Ag alumna finds the flavors that distinguish Wrigley’s candy

When her grandmother would pull a tissue from her black vinyl purse, it always smelled like wintergreen. Helen Stoll always carried a roll of Life Savers,® using them to calm a squirmy child in church, reward good behavior, or take the sting out of a bad day.

Sometimes she’d carry a fruit-flavored roll. Dori Byard ’96 and her sister would fight over the cherry like they’d fight over the swirl in the center of a new tub of butter. When Byard went to college and her grandmother visited, she’d always leave behind a roll of cherry Life Savers.

“I wish I could tell her I’m buying the flavors and colors now,” Byard said from her 10th-floor Michigan Avenue office at the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company in Chicago. As the company’s global sourcing manager, the 35-year-old seeks out the flavors, colors, coolants, and menthol for the popular chewing gum and candies rolling out of 14 countries.

Managing the supply chain for brands like Big Red,® Skittles,® and Altoids® means Byard goes from sampling gum flavors in Wrigley’s Chicago lab, to walking through menthol fields in India, or working through a customs issue in Russia or China.

On a shelf near the window in her office sits a chip-sized glass bowl that holds a dozen different packages of gum. Fishing through it, she reels off exotic names like Solstice, Zing, Cobalt, Lush, and Flare. When her supply gets low, she simply stops the gum lady who pushes a gum cart through the corporate-quiet hallway.

The surroundings are almost surreal for Byard, who has come a long way from the once-homesick child who was rarely allowed to chew gum as a child. When she left her parents’ Chestnut farm for Illinois State, it was only a 45-minute drive away. She was comfortable on campus, and enrolled thinking she’d study pre-law or education. By the end of her first year, she’d ruled out both. Not knowing what she wanted to do was so unsettling that on a visit home, she walked out to the field to ask her dad for his advice.

“I was kind of panicking. I felt like I was wasting my parents’ money. I can still remember sitting in the combine, crying, saying, ‘Dad, what am I going to do?’ He told me to just take one ag class.”

Although she was reluctant because she knew she didn’t want to return to the farm or live in a small town, she took an agriculture in developing countries course. The class was taught by Jeffrey Wood, who is now dean of the College of Applied Sciences and Technology. By the end of the semester, she was an ag business major.

Byard started her career as a grain merchandiser for Archer Daniels Midland in Decatur, buying and selling corn, soybeans, and vegetable oils. In 2001 she moved to Kraft Foods Global, where she bought cream, condensed skim, and oil for cookies, crackers, frozen pizzas, and cream cheese. She managed the occasional company crisis, like running out of hot dogs on the Fourth of July, a Halloween candy shortage, and a tanker spilling 48,000 pounds of oil across an interstate.

She decided to move out of her comfort zone in 2008, leaving behind familiar commodities to join Wrigley. She never thought she’d be standing in a field in India, empathizing with menthol farmers who’d lost crops to a monsoon—farmers who still use water buffalo to pull their plows.

“Being a farmer’s daughter, I understood,” she said. “It’s hard. Their farm may be the equivalent of one acre, and this menthol is their cash crop for the year. These are people who are living on the edge of existence.”

When she was talking with the farmers, she turned to see more than a dozen villagers lined up on the side of the road staring at her. Respectful, they were curious about this fair-skinned Westerner in blue jeans. She brought gum for the children. Some of them had to be taught through an interpreter how to chew it.

Working in such an environment creates obstacles, including how to move products between countries. Byard notes that the task is a little more difficult than moving soybeans on a barge down a river.

“I was raised in a very small town with people who were very open and generous, and I had professors like that.”

“When you’re talking about something that starts in a field that’s being plowed by an ox, it’s quite a supply chain to get it to our plant in Georgia or Toronto,” she said. “And when you’re sourcing for China and especially Russia, it’s a bit of a challenge because of the importation laws. It takes longer to get things through customs. That adds a whole new dimension to the supply chain.”

Product development can be equally complicated and enjoyable for Byard. A peanut M&M® fan, she was excited by the thought of buying colors for the candies when Mars, Incorporated acquired Wrigley in October of 2008.

It turned out her company wouldn’t handle the chocolate portfolio, only the nonchocolate confections such as Skittles® and Starburst.® But she does get to buy the speckles that adhere to gum, and worked with a plant in Asia to acquire the edible glitter. Just don’t ask her what is used to make the speckles.

“That’s top secret,” she said.

So is any hint of what gum might be on the horizon as Wrigley tries to predict what image-conscious young adults and teens will want to chew two years from now. Secret code names are given to the stringy masses being cooked up in Wrigley’s Global Innovation Center, a Chicago research facility.

It’s not unusual for staff to be asked to chew new flavors at a meeting, clearing their palates with crackers or Gummi bears. “We can do two things at once,” she said with a laugh. “It’s hard to believe you have a bunch of people sitting around chewing gum and spitting into cups at meetings.”

In the midst of the work, Byard has found a way to stay grounded. On top of her computer there’s a thumb-sized John Deere tractor. It’s there to remind her of her Central Illinois roots, which run as deep as those of the corn she used to tug out of the beans.
She remembers and appreciates not only her family, but the University. If it wasn’t for Illinois State’s Agriculture Department, Byard knows she might not have found her place in agriculture.

“I was raised in a very small town with people who were very open and generous, and I had professors like that,” she said, as their names started rolling out. “I felt very much at home there. The faculty remembers me when I come back. Some of my friends who graduated from larger schools are blown away by that. The years I spent getting my degree at ISU were some of my best.”

When she visits her parents, Byard no longer has to ask her dad for advice. But she still thinks about something he told her when she said she didn’t have any idea what she wanted to do with her life.

“He said, ‘Trust me. You like agriculture more than you think you do.’ And he was right.”

One thought on “Sweet Success

  1. Jerry Wirth says:

    Helen, i enjoyed this piece, and was interested to learn that the Ag Business program has classes in developmental agriculture. Had it had when i was there, i might have stayed in Ag Business. congratulations on what sounds like an interesting career path. I see Wrigley products and employees way out here in little Latvia, one of those developing countries with a healthy agricultural sector. And I always carry some Wrigley’s gum in my coat pocket. It reminds me of home. I enjoyed the article.