It might not be as well-known as vintage Michigan brands turned hipster favorites like Better Made chips and Faygo pop, but the stuff inside Jiffy Mix’s iconic little blue-and-white boxes has been a mitten-made staple for 80-plus years. And if hanging around, cranking out a product that hasn’t changed for decades is the ticket to being the next cool trend, don’t be surprised if Jiffy’s day is coming. In sleepy Chelsea, Michigan, about 20 minutes west of Ann Arbor, the Chelsea Milling Company has been quietly turning out millions of those blue boxes with little fanfare and even less tweaking of its original vision. Hell, even the cost of a box of Jiffy’s corn-muffin mix is the same as it was when the product debuted almost 80 years ago. “The people on Wall Street say we’re ‘iconic hip,'” says Howdy Holmes, Jiffy’s fourth-generation CEO. He’s the one who would know. Twenty years ago, he gave up his fast-paced life as a professional racecar driver to come back to Chelsea and take his place at the helm of Jiffy. And now, he’s leading what some call the “last great American company” down a road that might just make them the next big thing.
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In a small, darkened theater, surrounded by 40-some elementary school children and their teachers, Howdy Holmes is watching the movie version of his family story for the umpteenth time. It’s a 20-minute short film that Jiffy produced several years ago to be the prelude to its thrice-daily factory tours—mostly populated by kids on field trips and retirees with too much time on their hands. It feels not unlike that scene in Jurassic Park, where a cartoon DNA double helix prances across the screen, introducing the main characters played by Sam Neill and Laura Dern to the magic of bringing dinosaurs back to life. In Jiffy’s case, the emcee is a talking, flying, animated Jiffy box named “Corny”—who joins an on-screen Howdy for a kitschy retelling of just how “Jiffyville’s” little blue-and-white boxes became an American staple.
When the film ends, a man in a blue polo shirt with the Jiffy logo stitched on the chest jumps up to the front of the room. It’s the real Howdy Holmes, and, recognizing him as the guy from the film they’ve just watched, the kids whisper as though they’re seeing a movie star in real life. He asks the students if they have any questions, and they take turns firing off things like what his favorite Jiffy Mix is (corn muffin, followed by raspberry); and whether Jiffy makes peanut butter in addition to the mixes (nope, that would be a similarly named company, Jif). For the last question, a young girl in the front row raises her hand: “Is Corny real?” she asks earnestly.
Howdy lets out a sweet laugh. These kids are the age where some of them might still believe in Santa Claus. Howdy turns to the audience to ask for a show of hands from those who believe Corny is real. A half dozen or so kids shyly raise their hands. Then he turns back to the girl. “Let me put it this way,” he says to her. “If you want Corny to be real, he’s real.”
It’s classic Howdy: Answering a question with a skillful reply that’s both cheeky and downright mantra-like. Howdy’s full of pearls, and he often repeats them, verbatim, to reporter after reporter, as if memorized. But they’re not canned answers; this is hard-won wisdom gained from a life where experience was always valued as the greatest teacher. Howdy’s never done things in the expected way: Like the time he quit college his senior year to become a professional racecar driver; or, later, when he gave up that life to return to his small-town roots in Chelsea and ended up shaking things up at his family’s four-generation-old behemoth of a business.
Howdy bought his first race car—a single-seat Formula Ford Royale—when he was 23. He’d been bitten by the thrill of the racing life as a kid, when his family adopted the tradition of going to the Indy 500 every year. They’d head west from Ann Arbor on I-94, stopping at the same Indiana state park for a picnic of blackened chicken and deviled eggs. Thrifty Midwesterners, they always avoided paying jacked-up pricing for lodging closest to the racetrack, choosing instead to stay at crummy spots far from the excitement. But to Howdy, the annual pilgrimage was like Christmas.
Ask Howdy to name the moment he “became” a race car driver, and he’ll tell you, in the same guru-like way he answers questions about the Corny’s existential state, it was moment he declared himself to be one. That is, when he bought that Ford, without knowing a lick about racing except that he liked it. He picked up the manual for the Ford Cortina engine from Ulrich’s Bookstore in Ann Arbor and brought the single-seater home, where some of the guys at Jiffy had built him a 12-by-20-foot plywood garage and a workbench. He didn’t even read the manual—just looked at the pictures—and set himself to tearing the engine apart and putting it back together again. “Most people who get into racing start by racing go-karts or motorcycles when they’re kids,” he says. “But I was never a motorhead. My two interests were sports and girls. I didn’t fiddle-faddle with lawn mower engines. So I kind of did it all backwards.”
