Bush Brothers & Company History

Address:
1016 East Weisgarber Road
Knoxville, Tennessee
U.S.A.

Telephone: (865) 588-7685
Fax: (865) 584-9337

Website:
Private Company
Incorporated: 1922
Employees: 540
Sales: $240 million (2001 est.)
NAIC: 311423 Dried and Dehydrated Food Manufacturing

Company Perspectives:

Founded in 1908 by A.J. Bush, Bush Brothers & Company is based in Knoxville, Tennessee. The food company began with canned tomatoes and has grown to include great tasting, high quality products that your family loves. Three generations later, Bush Brothers & Company is still family owned and operated, working for the same ideals that were set forth by A.J. Bush more than 90 years ago. When it comes to giving your family the best, you can trust Bush to give its best.

Key Dates:

1908:
A.J. Bush and his two sons start Bush Brothers & Company as a tomato cannery.
1922:
Bush Brothers is incorporated.
1928:
A second plant, located in Oak Grove, Tennessee, is acquired.
1944:
The Blytheville Canning Company is acquired.
1948:
Bush's Best Brand first appears.
1969:
Bush's Best Original Baked Beans debuts.
1992:
Company headquarters are moved from Chestnut Hill to Knoxville.
1993:
Highly effective baked beans marketing campaign begins.
1996:
A new brand, Bush's Chili Magic Chili Starter, is introduced.
2001:
Expansion of the company's Chestnut Hill plant begins.

Company History:

Bush Brothers & Company, family owned and operated, is the nation's leading producer and marketer of baked beans. Bush Brothers produces nine varieties of baked beans, marketing the product line under the Bush's Best brand name. The company also processes and markets a variety of other food products, including Chili Magic Chili Starter, hominy, sauerkraut, spinach, turnip greens, collard greens, and roughly a dozen varieties of beans and peas. Bush Brothers' products are processed at three plants located in Augusta, Wisconsin; Shiocton, Wisconsin; and Chestnut Hill, Tennessee, where the company was founded in 1908. Condon Bush, grandson of founder A.J. Bush, serves as chairman and chief executive officer.

Founded As a Tomato Cannery

Bush Brothers originated as an enterprising solution to keep a family together. In Jefferson County, near the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, A.J. (Andrew Jackson) Bush worked as a school teacher during the early years of the 20th century. His time outside the classroom was spent operating a two-room country store he owned in Chestnut Hill, the small town where he and his family resided. Although A.J. Bush enjoyed the financial security of two jobs, he realized his sons and daughters would be forced to leave Chestnut Hill to find employment unless he provided the means to keep the Bush family in Chestnut Hill. Toward this end, A.J. Bush scored resounding success. A century later, the family had a succession plan in place to confer company leadership to the fifth generation of the Bush family.

A.J. Bush enlisted the help of his two eldest sons, Fred and Claude, to start Bush Brothers in 1908. The trio opened a tomato cannery in Chestnut Hill, which served as Bush Brothers' sole focus during the company's first decades of business. Staffed by A.J. Bush's sons and daughters, the tomato cannery fared well, becoming a fixture in Jefferson County. By the beginning of World War I, Bush Brothers' plant was canning at capacity, the federal government ranking as the company's most important customer. Out of every ten cans of tomatoes produced by Bush Brothers, nearly nine were earmarked for the war effort, providing the company with a steady flow of business that enabled it to take root in Chestnut Hill.

After the war, Bush Brothers continued to prosper. In 1922, the company was incorporated, and five years later, during its 20th anniversary, Bush Brothers expanded for the first time. A second food processing plant, located in Oak Grove, Tennessee, was acquired. A third facility, located in Clinton, Tennessee, joined the fold three years later, in 1931. The year also marked the ascension of the second generation of the Bush family to a leadership position. Fred Bush, A.J. Bush's oldest son, was named president in 1931, inheriting the difficult task of shepherding Bush Brothers through the Great Depression.

