Fort Worth billionaire Sid Bass is reportedly pumping $125 million into Blue Bell Creameries, a move that will enable the iconic Texas ice cream maker to return to full production and may give Bass one-third ownership in the 108-year-old, family-run business.
It may not be enough.
To fix what ails Blue Bell requires a cultural change, which is one of the greatest challenges a company can face. As I wrote in the Houston Chronicle in May, Blue Bell’s initial response to the listeria outbreak that forced it to stop production demonstrated an unwillingness to recognize the root causes of the problem. That, combined with the family-run aspect of the business, may make it extremely difficult to implement the changes the company needs to prevent the crisis from recurring, as I outline in my latest op/ed:
Sid Bass is being hailed as Blue Bell’s white knight. The Fort Worth billionaire agreed to make a “significant investment” in the iconic creamery, which has been shut down since this spring because of listeria contamination linked to three deaths and seven illnesses.
Bass tends to be a passive investor, which may not be what Blue Bell needs to fix its problems.
Without any revenue to speak of for months, Blue Bell was undoubtedly growing concerned about its future – it was becoming easy prey for vulture investors.
Enter Bass, bursting with oil billions and benevolence. He can save Blue Bell with the spare change from under his couch cushions – where he apparently found $125 million, enough to buy one-third of the company. But Texas pride and a love of ice cream only go so far.
Because Blue Bell is a private company, and Bass is a notoriously private person, we don’t know how involved he’ll be in the company’s daily operations. But we do know that Bass isn’t the sort of guy to get his hands dirty.
But if he’s really going to save Blue Bell, if he’s serious about turning the company around, a couple of things need to happen. First, he or his representative needs a seat on the board, perhaps even the chairmanship. Second, that representative needs to demand sweeping changes to Blue Bell’s safety culture, and those changes need to be closely monitored.