Yarnell's: 75 Years And Going Strong (Fifth Monday)

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Jul. 30, 2007 12:00 am  

Some of the faces behind Yarnell's, the 75-year-old ice cream company based in Searcy.

(Editor's Note: This is the latest in a series of business history feature stories. Suggestions for future "Fifth Monday" articles are welcome. Please contact Gwen Moritz at (501) 372-1443 or by e-mail at gmoritz@abpg.com.)

Nothing is simple -- not even ice cream.

Make no mistake -- really, we mean make no mistake, but we'll get back to the no-room-for-error part of the story -- ice cream is fun. Just try saying the words "ice cream" without smiling. Even the lactose-intolerant can find a frozen treat to their taste.

So for most of us it's a joy. For the Yarnell family of Searcy it's serious business, a 75-year-long, four-generation compact with themselves, with the community and with their customers.

"This is a fun business and people love ice cream," says Rogers Yarnell, president of Yarnell Ice Cream Co. and grandson of the founder, Ray Yarnell. "But it is a very competitive, hard business because you've got to get up really early in the morning in all aspects of this business and it's very hard work. It's truly hard work."

Yarnell, who graduated from the University of Arkansas, considered a career in the military. "Because I graduated right at the end of the Vietnam era, I had the chance to have a lot of responsibility at a very young age and ended up commanding a unit when I was 22 years old," he says. Yarnell served in Europe in the Army. "I liked the military environment."

The affinity reveals itself in an almost martial deportment, not stiff, but dignified, commanding and shyly courtly. This natural air of command appears to be a family trait that manifests itself in unique ways in his father, Albert Yarnell, 83 and company chairman, and Rogers' daughter, Christina, 28 and company treasurer.

Albert Yarnell, who has been working full time at Yarnell's for 59 years, still comes to work every day and, though perfectly polite, is succinct with little time for meandering questions. Albert Yarnell served in the Army in the CBI theater (China, Burma, India) during World War II, most of that time in China, which goes far to explain the no-nonsense attitude.

Christina Yarnell, who began her full-time commitment to the family firm in 2000, is a petite beauty who confesses to being "peppy" but whom only a fool would underestimate. She's smart, she's driven and she's compassionate, an improbable combination of characteristics, but it works for her and for the company.

Family patriarch Ray Yarnell bought the bankrupt company he worked for in 1932, pretty near the height of the Depression in Arkansas, using somewhere between $5,000 and $25,000 borrowed from his wife's side of the family. At the time, the state had dozens of ice cream manufacturers. Today, one remains: Yarnell's.

The Yarnell Ice Cream Co. is privately held. Asked about the company's size, Rogers Yarnell allows only as to "we are a less than $100 million company."

Why has Yarnell's survived, thrived even, in the face of brutal global competition and consolidation in both the food products industry and the retail sector? The family's short answer: hard work and humility, an answer that's accurate but incomplete.



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