Mark Wetterau shied away from the spotlight.
The philanthropist and CEO of multibillion-dollar food manufacturer Golden State Foods preferred being on the sidelines, according to Education Works CEO Jim Connelly.
“He was happy to sit back and let someone else have the glory,” Connelly told the Business Journal. At fishing tournaments, “he’d be the last guy to say, ‘well, I’m gonna catch the biggest fish.’”
Wetterau’s aversion to glory was reflected in his company’s culture. Though GSF—which services brands like KFC, Taco Bell and Wendy’s—can take credit for many iconic fast-food sauces, “it’s not something that we want to talk about,” Wetterau told the Business Journal during an interview last summer.
He led the Irvine-based company as chairman and CEO for 25 years, all while serving on various nonprofit boards throughout the country.
Wetterau was GSF’s third chief executive in its over 75-year history. The company, which has about 6,000 employees across the globe, is projected to do about $6 billion in sales this year.
Friends and business partners of Wetterau had long admired his steadfast commitment to his company’s creed and values, which include the belief in “God and the dignity of all people,” standing by the Golden Rule, making “the best product” and giving customers “a fair deal.”
“It’s not that GSF lost someone special, it’s that the world lost someone special,” VP and Chief Branding and Communications Officer Shellie Frey told the Business Journal. “We are better people because of Mark Wetterau.”
Wetterau died this month due to ongoing health issues. He was 65.
Wetterau was born on Jan. 26, 1958, at Deaconess Hospital in St. Louis. His parents, Ted Wetterau and Helen Killion Wetterau, watched him develop an interest in small engine repairs at a young age. His fascination with automobiles would later blossom into a yearslong hobby of collecting and restoring cars.
He graduated from Horton Watkins High School in Laude, Mo. in 1976. He earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Westminster College four years later.
In 1983, he married Virginia Dean. Together, they had three children: M. Stephen Wetterau Jr., Olivia Luce and Elizabeth Bakman.
Wetterau had been a seasoned business leader before taking the helm of GSF.
He started his career in 1980 with St. Louis-based Wetterau Inc., a family-owned food maker and distributor founded by his great-grandfather in 1869. He rose through the ranks to become chairman and CEO of Shop ‘n Save in 1987 and then president and chief operating officer of Wetterau Inc., which was sold for $1.1 billion in 1992 to Minneapolis-based SuperValu Stores Inc.
Along with his brother, Conrad Wetterau, and former Wetterau Inc. associate Mike Waitukaitis, he went on to form Wetterau Associates LLC to buy and manage businesses.
Their two biggest investments became Anheuser-Busch Companies LLC’s largest independent distributor in Massachusetts, and GSF, which the company bought in 1998 with help from Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa Cos., who was bought out in 2004.
Prior to the purchase, GSF had been serving McDonald’s Corp. for about 50 years. The company helped the fast-food giant roll out numerous signature products, such as the Big Mac sauce, the Triple Thick Shake syrups, and McNugget dipping sauces.
When McDonald’s decided to consolidate its suppliers, GSF in 2018 sold much of its distribution-related businesses with the fast-food chain. The following year, the food manufacturer and distributor saw annual sales fall from about $7 billion to $4.5 billion.
The company expects to generate $6 billion in sales this year.
Today, GSF is the fifth-largest private company in Orange County. It supplies food to 200 leading brands that operate more than 125,000 restaurants or stores in over 50 countries, including some on this week’s Business Journal list of OC’s largest restaurant chains (see list, page 20). If it were a restaurant chain, GSF’s revenue would place it No. 3 on the list.
Wetterau led GSF through several ups and downs, including the 2008 financial crisis.
GSF’s commercial paper conduit then “collapsed almost overnight,” former Chief Administrative Officer Bill Sanderson told the Business Journal.
Wetterau swiftly took action to keep the company afloat. He, Conrad and Waitukaitis put all their personal wealth on the line “for the sake of all of us,” Sanderson said.
“Some of us execs knew that, but the rank-and-file Golden State Foods associates did not know the pressure they were under,” Sanderson added.
The company at the time had some 4,000 employees.
Wetterau’s work with GSF did not stop him from helping multiple nonprofits, including Irvine-based Second Harvest Food Bank of OC.
