Founder of Uncle Charley's Sausage company is ready to sell



After the president of Uncle Charley's Sausage died last October in a small plane crash, the Vandergrift company received a number of inquiries from investment companies interested in buying the business.

Charles S. Armitage, the founder of the company, turned them away as he dealt with the loss of his 52-year-old son, Charles S. "Chas" Armitage Jr., and returned to running the business.

But now that some time has passed, the 79-year-old founder is ready to listen to offers. He recently told his broker to put the business up for sale. Uncle Charley's Sausage could be sold by the end of the year, although Mr. Armitage isn't sure it could happen that quickly, adding, "I'm not sure I want it to, either."

The company has grown into a regional player since Mr. Armitage founded it in 1988. Its sausage is sold in grocery chains such as Wal-Mart, Shop'n Save, Giant Eagle and Bottom Dollar Food, among others, and has distribution beyond Pennsylvania into New York, West Virginia and Ohio.

Uncle Charley's operates out of an 18,000-square-foot plant and employs around 45 people, a number that has held steady over the past few years despite the economic downturn. Mr. Armitage did not release financial data but said sales are up over last year.

Chicago-based market research firm SymphonyIRI Group calculates sales of Uncle Charley's refrigerated dinner sausage rose 13 percent in the 52 weeks that ended July 8, for a total of $4.12 million, while the company's breakfast sausage sales exceeded $1.64 million. The research firm tracks sales through supermarkets, drugstores and mass market retailers, but does not get data from Wal-Mart and club stores.

Mr. Armitage and Frances Armitage, his wife of 56 years, now come in regularly to the office they share in the plant, but they've moved into a retirement community in Oakmont and acknowledge they can't keep up the pace forever. Their three other children are not interested in taking over the sausage company.

That doesn't mean letting go won't be hard. Mr. Armitage said his wife is his "sweetie" but the business is his baby. The former seasonings salesman, with help from his family, built a brand known throughout the region. At this point, the company's most popular products are the Hot Italian and the Sweet Italian sausages.

There are ongoing challenges. It's been hard to further expand the company's distribution area, and the line isn't as well established in Ohio as in its home territory. Some product extensions may have pushed too far beyond the core sausage line, such as a line of turkey products that didn't sell well.

But Mr. Armitage is confident that regional demand is strong, as is Uncle Charley's message that it doesn't need to promote on price because its products "just taste better."

The plan was that Chas Armitage would take it from here, until the plane crash in West Virginia that news reports at the time said killed the pilot and the two passengers, Mr. Armitage and his girlfriend, Laura Stettmier, co-owner of Addison House Restaurant & Lounge in Leechburg.

After the tragedy, the elder Mr. Armitage said he went to the company's three top managers and told them they would have to run the business, expressing his confidence in their abilities. "I really don't do that much," he said, although he'd just been calling customers to get their orders.

He's heard the suggestions that he sell to the employees or local investors but he isn't interested in personally financing such a transaction. The company didn't borrow as it grew, he said, even working out ways to buy expensive production equipment in a short-term series of installments. "We don't owe money."

If the business is sold, he can't guarantee the employees will keep their jobs or even that the Uncle Charley's sausage operation will stay where it is.

"I think they'd be dumb to get rid of them," he said, bluntly. "The name is here. The brand is here. I hope to find a buyer that has good sense and knows what they're doing."

The plant has modern equipment with capacity to handle more production than it does now.

In the end, Mr. Armitage said, he won't be telling an acquirer what to do. "It's their money."

businessnews - neigh_westmoreland

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2018. First Published August 2, 2012 4:00 AM


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