Post-World War II Diversification

Bush Brothers escaped the economic ruin surrounding the company during the devastating 1930s. World War II and the great postwar economic expansion that followed fueled Bush Brothers' transformation from a tomato cannery into a diversified food processor. In 1944, the company ventured outside its native state for the first time, acquiring the Blytheville Canning Company in Blytheville, Arkansas. In 1948, the company developed the Bush's Best brand, a label that would soon appear on a variety of Bush Brothers' products. The foray into other product lines began in 1952, when the company introduced canned dry beans. Bush Brothers canned dry beans found a receptive audience on the market, encouraging the family to diversify further. One year later, the company introduced Showboat Pork & Beans, followed by the development of canned southern peas in 1955.

Bush Brothers was a more than 60-year-old company before it introduced the signature product that defined its success at the start of the 21st century. The product was baked beans, which first emerged after a change in the company's senior management had occurred. In 1965, Fred Bush's younger brother Claude was named chairman. C.J. Ethier, the husband of A.J. Bush's daughter Lena Maye, was appointed president and chief executive officer concurrently. Fred Bush and Ethier, with the help of A.J. Bush's grandson, a young Condon Bush, put the Bush family recipe for baked beans on the market in 1969. Baked beans debuted under the Bush's Best Original label, a new brand name for a new product that would serve as the foundation of Bush Brothers in later years.

Ethier was named chairman in 1978, the same year Condon Bush was elected president of the company. Under their stewardship, two new varieties of baked beans were introduced, Baked Beans Onion, in 1981, and Vegetarian Baked Beans, in 1984. Steadily, Bush Brothers climbed to the number three position in the baked beans market, trailing only corporate giants ConAgra Foods and Campbell Soup Company by the end of the 1980s. It was an impressive rise, but Bush Brothers' greatest gains were yet to come. The company's aggressive and ambitious attack on the baked beans market in the 1990s transformed the Bush family enterprise and created a new market champion.

Focus on Baked Beans Beginning in the Early 1990s

The decade of historic change began in 1991, when Bush Brothers' board of directors, for the first time, included a majority of directors outside the Bush family. That same year, Condon Bush was named chairman and C.J. Ethier's son, Jim Ethier, was selected as president and chief operating officer. The two cousins resolved to embark on a marketing campaign of unprecedented scale in support of the company's baked beans brand. Their decision made Bush's Best Baked Beans the company's core product, signaling a new era in which marketing prowess would determine success. Historically, baked beans had received little advertising support from producers, ConAgra Foods and Campbell Soup included. The market category was deemed "under-marketed" by industry observers, presenting an ideal opportunity for an aggressive marketer to exploit. Bush Brothers sought to be such a marketer, taking on an unfamiliar role that required a number of substantial changes to its operations.

To spearhead the company's marketing assault, Bush Brothers hired Ron Dix, a veteran in the packaged goods industry. Dix became Bush Brothers' first ever director of marketing. His first major task was to assemble a brand management team, something that Bush Brothers had never had before. Dix wanted to hire talented, experienced food marketers from the industry's stalwart participants, but Bush Brothers' management believed the location of the company's executive offices weakened its ability to attract the industry's most talented marketers. After spending 84 years based in Chestnut Hill, the company decided to relocate to the larger metropolitan area of Knoxville, Tennessee, completing the move in 1992.

The marketing campaign that began to take shape in Knoxville revolved around a television commercial that would feature a company spokesperson. The search to find the star for the proposed series of commercials included auditions of Condon Bush and Jim Ethier, but the two senior executives lost out to the younger generation. Jay Bush, the 29-year-old son of Condon Bush and the plant manager at the company's Shiocton, Wisconsin, facility, won the role. The advertising campaign featured Jay Bush explaining why Bush's Best Baked Beans "taste so darned good." The commercials aired regionally in 1993, the same year the company launched a "Homestyle" version of baked beans and expanded distribution of baked beans into the Northeast. In 1994, the advertising campaign expanded nationwide, as did the distribution of Bush's Best Baked Beans, which began appearing on supermarket shelves in the Pacific Northwest.

