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The ever-expanding entrepreneur

His salvaged pretzel company just posted its 36th consecutive year of growth in sales and profits.

Gerry Shreiber bought Pennsauken-based J&J Snack Foods out of bankruptcy in 1971. Today the company does $600 million in sales annually. (Ed Hille / Inquirer)
Gerry Shreiber bought Pennsauken-based J&J Snack Foods out of bankruptcy in 1971. Today the company does $600 million in sales annually. (Ed Hille / Inquirer)Read more

Gerry Shreiber

President and CEO of J&J Snack Foods Corp., headquartered in Pennsauken. The company is the purveyors of SuperPretzels, Icees and Tio Pepe's churros, among other niche snacks.

The rags to riches backstory:

Shreiber grew up in Atlantic City, the son of a greengrocer. When his girlfriend got pregnant, he married her and found work to make ends meet. "I was a father at 18. It was 1960. Times were different. I dropped out of school and got a job as a machine-shop apprentice."

By his mid-20s, he'd put away enough money to run his own machine shop with some partners, although they soon parted ways.

"We had some differences of opinion - all by me," he says.

Then, browsing in a water bed store at 17th and Walnut in 1971, he heard about a pretzel-making company that was in bankruptcy. He bought it for $72,100. Then, the business had been making $400,000 in annual sales, Shreiber says. "We're $600 million now."

Behind the Shreiber mystique: Since going public in 1986, J&J Snack Foods has made Forbes magazine's list of the "200 Best Small Companies" seven times. Its 36-year growth streak is amazing on its face - and even more amazing when you consider that Shreiber's company put up great numbers even at the height of the low-carb craze.

His secret? "I always had a decent work ethic," he says, "which is a gift."

Understatement of the century:

To say that Shrieber works hard is like saying that Donald Trump is somewhat ambitious. And Shreiber expects the same drive from his management team, which he grooms to run "not quite with a military precision," he says, "but maybe with a military gung-ho attitude that we can't, and won't, lose."

For instance: In the Pennsauken pretzel factory, there's an assembly line of dough-handling equipment known as "the dream line" because employees said the boss must be dreaming when he asked them to double the line's speed while halving the number of workers overseeing the machinery. Eventually, they pulled it off by installing electronic eyes to synchronize the works.

"Needless to say, I drive people," Shreiber says. "We had to go through the carbs thing. Now there is no carbs issue. I gotta drive my people harder so they don't lay down and relax."

Secret No.2: Buy low, aim high: Turning around distressed snack food brands is one way J&J Snack Foods keeps increasing its sales and profits. Schreiber buys them at bargain-basement prices, then cuts costs by relentlessly increasing efficiency and positioning the products in overlooked niche markets where he sees a potential for growth.

Two recent acquisitions are Fruit-A-Freeze frozen fruit bars and Whole Fruit sorbets, which he picked up from troubled CoolBrands International. They're two frozen treats that aren't ice cream. "It's a niche within dairy, just like soft pretzels are a niche within snack foods and Icee is a niche product in beverages," he explains.

He passed on Eskimo Pie and Chipwich - not niche enough.

Playing the spoiler: Shreiber is a prominent donor to regional children's and animals' charities, including the Variety Club and University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

He's known to dote on abandoned animals - his New Jersey farm is home to six dogs (all rescued from pounds), eight horses, two burros, one rabbit, a pig, four cats, and two pygmy goats. And he's an equally doting grandfather to two grandsons and four granddaughters. "I do all the spoiling things I'm not supposed to," he says.

One day recently, the entry to his office held a jumble of bags overflowing with glittery purple and pink toys and clothing. He'd passed through a Kohl's store and couldn't resist stocking up on gifts. "I see 30 percent off, 50 percent off, I buy everything there is," he says. "How many Hannah Montana nightgowns did I buy? Four. They were on sale."

- Becky Batcha,
Daily News staff writer