Anyone remember that old commercial with Ringo Starr telling us, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile”? Well our client, a leading specialty food retailer, doesn’t want to be your dad’s Hickory Farms. JLL worked with Hickory Farms, led by dynamic CEO Diane Pearse, to relocate their headquarters from Toledo, Ohio to Chicago earlier this year.
Following the move, JLL International Director and Co-Chairman of the Headquarters Practice Group, Meredith O’Connor, sat down with Pearse to discuss Hickory Farms’ past, present and future plans, and the critical role of their new headquarters space at 311 S. Wacker.
Meredith: Can you give us a brief history of Hickory Farms?
Diane: Richard Ransom founded our company 66 years ago after finding success selling his hand-cut cheeses at local fairs in Ohio. Tapping into the farming community, he built the business into a retail company that sold gourmet food gifts. Over the years, we’ve evolved into selling our products via web, catalog, mass retail and grocery and operate more than 500 seasonal kiosks in malls across North America.
After a prior ownership group downsized the business in the wake of the Great Recession, the company was no longer operating like a retailer. It was the first thing I noticed when I joined Hickory Farms last year, and with the support of our new ownership group, Modjule, we are focused on leveraging our brand equity and growing our business.
Meredith: How did you connect your real estate strategy to your mission to reinvent Hickory Farms?
Diane: My goal is to be a Harvard Business School case study on how to reinvent a heritage brand and make it cool again. We’re doing that by changing everything, including real estate. That’s why we call ourselves a 66-year-old startup. We’re focused on innovation across the company, with the security and knowledge that our brand is here to stay and with a solid foundation of revenue and profitability.
In partnership with JLL, we put together a real estate strategy to support our new mission. To create an environment that feels like a startup, you have to completely change its look and feel. We have half the square feet of our former Toledo headquarters in Chicago, and that’s by design. It’s a more collaborative space. There’s a buzz in the air and people are working together closely thanks to lower-level, more open work stations. Every visible element, from color to lighting, needs to hit home with employees and candidates to communicate the vision.
Meredith: How did you land on the Chicago market for your new headquarters?
Diane: Full disclosure: I’m a Chicagoan. When you’re reinventing a brand, you want to assemble a team from a network you know and trust. My network and relationships from my time at Crate and Barrel, Redbox and Garrett Brands are here, along with an abundance of retail talent in areas from product development to merchandising to e-commerce.
For Hickory Farms, proximity to our main distribution center in Joliet, as well as most of our manufacturers, vendors and partners was a huge selling point. We had folks in Toledo who were spending hours of windshield time driving between Toledo and Joliet and that just didn’t make sense. Chicago is also a mecca for food production and home to world-renowned chefs, which will be welcome inspiration for us as we elevate our food gift offerings.
Meredith: How has your recruitment strategy changed and how does your headquarters come into play?
Diane: Our new startup mentality has been a really fun story to tell and resonates with prospective employees, whether they’re Millennials at the beginning of their careers or seasoned Baby Boomers. We’ve made our office a focal point as we’ve been hiring Chicago’s best and brightest. They’re attracted to the high-energy atmosphere, inviting and collaborative space and the unbeatable, transit-accessible location.
I have been amazed by the ease with which we’ve attracted talent. We’ve even started in-sourcing previously outsourced positions because we’re finding the right people to do them. For example, we’re now developing our catalog in-house with an incredible team of marketing and creative professionals. We may end up outgrowing our space more quickly than anticipated, but it’s a good problem to have and thankfully we have lots of flexibility in our lease.
Meredith: What advice did you value most and would like to share with other companies considering a headquarters move?
Diane: Think about your culture and the energy you’re trying to cultivate before you even begin searching for the space. We and our JLL team were clear on that from the beginning, which helped us only look at spaces that fit to our strategic priorities. Your headquarters is a manifestation of the personality of the company that you’re running and you want it to reflect that.
Headquarters relocations are a generational opportunity that can define your legacy as a leader. Let’s connect and find that perfect space for your brand and growing business.
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Meredith O’Connor, Lead, Headquarters Practice
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