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The Making of a Pop Star: How Preferred Popcorn Earned Half the US Market

Posted by Barney Beal, Content Director

Americans eat 13 billion quarts of popped popcorn per year – that’s 42 quarts for every person in the United States, according to the Popcorn Board. It’s a wonderfully wholesome and economic food, the website says, evidenced by the fact that even during the Great Depression, popcorn sales increased, a likely effect of its debut in movie theaters around that time.

Bolstering popcorn’s reputation as a wholesome, economic food is one of the missions of Andrea Plucker, the third generation of her family working in the popcorn business. Plucker grew up next to the Chapman, Neb.-based processing facility that has now become the hub of Preferred Popcorn. More than 20 years ago, community farmers who were expert popcorn growers came together to purchase the plant, looking to bring something different to a saturated popcorn market.

Today, the 100% farmer-owned company provides more than half of the kernels popped at US-based movie theaters.

“We’re first and foremost farmers. We want to make sure we have the very best in seed genetics and the most effective conservation and “green” farming practices,” said Plucker, Preferred Popcorn’s Director of Marketing. “We’re also looking at how we can offer both organic and conventional popcorn, as a very healthy, wholesome, allergen-free, non-GMO and fun snack to more consumers.”

It’s an impressive business journey for a company founded by four farmers in 1997. Facing a crowded US market, Preferred Popcorn started by selling its product overseas in places like Indonesia, moving into North America by way of Mexico, where it quickly garnered a reputation for exceptional service.

In just a decade, it had become a major supplier for 40 different countries, and began to eye strategic acquisitions to gain a stronger foothold in the US market. In 2010, it added an additional processing facility in Indiana, in 2012 bought a Kentucky-based popcorn company, and five years later brought on a Missouri-based business that enabled it to sell organic kernels.

By 2016, the business was selling more than 12 different varietals of seed – all of which met very specific customer requirements in terms of moisture, color, kernel size and more. Inventory spanned 50 farms across seven different states, as well as international growers who produced the product for sale in their home countries. What’s more, the business at that time had more than 400 customers, but maintained early customer service processes that allowed its clients to place very customized orders to meet their unique business goals.

Amidst that landscape, Preferred Popcorn had no ERP system. Excel spreadsheets held all of its inventory information on what was stored in grain bins across seven states – tracking a popcorn seed supply totaling hundreds of millions of pounds. The business couldn’t look to any central location to be more accurate in terms of figuring out purchasing and growing requirements.

Adding another layer of difficulty was the fact that that all inventory must be planned and contracted in bulk prior to the spring planting season. While popcorn is a fairly shelf stable crop, organic popcorn can’t be held for a long period of time, and conventional kernels can’t be held indefinitely. Without visibility into exactly what they had and where, over and under-purchasing inventory was an easy, and costly, mistake to make.

“It was overwhelming to say the least,” said Brenda Budzinski, Preferred Popcorn’s Director of Finance. “I was concerned about that lack of control over the inventory.”

Budzinski, who joined the business in 2016, knew her first order of business would be helping move off QuickBooks and Excel. She helped lead the business through the selection and implementation of NetSuite, which it picked over Infor and Microsoft Dynamics largely because of the unique SuiteSuccess implementation methodology, which included on-site support, plus a fixed rate and timeline that couldn’t be matched by those competitors. With the SuiteSuccess methodology, the business went live with finance, inventory management and CRM functionality in 90 days, launching in August of 2018, a crucial deadline to meet for the upcoming fall harvest.

Preferred Popcorn gained a single view of item, order and customer data to replace QuickBooks and a myriad of Excel spreadsheets, and gained the ability to easily identify buying trends, surpluses and optimize product promotion.

“It’s really helped give (the business) visibility into what they need to be growing and what areas, what locations, need to have a certain variety than another location, and to see what kind of carryover they have,” Budzinski said. “That’s been a big improvement in efficiency and cost savings.”

With streamlined operations and analysis capabilities, Preferred Popcorn now maintains the industry’s highest customer retention rate.

“There were so many points of visibility that were available almost instantly. It really made a huge difference on my team,” Plucker said. “We went from very limited visibility to being able to see which products were shipping and at what price points and to which locations as well as monitoring and comparing customer pull rates. NetSuite allowed us to ask better questions and make more strategic contact when customers weren’t pulling on trend.”

Today, the US market comprises more than half of Preferred Popcorn’s total sales, as it boasts 500 customers across 65 countries. The business has time to devote attention to industry leadership in both agronomy and advancing farming techniques overseas, as well as expanding direct to consumer sales as it aims to convey popcorn’s value as an allergen-free snack.

NetSuite will scale to enable a possible direct to consumer expansion. It also provides the business with access to information and efficiencies that allow it to spend time on its overriding mission of spreading popcorn’s promise. That mission encompasses evangelizing the health benefits for consumers, and the benefits the popcorn economy can bring to places like India, where some 400 farmers, many of them women, plant seeds by hand and grow for the Indian market, or in Mexico, where it works to pay its employees a living wage.

“We are deeply focused on bringing quality and integrity to everything that we do,” Plucker said.