As a 20-something, Howdy was an unconventional rookie—“ancient,” as he likes to say, by racing standards. But he was, as he would prove to be later in business, a quick study—placing in 19 of the 21 races he competed in during his first year. In 1978, he was crowned the Formula Atlantic champion, and in 1979, he took home seventh place and the title of Rookie of the Year at his beloved Indianapolis 500—his car and racing suit adorned with the logo of his father’s company.
He went on to compete in seven Indy 500’s in all, and carved out a career for himself that included authoring a book on racing and becoming an ESPN commentator. But even with all the success he’d made for himself in the racing world, he’d “always known” that he’d leave that life someday to come back to Jiffy. In the early ‘80s, he decided to create a five-year “detox” plan from the racing world. Then, fate confirmed the wisdom of that plan: He met and fell in love with his future wife; and two years later, he was sidelined for a year by a bad accident. Not one to slow down, he began preparing for the transition to his life’s next chapter while convalescing—by reading, as he puts it, every book on family business he could get his hands on.
Even before he came back to Chelsea in 1987, Howdy recognized the company was hurting for some fresh ideas. The brand was fine, and there was an immense amount of loyalty and dedication among the employees; Howdy, who had worked there before leaving to be a racecar driver, counted himself in that group of loyalists. But essentially nothing had changed at Jiffy in the two decades since he’d left. To give one of Howdy’s favorite examples, the employee handbook was more like what he calls the “Dead Sea Scrolls”—dusty, shoved in the back of a file cabinet, and unavailable to the people who actually needed it. There was a board of directors, but it was mostly family and friends, the meetings intermittent and informal. Howdy, the first real fresh blood the company had seen in years, set to work slowly making changes—bringing in outsiders, for starters, to put together an official board with regular meetings and minutes. But the changes ruffled the feathers of some close family members, including the longtime company patriarch.
Howdy asks the students if they have any questions, and they take turns firing off things like what his favorite Jiffy Mix is (corn muffin, followed by raspberry); and whether Jiffy makes peanut butter in addition to the mixes (nope, that would be a similarly named company, Jif). For the last question, a young girl in the front row raises her hand: “Is Corny real?” she asks earnestly. “Let me put it this way,” Howdy says to her. “If you want Corny to be real, he’s real.”
“I remember my father, at our very first formal board meeting—he was sitting at the head of the table. I knew we needed some help, so I suggested we hire a CFO. And my father, who was the most gracious guy on the planet—I mean, the type of guy who would pick up a ladybug from the sidewalk and move it to the grass—he got red in the face, put his hand down on the table, stood up, and said, ‘That’s the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard in my life. What would they do all day?’ And he honestly believed that. To his credit, he was doing all the books himself. Many guys his age worked seven days a week and did absolutely everything. Fortunately, that day, I kept my mouth shut, but I was thinking, I could find at least 80 hours a week for that CFO.”
So began a delicate re-entry for Howdy into Jiffyville—one marked by bruised feelings and family drama. Ask for details about that period, though, and the usually chummy Howdy suddenly becomes tight lipped.
“I’m not here to talk about my story at the expense of other people,” he says. “I mean, we were on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. It was ugly. No family wants to air their dirty laundry in public.”
Scour the media and you’ll find bits and pieces that hint at this bumpy chapter. Aside from Howdy’s sometimes admittedly blunt approach, there was also the issue of succession. It was a difficult and delicate task to navigate just when and to whom the baton would be passed from Howdy’s aging father—a challenge the company had never faced in its four-generation history. In the case of Howdy’s dad, the succession had been unambiguous: He had been abruptly handed the reins at just 23 when his own father had died in an accident at the factory. But with Howdy’s generation, there were several potential successors, including a brother who, unlike Howdy, had been a longtime fixture at the Chelsea offices. Being a privately held company, few outside the family know exactly what happened. But Howdy’s brother ended up leaving Jiffy to become an airline pilot, Howdy stayed on at the company to continue reorganization, and Howard Holmes, Sr.—who never really officially retired—took a less active role. In 1995, Howdy became the new president and CEO of Chelsea Milling.