The advertising campaign was a quick and stunning success. Within a year of its launch, the campaign vaulted Bush Brothers into the lead in the under-marketed baked beans category, ahead of ConAgra Foods' Van Camp's brand and Campbell Soup Company's Campbell's brand. According to Bush Brothers' estimates, the company nearly tripled its market share in the baked beans category by 1994, taking command of a market that generated an estimated $400 million in sales annually. Ecstatic about the progress, the Bush Brothers management team pressed ahead, both with new product introductions and with the highly successful series of television commercials. In 1995, the company introduced Bush's Boston Baked Beans in the New England market, the same year Duke, a golden retriever, first appeared as Jay Bush's on-air sidekick. Duke served as the less-than-trustworthy guardian of the secret family recipe, persistently threatening to divulge the ingredients to Bush Brothers' competitors.

On the heels of the company's rousing success with baked beans, Bush Brothers took another ambitious leap, introducing a new brand in 1996. Bush's Chili Magic Chili Starter, the first canned chili to contain all the seasonings needed to make homemade chili, pushed Bush Brothers into a new market category. The product, a concentrate that only required the consumer to add meat and tomatoes, was available in four regional styles, traditional, Mexican, Texas, and Louisiana Hot. Chili Magic represented the largest product launch since the company introduced Bush's Baked Beans, its release supported by a national advertising campaign that began in October 1996. Although the company refrained from releasing financial figures, industry observers estimated that Bush Brothers had set aside more than $10 million for the marketing campaign, a total that was roughly equivalent to the amount spent in support of Bush's Baked Beans.

During the late 1990s, Bush Brothers introduced several new baked beans products, fleshing out a product line that was recording consistent and robust growth. Bold & Spicy Baked Beans debuted in 1997 and Barbecue Baked Beans followed in 1999. Bush Brothers ended the decade occupying a dominant position in the baked beans category. The company's nearest rivals, ConAgra Foods and Campbell Soup, never effectively countered Bush Brothers' assault on the market. Neither company had responded to the marketing campaign launched by Bush Brothers in 1993, at least in terms of advertising spending. By 1999, Bush Brothers was spending an estimated $14 million on marketing its baked beans products. Together, ConAgra Foods and Campbell Soup spent less than $1 million on baked beans advertising. In 1999, in fact, Campbell Soup chose not to advertise its baked beans at all.

With baked beans sales rising, Bush Brothers pressed ahead to widen its lead further. In 1999, the company began planning for an expansion to its production capacity. After two years of preliminary planning, the project began to take shape in early 2001, when site preparation began at the company's processing plant in Chestnut Hill. Bush Brothers earmarked more than $100 million for the expansion and renovation project, which promised to give the company a new, 220,000-square-foot facility. The expansion, to be completed by mid-2003, was expected to triple the company's production capacity.

As Bush Brothers prepared to complete its first century of business, spirits ran high at the company's Knoxville headquarters. Bush Brothers was recording double-digit increases in sales on an annual basis, registering consistent, strident growth as the company's competitors watched their sales totals shrink. The company controlled 50 percent of the $470-million-in-sales baked beans market in 2001. Its closest rival, ConAgra, held a 24 percent share, while the number three company, Campbell Soup, controlled 7.5 percent of the market. Based on these figures, coupled with a succession plan in place for the fifth-generation of Bush leadership, Bush Brothers promised to figure as a dominant food processor in the years ahead.

Principal Subsidiaries: Blytheville Canning Co.

Principal Competitors: B&G Foods, Inc.; Campbell Soup Company; ConAgra Foods, Inc.

Further Reading:

  • DeLozier, Stan, "High Demand for Baked Beans Pushing Move," Knoxville News/Sentinel, February 16, 2001, p. B1.
  • Flaum, David, "Chestnut Hill, Tenn.-Based Tomato Cannery Keeps Leadership Close to Home," Commercial Appeal, May 6, 2000, p. 32.
  • Matzer, Marla, "Bush Bros. Spices Up Mix Market," Brandweek, October 7, 1996, p. 14.
  • Thompson, Stephanie, "Ads Boost Bean Business, Folksy Spots, Big Budget Drive Bush's Beans to Top," Advertising Age, February 26, 2001, p. 3.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 45. St. James Press, 2002.