Free Enterprise Staff  | February 13, 2015

Love Valentine’s Day Candy? You Can Thank This 150-Year-Old Company

There are many different ways to say “I love you.” By NECCO’s estimates, there are roughly 150.

NECCO, the New England Confectionary Company, is the creator and manufacturer of the ubiquitous Valentine’s Day staple, Sweethearts. Each of the bite size candies, which come in a variety of flavors, has a term of endearment stamped across its front that effectively does the talking for you. Next year’s iteration of the candy, NECCO CEO Mike McGee says, will feature more than 100 ways to communicate your love for someone, even if you’re too bashful to come right out and say it yourself.

“We refresh those terms of endearments every year,” he says. “Next year we will have 150. This year we’ve added sayings like, ‘Pugs and Kittens,’ which was actually a contest award winner. We do a ‘Color Your Own’ contest every year, and the winner gets to submit some sayings that they want, and this year it was ‘Pugs and Kittens.’ ”

While parents might not agree with their children on the association between love and pugs and kittens, it’s much easier to find common ground over the candy itself, which NECCO has been producing for more than 150 years. Founded in 1847, NECCO became, well, NECCO in the early 20th century when a handful of regional candy manufacturers combined to form the company. It has operated out of New England ever since, McGee says.

“We do consider ourselves the original and the branded item in terms of Valentine’s Day hearts,” he says. “When people go to buy them, in their minds, they reference us when they’re thinking about Sweethearts.”

Maintaining a business for that amount of time is not easy. Yet NECCO has been able to contend with the expected ups and downs by never veering from its history and focusing on its core products. It’s that kind of strategy that has helped the company continue to see solid growth over the past few years, with sales of its most popular products—including the iconic Sweethearts and NECCO wafers—beating industry competitors, explains McGee, who has 25 years in the consumer product space. The company makes 8 billion Sweethearts each year, he adds.

NECCO has also kept its operations streamlined, which in 2000 prompted the company to consolidate its production facilities into one technically advanced manufacturing center in Revere, Massachusetts. It’s there, McGee says, that the candy people know and love is both conceived and created in an 810,000-square-foot space, one that’s divided into discrete, specialized sections.

“Everything we make is made under that one roof,” he stresses. “We have over 15 separate manufacturing processes. We make 13 different chocolates in our facility; we roast our own peanuts; we make our own peanut butter; it’s a one-of-a-kind facility, where about 450 people work during our peak times of the year.”

Ensuring the company can meet Valentine’s Day demand for its Sweethearts requires a significant amount of preparation, with production ramping up long before couples even begin to think about what they’ll be gifting their significant others. “We have to start gearing up production five or six months in advance to make sure we meet demand,” he says “It’s not much different than how big chocolate companies prep for Halloween. Valentine’s Day is very much our Halloween.”

Yet NECCO does more than create and produce its own lineup of candies. It manufactures products for smaller purveyors that lack its technological precision and production capabilities. To help stay ahead of its competition, NECCO also relies on Jeff Green, a man who, as NECCO’s vice president of research and development, has arguably one of the greatest jobs that’s ever been created.

“Jeff has been with the company for 31 years, and he’s made or innovated just about every type of candy you can imagine,” McGee says. “He’s truly a Willy Wonka. One of the things that we do is help other folks get into the candy business, so Jeff will work with those up-and-comers. What we provide and what makes us so beneficial is that first, we can make candy ourselves. And secondly, Jeff and our R&D team are fantastic resources for new companies looking to get into the business.” Who knew there was so much opportunity for innovation in candy land?

Much like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, NECCO’s version of a candy production oasis is busy right now churning out candy during its busiest time of the year, which spans the months leading up to Valentine’s Day and through Easter. “We’re running flat out right now and loving every minute of it,” McGee says. Once the holiday season has ended, however, NECCO has little time to recuperate.

That’s because the company is always looking for ways to increase its brand awareness and grow its business. Under McGee, NECCO is experimenting with new and clever ways to do just that, with a newly announced partnership with McDonald’s, for instance, aimed at introducing young children to the brand.

NECCO also recently redeveloped the flavor profiles of its iconic Wafers, introducing a new version of the product that’s directly marketed to the Hispanic community. This kind of strategy, McGee says, makes sense on every level, especially given the shifting demographics of the U.S. “We will change our candies to better appeal to certain demographics, and I think there are opportunities to do it even more over the coming years,” he says.

The brand is continually pushing the boundaries of what a candy company can be, and it’s that kind of commitment to change that will hopefully guide the business through its next 150 years. “I think it’s great how relevant we stayed over the years, picking up things like emoticons and Tweet lingo on our Sweethearts,” McGee says. “We’re always refreshing the brand and making sure it’s kept up-to-date, and I don’t think that will ever change—nor should it.”