One day in 2005, Christine Lantinen’s boss told her he was letting her go because he couldn’t afford her $125,000 salary and bonus.

Lantinen, then 31, and the sales and marketing director of Bay Island food gifts, didn’t waste any time.

Lantinen, within a few days, was negotiating to buy majority interest in century-old chocolatier Maud Borup from two owners with whom she had done business at Bay Island.

Things have worked out well, if not exactly to plan, for the driven, often-laughing Lantinen, 45, a farm girl from Le Center, Minn., who served as a medic in the Army and Army Reserve for 10 years after high school in order to afford college.

Lantinen has transformed Maud Borup from a small retailer to a wholesale business: a growing manufacturer of chocolates, peppermint bark, fudge cups, other candies and food gifts. It employs 120, including more than 100 workers who produce product under the Maud Borup and private labels for retailers from a refurbished, expanded plant in Le Center.

“I think Maud has been watching out for us,” said Lantinen, 45, from her Plymouth office and warehouse.

Something must be working.

Maud Borup, under Lantinen, has crossed $20 million in revenue, growing 20% annually in recent years, selling candy and creative gift packages that range from $1 to $50 at retail. They span boxes of chocolates, to a sturdy plastic fishing-tackle container full of sweets and labeled “hooked on you”; chocolate drink mixes and other sweet concoctions.

She focuses on natural ingredients and made in the U.S.A. products.

This spring, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) named Lantinen Minnesota’s Small Business Person of the Year.

“The SBA-backed loans helped build the infrastructure that laid the foundation for our exponential growth,” Lantinen said.

Lantinen has taken a venerable-but-tired candy brand and turned it into a company growing several times faster than market, according to Nielsen, the consumer-data company.

“Christine is on a sustainable, manageable growth track,” said Bryan Guse, Lantinen’s banker since 2008 at Old National Bank. “She’s very cost-conscious. She only borrows money as a last resort. She paid cash for the building in Le Center. We wanted her to borrow a little on that. But she’s been a great customer … one of the easiest relationships I have — and I manage a loan portfolio of about $190 million.

“She hasn’t needed any SBA-guaranteed loans for years. She manages well. And she’s a go-getter. Her plant in Le Center is about growth and helping her [hometown] community.”

Maud Borup was started in 1907 by a St. Paul woman. The candy has been lauded by the Queen of England as well as a general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the late Buzzie Bavasi. He enjoyed some after beating the Twins in the 1965 World Series.

Lantinen had confidence and experience as an Army sergeant and sales manager. And a stint in quality control at Target.

In the first months of ownership, Lantinen built a new-order book of $2 million, from Target and others. But she needed money for working capital in order to complete those orders.

“I had $2 million in new purchase orders within four months and no bank would lend me money,” she said.

A friend of Lantinen’s father, Karl Bohn, a Le Center-area farmer, had accompanied her to a few bank meetings.

“He would yell at them,” Lantinen recalled with a laugh. “Finally, Karl called me and said he would borrow $500,000 against a piece of his farmland. I gave Karl 2% of sales, up to $40,000, in the first year. And I paid him back.”

Lantinen in 2013 bought a vacant former counter-manufacturing factory. And converted it into what is a once-expanded, 55,000-square-foot plant for Maud Borup and its 100 workers, who are disproportionately Latino and Somali.

“Our factory is clean and we treat our people well,” Lantinen said. “They are helping us build something great. We’re growing. We brought 150 different items to market last year.”

The Le Center factory is powered by a Lantinen-owned wind turbine that generates enough juice for Lantinen to get a check some months from the power company. Maud Borup has grown to be one of the larger employers in town. Lantinen plans a 50,000-square-foot expansion.

Lantinen’s husband, Randy, is vice president of operations. They met playing volleyball.

In Le Center, Pam Cooney, 76, Christine’s mom, is the part-time quality assurance manager.

Lantinen has a small sales team focused almost exclusively on large retailers, including Target, Walmart, Cost Plus World Market and Whole Foods. About 60% of the business is Maud Borup brand and the rest is private label.

Lantinen has worked with retailers to reduce packaging and she’s been recognized for her efforts at a continuously greener Maud Borup.

“I feel each of us should do our part and landfill less,” she said. “We’re trying to build a great company.”

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.