ARTICLE FROM THE GRAND ISLAND INDEPENDENT
CHAPMAN -- Gov. Dave Heineman was on hand Thursday for a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the opening of Preferred Popcorn's new corporate office in Chapman.
Nearly 100 people crowded into the new office, where Heineman offered remarks along with Norman Krug, Preferred Popcorn chief executive officer; George Hohweiler, Aurora Cooperative CEO; and Kelly Hale, Central City Area Chamber of Commerce board president.
"We are here to celebrate today our 15 years of business as Preferred Popcorn, as well as the opening of our new office," Krug said.
Preferred Popcorn was born in the fall of 1997. Krug asked three area entrepreneurial farmers to join him in purchasing a dormant popcorn processing plant adjacent to one of Krug's properties. Aurora Co-op, which owns 36 percent interest in Preferred Popcorn, joined the enterprise to increase the crop choices for its patrons. In the summer of 1998, Preferred Popcorn shipped its first load of bulk popcorn.
"We joke about it, but this is the international headquarters of Preferred Popcorn," Krug said. "That's because we have been fortunate to expand our business in Nebraska and the United States, as well as 55 countries."
Hohweiler said one of the things Nebraska farmers do well is grow corn.
"We have built a company based on producing popcorn, marketed in 50-pound bags, and leave the designer type of popcorn marketing to someone else," Hohweiler said. "That has worked out and worked out well."
With the U.S. popcorn market saturated, Hohweiler said, Preferred Popcorn "made the bold risk to go global."
Now Nebraska popcorn from Preferred Popcorn is enjoyed around the world, from Israel to the world's most populous nation, China.
"This company became intentional, at its leadership and ownership level, to embed Midwest and Christian values into this company," Hohweiler said. "I do believe that we have been blessed by taking that stand. It is an intentional approach by this company, and I think we have been rewarded for that and will always be."
Heineman said Preferred Popcorn is "a real success story."
"What they are doing here is the reason that agriculture, in some many different variations, is so successful in our state," he said.
In 2011, Heineman said, Nebraska farmers had a record farm income of $7.5 billion, breaking the old record of $4 billion in 2008.
"That is an 87 percent increase," Heineman said. "When you realize what is going on in agriculture today and from what Norm is doing here, we are the No. 1 popcorn state in America."
Looking down the list of value-added agricultural products from Nebraska, Heineman said, "you begin to realize why our state is in so much better a state than the rest of the country."
Heineman related a story about one of his trade missions to China when Krug was part of the delegation.
"We were in China, and we thought we would have a reception for the Chinese, and I told Norm that we had to have popcorn," he said. "I didn't give him a lot of advance notice, but he produced. You should have seen all the Chinese delegation and all of us who were there as we were enormously proud that we could talk about a product that is being produced here in Nebraska, in the metropolis of Chapman."
Krug later related the uphill struggle Preferred Popcorn had during its rise to international prominence.
"At the beginning, we found out that we were a lot better at raising popcorn than we were at selling it," he said. "That created a big challenge. In our first year, we raised about 12 million pounds, but we only sold 4 million, and that was a problem."
But Krug said the company began to look at foreign markets. Mexico was the first country Preferred Popcorn exported to, and exports have now expanded to 55 countries around the world.
Having Aurora Co-op as one of the owners of Preferred Popcorn, he said, brings the backing of the co-op's 10,000 members.
"We think one of the strengths we have is the people who deliver the popcorn also own the company," Krug said.
Heineman said Preferred Popcorn is a good example of "how we go from producing the crop to how do you market it and sell it."
"You can have a great product, but if you can't sell it anywhere, you are in trouble. Here we are in one of the smallest communities in Nebraska. They operate here in Chapman, and they sell all over the world. That is why I say all the time, Nebraskans know the value of exports. They understand that we compete in this global marketplace, and we can compete very successfully."