Pierre’s Ice Cream Company started out as a small shop in 1932. Today, it has about 36 million scoops of ice cream in its freezer. The company has moved and expanded many times, but it has always stayed in the MidTown neighborhood, in the heart of Cleveland.
In the 1980s, Pierre’s outgrew its factory and needed to build a new one. At that time, MidTown was littered with abandoned buildings, crumbling sidewalks, and vacant lots filled with trash. No one was building anything. There was zero investment. Until Roth made a bold and risky decision to revitalize an 8-acre brownfield site.
“When we made the decision 40 some years ago to do this, we were the pioneers to plant a flag and say, ‘Yes, we’ll remain here. We’ll create a state-of-the-art facility.’ We were one of the first companies to have new construction between Cleveland State and Cleveland Clinic. And suddenly, we were designing it with windows and landscaping and nice features to really make a difference. Once we moved in, in ‘95, it took another 20 years for things to fill in around us. So, we stayed here alone that whole time, knowing eventually it would take hold and now it’s really transformed,” says Roth.
A strong sense of loyalty – to the community, customers, and employees – has always been at the heart of this family business. And it’s actually a business Roth never intended to take over. She moved to New York to work at Atlantic Records, until her dad asked her to come home.
“At the time it was a hard decision because in 1979, Cleveland had just defaulted. I was having a great time in New York City. I was working for a very exciting industry, show biz. But deep down, the most important thing to me was supporting my family and my father. And so, I returned to Cleveland and then really was blessed to have that ability to work side by side with my father in the eighties. He was truly courageous in inviting a daughter to join him because back then, dads weren’t inviting their daughters to help, but he had faith in me,” says Roth.
Roth personifies the leadership it takes to build and sustain a thriving manufacturing business. Since she’s been at the helm of Pierre’s, sales have grown exponentially. The company has gone from offering one product in three flavors to more than 235 different products and flavors. And she says there’s no secret recipe for this success – it starts with getting the basics right. Focus on customers. Focus on quality. Develop a team that shares these values. And build a place where people love to come to work.
Shelley Roth, President & CEO of Pierre’s Ice Cream Company in Cleveland with Ray Barlow, Lead Sanitation Team Member.
“I think we have a great team. It’s such a pleasure to be here every day and work side by side with the team. When people go to work, they should like what they do, they should enjoy their surroundings and their team members. And we try to create that collaborative atmosphere,” says Roth.
“People don’t come to work with attitudes. They always come in and they try to help you, make sure you got everything you need to get everything done.”
Lindsay Toler, Mix Room Operator, Pierre’s Ice Cream Company
Pierre’s has many loyal employees who have been with the company for decades – like Marvin Blythe. He’s stayed here for 34 years because he says he always gets the opportunity to learn and try new things.
“Well, I worked 11 years first in the freezer before the job that I wanted opened up. I had to wait for a person to retire. He was 72 years old, so I was waiting a while. He didn’t want to go! When he retired, I ended up getting the maintenance job, and I’ve been learning ever since. We’re a team here. I mean, from the top down. I’ve seen the owner in the production room working hard like everybody else. That sends a message, “Hey. No one’s special. I can do it. You can do it.” So, everybody tries to work together to get the product out,” says Blythe, Maintenance Technician at Pierre’s.
Blythe’s love of learning has come in handy with all the new technology Pierre’s has invested in over the years – technology he has to learn to operate and fix. The company has transformed its production with automation, human machine interfaces (HMIs), and robotics. But the journey didn’t exactly get off to a smooth start, Roth recalls with a chuckle.
“I love technology. I love change. So, when I first came back in the eighties, one of my projects was to improve information. I felt that required an investment in a computer system. My dad and I would have this tug of war over that because back in the early seventies, he had installed a computer system, which occupied 2,000 square feet of the building. It housed card punchers, card sorters, printers, supplies, and all these old computer things. Unfortunately, it failed terribly, and he said, ‘Computers don’t work. They are more problems than they’re worth,’” says Roth.
“It’s changed quite a bit in 27 years. I mean, when I first started, a lot of the machinery was older and you dealt with more like valves and dials, controlling the freezer to where now you have state-of-the-art computer screens and touch screens, and all the valves are automatic. We’ve seen a lot of change and updated equipment.”
Johnny Catron, Maintenance Technician, Pierre’s Ice Cream Company
Roth eventually won the battle, and Pierre’s has invested in technology capital projects virtually every year. The company’s “human touch” of making delicious ice cream is still at the core, but technology helps. Mixing ice cream batches has been automated with sensors, meters, and touch screens. Order filling in the warehouse is aided by voice-pick technology. Sensors and digitized freezers keep ice cream at the perfect temperature.
“I’ve always believed that technology is vital. If you don’t keep up with it, the world will pass you by. And if the world passes you by, you’ll be a dinosaur. So, it’s very important to understand, learn, grow, and include technology in your business. And in our case, the next steps will be some robotics and maybe a blockchain for traceability on our supply side and our sales,” says Roth.
In addition to technology innovation, the company is also focused on developing new products. In 2020, it launched a special line of ice cream called Hero Pints where one dollar from each pint is donated to local food banks. With flavors like Superstars and Virtual Hugs, it’s a “thank you” to all the heroes who helped during the pandemic. This innovation was nominated as one of the “Best New Dairy Products of 2020” by Dairy Foods Magazine.
Marvin Blythe, Maintenance Technician, Pierre’s Ice Cream Company.
It’s clear Roth loves her company and her industry. And she believes Northeast Ohio needs much more of the potential and opportunity that manufacturing can bring.
“Having lived through watching so many companies disappear in this region over the past 35 years, it alarmed me as it was happening, that gradual decline and decay of these wonderful jobs and companies that went away. So, we are where we’re at. That doesn’t mean we have to stay at this level. I think manufacturing’s important for the region and for our country. I think we need to make things domestically. And we have great infrastructure and a great workforce that can really make a difference if we as a region focus on, what’s it going to take? How do we get there? We’re not going to get there in two years, but how do we get there in five or 10 years? So, if we want to repopulate our region with more manufacturing, we need to come together and make that a priority,” she says.
Pierre's Ice Cream Company's Headquarters
Roth saw potential when she stood on that vacant lot in MidTown so many years ago. When she built a massive, state-of-the art headquarters in what many considered to be an urban wasteland. Her vision anchored the revitalization of an entire neighborhood, and she believes the same revitalization can happen for manufacturing.
“I’ve seen it done with this development of Midtown. I’ve seen things turn around. And if we want to make it happen, we can make it happen with manufacturing. It takes collective leadership, like we did with MidTown, a public-private partnership. I think we need to get our public leaders, our elected officials, along with business owners and community leaders to get together. And I think if we can engage all of these parties and the schools, I think we’ll be able to get there,” says Roth.
“There” being a place of growth and opportunity where Northeast Ohio is leading the world in smart manufacturing and many lives are made better because of it. That’s the kind of positive change Roth wants to work toward next.
When asked what her father would think of all she’s accomplished, Roth says, “I was very fortunate to work side by side with my father who was my best friend and had confidence in me. And you can’t trade in those experiences, so I’m lucky in all ways. And I never take it for granted. When we built the plant and opened it, my dad had already passed away. And I joked that he was probably looking down on me saying, ‘Shelley, you’re going to have to sell a lot of ice cream to pay for this building’.”
Luckily, she has sold plenty. Since Roth took over, sales have increased 300% – fueled by smart technology, innovation, and bold leadership that puts people and community first.