If there was any takeway from the internal turmoil during that time, it was that Howdy emerged from it all with a deep understanding of just how difficult it is to run a family company. In the business world, he’s even become a sort of guru, often speaking at family business conferences about issues like the pitfalls of succession. “Business is easy; people are complicated,” he says, smiling. It’s another of Howdy’s favorite wry but zen-like mantras—one he often repeats, as though it were a go-to vehicle for simultaneously imparting wisdom and deflecting questions.
But the Jiffy that Howdy has helped rebuild over the past 20 years, really does, more than anything, run on carefully tended personal relationships. Like how he says it’s ludicrous for businesses to use automated machines to answer and direct phone calls. “It saves them money, but it just makes people furious,” he says. “Press one for anxiety; press three for depression. It’s just nuts.” That’s why a real human always picks up when you dial Jiffy’s 800 number. In fact, Howdy has been known to return some of the calls himself—from inquiries about Jiffy’s stance on GMOs to one recent customer who wrote to express his disappointment that the company doesn’t use real blueberries in its blueberry muffin mix. “When I call, I think people get kinda freaked out. They’re not used to it,” he says. “But I don’t consider myself a big deal—why shouldn’t I call this person?” Even in the administrative offices, Howdy, ever the fan of the next great idea, likes to make sure people are free to express themselves: the conference room table in the main offices is littered with gag toys, and a pressable “BULLSHIT” button. “Really, we’re just a privately held behavior modification project,” he jokes, “and we sell muffins and cakes on the side.”
It’s things like this that have some people in the business community trumpeting Howdy’s “Jiffyville” as one of the last great American companies. But perhaps what makes Jiffy great is as much about what has changed as what has remained the same—most notably, pricing. A box of Jiffy corn muffin mix, the company’s best-selling product, costs roughly 55 cents—about the same, not adjusting for inflation, as it did 80-some years ago, when the product first hit store shelves. Part of the explanation behind the throwback pricing is that Jiffy is vertically integrated—meaning that every aspect of the product, from milling the flour to printing the packaging—happens in-house. There are no middlemen taking a bite out of America’s favorite corn muffin. But the other factor is that Jiffy has never once spent a dime on advertising—no billboards, no commercials, not even a measly coupon—in order to keep the cost of their products low.
“That way we achieve our mission: to provide a service,” Howdy says. “That ‘service’ is offering the highest-quality ingredients at the best price. Most people live paycheck to paycheck, and those are the people we want to provide that service to.”
Back at Jiffy’s screening room, the field trip group is about to get a first-hand glimpse of some of the magic Jiffyville has to offer. A door swings open and suddenly they’ve entered another universe: room after room of whirring, spinning, clanging machines, with those iconic blue-and-white boxes flying past on conveyors that snake around and around and overhead. This time it feels like a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with gadgets and gizmos cranking along, and women in blue hair nets overseeing production. Howdy notes that some 1.5 million boxes of Jiffy Mix are filled and shipped out from here daily. In the midst of the action, it’s a fact that’s lost on the kids; but not to those who watch Jiffy’s bottom line. That’s nearly triple the output that the company saw 20 years ago, when Howdy took the reins.
Walking along the tour path—marked in red paint on the factory floor—Howdy greets, by name, every employee he passes. He asks a woman filling bags of muffin mix about her upcoming vacation, and stops in one particularly loud room to lean in and say something into the ear of another woman whose brother had recently, suddenly passed away. Many of Jiffy’s employees have worked here for decades, which Howdy pauses to proudly point out on a giant board on one of the walls that lists the names of those who’ve been at the company for 20, 30 and 40-plus years. The board is filled with dozens and dozens of names.
One name you won’t yet find on the board is that of Howdy’s son—also named Howdy. Still in his early 20s, the younger Howdy is interested in working at his dad’s company—perhaps someday becoming the fifth generation to carry the torch for the family business. But the elder Howdy has mandated that his son first spend some time “out in the world,” to gather the all-important life experiences that can’t necessarily be gained by walking a path of predestination. Howdy says he looks forward to having his only child back at the business someday, but acknowledges the kid will have his work cut out for him. “It’s tough being an S.O.B.” he says, pausing for effect. An ironic smile crosses his face as that trademark wit and wisdom find yet another chance to surface. “You know: ‘Son Of Boss.’”
Emily Bingham is co-founder of Found Michigan.