the hungry conference attendees with a preview of upcoming survey results that show healthy consumers “eat more chocolate and candy than obese people.”
Complete survey results conducted by the Hudson Institute will be released on April 11 or 12, which affirm that chocolate and candy consumption help these consumers feel good and provide an emotional high and charge in everyday life.
“This is powerful information,” Downs said.
And speaking of powerful, the day ended with a themed dinner at the Empire Polo Club. Upon arrival, guests were treated with an up front and personal visit with jockeys and horses who were going to play an exhibition match before dinner.
Just prior to the start of the match, a double rainbow graced the skies, signaling a serendipitous finale to the day. After enjoying a broad range of offerings, willing WCC members had a chance to play “golf cart polo.”
The same jockeys who rode the ponies hard in the exhibition polo match commandeered the golf carts, with guests whacking the polo ball with mallets while holding on for dear life as the game progressed. Exhilarating to all who participated, including yours truly.
Hey, it’s something everyone should put on their bucket list. More on WCC and its Hollywood-like event in our May issue.