He joined the nonprofit in the 2000s, despite his lack of familiarity with how food banks operated.
To learn more, he visited about 100 of Second Harvest’s partners, including soup kitchens and other nonprofits that provided meals for people in need.
“At the time I thought, ‘how does this man do all this?’” then-Executive Director Joe Schoeningh told the Business Journal. “He is so busy building his company, yet he wants to do these things out of the goodness of his heart.”
Wetterau also led Second Harvest’s capital campaign for the renovation of its Irvine facility.
The campaign’s lofty $8 million goal worried Schoeningh, who said that the nonprofit at the time had never received a donation of more than $200,000.
Wetterau, however, accepted the challenge without worry or complaint.
“That’s not a big deal,” Wetterau told Schoeningh at the time.
Schoeningh trusted Wetterau, despite analysts for the company saying that only a $5 million campaign was realistic, while $8 million was a stretch.
“Let them think what they want,” Wetterau said to Schoeningh. “We’re going to get the money.”
Within two years, the campaign met its $8 million goal under Wetterau’s direction.
The resulting Irvine facility replaced the nonprofit’s previous headquarters, an old packing warehouse in Orange.
“It just wasn’t efficient for all the perishable food it received and the necessary distribution,” former Second Harvest CEO and now-CEO of Goodwill of OC Nicole Suydam said of the Orange site.
“Mark knew what it took to have a great distribution center, so he was eager to raise the money,” she added. “That will probably go down as one of his biggest legacies.”
Wetterau kept quiet about his health issues while he worked for nonprofits and GSF.
“He didn’t want his family and friends to worry about him,” former Tickets.com CEO Tom Gimple told the Business Journal. “He always worried about others more.”
Wetterau’s health began to decline in recent years, though he kept up his traditions with friends, including an annual trip to Barrett-Jackson’s classic car auction in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Gimple, Wetterau, Conrad and a host of mutual friends made their annual trek to Arizona for over 20 years.
There, Wetterau would admire the cars on sale, sometimes partaking in the exchange himself to restore vintage muscle cars and make them “prettier and faster,” Gimple said.
Gimple hopes to maintain their car auction tradition even though Wetterau can no longer join them.
“I’d have a hard time believing that this tradition would not continue,” he said. “We’d probably continue it in Mark’s honor.”
Following Wetterau’s death, Conrad was elected to replace him as chairman. He, like his brother, has also served on the GSF board for 25 years.
“Despite the significant loss of my dear brother, best friend, and longtime GSF leader, Mark, we will continue to build on the incredible momentum of this thriving organization to best serve our valued customers at the highest levels throughout the world,” Conrad said in a statement.
Wetterau is survived by Virginia, his wife of 39 years, their three children and three grandchildren.
Acts of Kindness
Many remember the late Mark Wetterau as the CEO of Irvine-based food manufacturer and distributor, Golden State Foods.
Those who knew him personally, however, remember him as not only an esteemed business leader, but also a caring friend.
Bill Sanderson met Wetterau through the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), a global community of chief executives.
They had already known each other for a few years when Sanderson decided to abruptly part ways with the company he worked for due to a disagreement over values.
After the YPO meeting where Sanderson shared his resignation, Wetterau comforted him.
“I’m so sorry,” Wetterau told him. “My heart bleeds for you.”
Wetterau knew Sanderson didn’t have another job lined up, so he made him an offer.
He asked Sanderson to join GSF as a part-time consultant, since he valued Sanderson’s entrepreneurial mindset.
Sanderson took the job, but didn’t expect to stay for long so he could pursue his own business ventures. Sanderson, however, ended up staying at GSF for nearly 20 years, working his way up to senior VP of finance, CFO and, eventually, chief administrative officer.
Joining the company was “a remarkable opportunity and a transformational journey for me, given where I was at the time,” Sanderson said.
Together at GSF, Wetterau and Sanderson worked on the Golden State Foods Foundation, whose mission is to help underprivileged children and families in the areas where the company’s employees live and work.
The nonprofit, which Wetterau founded in 2002, supports a range of causes, such as providing free school supplies, meals and clothing to food insecure, low-income families.
To date, the foundation has raised over $60 million for the more than 850 schools and charities it supports.