In 2012, Hostess, the iconic American bakery giant behind Ding Dongs, Ho Hos and Twinkies, was bankrupt, with plans to slash more than 18,000 jobs and close its doors for good amid a crippling nationwide strike.
Then, in 2013, a snack-cake savior appeared. The Missouri-based sweets maker was bought for $410 million by a partnership between private-equity giant Apollo Global Management and C. Dean Metropoulos, a billionaire turnaround artist known as "Mr. Shelf Space" for his revival of brands like Vlasic, Hungry-Man and Chef Boyardee.
Now, the iconic dessert titan is resurgent, selling its golden, cream-filled Twinkies across the world under the name Hostess Brands and turning down $2 billion offers from a pack of hopeful buyers. On Tuesday morning, the company reached its latest peak when Reuters, citing anonymous sources, suggested Hostess would head to Wall Street with an initial public offering that would value the company at around $2.5 billion.
In an interview, Metropoulos, 69, swatted back rumors, saying "it was too early to consider a sale or IPO at this time." The ubiquitous, legendary brand on which they had pledged millions in repairs, he said, still had plenty of room to climb. "We feel that we’re just two years into this wonderful turnaround of this company, and that there's a lot of potential growth to consider."
Its sales have yet to recover to the nearly $1 billion a year it reached before the bankruptcy. But by following a turnaround playbook refined by Metropoulos — slashing jobs and costs, investing in automation, spending wildly on marketing campaigns that dubbed Hostess' return as “The Sweetest Comeback in the History of Ever” — the company has arisen from the ashes to regain a place in American pantries and ensure another hyper-profitable flip for its deep-pocketed rescue team.
Metropoulos said over the past few weeks he had received "a number of calls" to buy the company and fielded a proposal from bankers over a potential Hostess stock-market debut. He would not offer details on how much they could raise in an IPO. Apollo spokesman Charles Zehren declined to comment.
Metropoulos's mega-deals have tended to focus on troubled but well-known household names that he can buy for cheap, reinvigorate for a few years, then sell with a newly hyped turnaround story, to a long-term operator or highest bidder.
But the billionaire would set no timeline for when he expected to flip the company, saying only that corporate leaders would "continue to focus this coming year on expanding the business" and adding, "It's hard to call when we will consider something."
In two years, Metropoulos said, the leaders have invested more than $150 million in "improvements and efficiencies" at the firm's bakery plants and spent hundreds of millions on marketing to remind hungry buyers the snack cakes were ready to buy and unwrap. The cakes' revival was fueled by the free hype of national sweet-tooth nostalgia, as social media lit up with tweeted cravings and celebrations of their sweet return.
Selling its first Twinkies in 1930, the original Hostess had crumbled beneath what it said were weighty levels of debt and decades of expensive wage and pension burdens. Once one of America's biggest bakers and cake makers, the company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2012 and was liquidated.
The Hostess Brands of today, launched in 2013 under an Apollo-Metropoulos holding company, owns sweets and cakes under the Hostess and Dolly Madison brands, including Cupcakes, Donettes, Snoballs and Zingers.
But it looks and operates very differently than the chain from whence it came. The newer, thinner bakery giant kept only five of the 14 original dessert plants: Of those five, one was sold and another, an eight-decade-old bakery in suburban Chicago with 400 employees, closed in October.
The investment helped bring the classic American snack food into the 21st century. One 500-worker Kansas bakery outfitted with a $20 million Auto-Bake system, according to Forbes, now spits out more than a million Twinkies a day, doing 80 percent of the work once done by 9,000 workers across 14 plants.
Other changes were less robotic but just as important. Spending millions on chemical research, the new leaders rolled out a new Twinkies recipe that would allow the cakes to sit for weeks longer on warehouse shelves before going stale: about 65 days.
Delivery costs plummeted, and the available shelves on which the cakes could be sold — from dollar stores to convenience marts to vending machines — skyrocketed. Andy Jhawar, a senior partner at Apollo, told Forbes, “There is no reason why Hostess can’t be sold in any place that sells candy bars.”
Hostess has not yet regained the American baked-goods throne — McKee Foods, lord of the Little Debbie empire, now holds the most market share — but its rise has been impressive nonetheless, and has allowed its leaders to flirt with offers of a potential bake sale.
In March, the Standard & Poor’s ratings agency commended "Hostess’ successful execution of its re-launch of the snack cake business and substantially improved profitability."
And in May, the New York Post reported Grupo Bimbo (the Mexican maker of Sara Lee and Entenmann's), Flowers Foods (the Georgia-based maker of Tastykake) and Aryzta (the Swiss-based owner of Otis Spunkmeyer) had submitted as-yet-unsuccessful takeover bids.
Just how quickly Apollo and Metropoulos could move to extend Hostess's shelf life remains the billion-dollar question. But if it's anything like the leaders' past turnarounds, the next step could happen fast.
“We move quickly,” Metropoulos's son Daren told Time magazine in 2013. “We don’t like to be slowed down with analytics or bureaucracy.”