Passing the Cone

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Luconda Dager grew up surrounded by ice cream-and with permission to eat it every day

As a little girl, she was a constant presence inside her family's company, Velvet Ice Cream Co. in Utica, whether she was scampering around the factory or bothering her father's secretary. The freezer at home always housed several flavors -- at least six, sometimes eight. Occasionally, Luconda even ate a little for breakfast, though her mom eventually put a stop to that. Her father and uncle would ask her opinion on new flavors, as if she were a little consultant.

Velvet has always been a family business with devoted employees producing a sweet, creamy treat. Back then, however, it was also a company run by men. It was founded in 1914 by Luconda's great-grandfather, Joseph, then passed to her grandfather Charles. After he died at a young age, the reins went to Luconda's Uncle Ed and finally her father, Joe.

By the time those men developed the regional ice cream producer into a company that earned $23 million in sales in 2008, Luconda had grown up. She went away to college, earned a business degree, worked as a fashion buyer and then returned to Velvet. She married and became a mom to her own little ice-cream lover, 5-year-old Lauren.

Finally, last September, the little lady once bouncing through the factory and munching on ice cream in the mornings was named the new president of Velvet. And her younger sisters-Joanne, 37, and Andr, 36-became vice presidents, meaning that for the first time in company history, its top three positions are held by women.

"My mom would tell you from the time I was a little girl, I wanted to run the ice cream company," said Luconda, 40, who lives in Mount Vernon with Lauren and her husband, Bill Ashcraft. "I don't know anything else. I don't know any other way. It is our livelihood, and we're supporting 125 employees in this town."

Velvet has come a long way since Joseph Dager, a Lebanese immigrant, founded the company in the basement of a Utica confectionary. It's now headquartered in a gristmill that dates to 1817, and the building, dubbed Ye Olde Mill, includes an ice cream parlor, an ice cream museum and a restaurant. About 150,000 people make a pilgrimage to Ye Olde Mill each summer. Velvet has about a 5 percent market share where it's sold-in Ohio, Indiana and parts of Kentucky and West Virginia.

The people who have known Luconda longest aren't surprised that she's made it this far.

Ron Campbell is a 35-year veteran of Velvet. It's his job to make the base, which is the mix of sugar, cream, water and milk powders that eventually becomes ice cream. "I always remember the girls coming into the plant at different times. Being the oldest sister, she was always leading the pack," he said. "Seeing her grow up it just seems strange in a way, and yet destined."

After graduating from Xavier University in 1991, Luconda spent four years as a buyer for a women's clothing store chain. That was her "glamour job," as she calls it, and included tasks like traveling to New York to purchase Donna Karan designs.

Soon enough, though, she was back in Utica, wearing a white uniform and a hairnet and learning the business from the bottom up. She first worked in receiving (taking stock of the supplies, like the cardboard cartons) and then production (actually making the ice cream). She became a sales representative, then sales manager, and eventually vice president of sales and marketing. She learned about building existing business and finding more.

"I saw her as the person who kind of evolved out of the family to take the business to the next level," said Tom Jackson, president and CEO of the Ohio Grocers Association, who said he's known Luconda for about 15 years. "And that's what she's going to do."

Now that she's president, her day is nonstop from the moment her alarm sounds at 5 a.m. She still thinks about how to best market the product but also works on finances, distribution and quality control. She first learned that last skill as a child around her family dinner table, where they didn't just taste ice cream for enjoyment. "You had to critique it," she noted.

In the summer, she greets tourists at Ye Olde Mill. Sometimes they're amazed when the woman on the informational video is asking them about their favorite flavors.

No matter the workload, though, Luconda prioritizes one task each morning: Getting Lauren to kindergarten. "If I don't get to take her to school for some reason, I feel like I've missed something in my day," she said.

She works alongside her sisters; her father, who remains chairman; and her mother, Tatla, who helps with administrative tasks. The family is so close they're "almost cultlike," Luconda jokes.

Working with Andr and Joanne is a genuine joy, she says, because they get along inside and outside of the office. When there is a conflict, they try to hash it out immediately. Usually each falls into a role, Luconda said with a laugh: One yells, one mediates and one just listens. They have an unspoken agreement to always discuss issues as a trio, so no one is the odd sister out. Sometimes they consult their fourth sister, Suzanne Frey, 39, who doesn't work for the company but has human-resources experience.

Andr said Luconda understands the responsibility she bears as the leader of the fourth generation of Velvet leaders. "Luconda's pretty determined," she said. "She doesn't like to fail, so she's one to definitely succeed in whatever she does."

The sisters want to continue the tradition of quality and worker loyalty that their ancestors fostered, Luconda said, but the company will be different under a trio of women. They're always looking to market the brand in new ways and develop new flavors to add to the 500 or so already in the "recipe vault." (Luconda's favorite: Chocolate Lovers Trio.)

Luconda thinks she and her sisters are more approachable and a little less "old-school" than the men that came before. She tells her workers she has an open-door policy. She asks them how the company can save money or run more efficiently. "I get personal with them," she said. "I say, 'How's the family? How's your wife? How are the kids?' Sometimes I know them by name because of their longevity."

Seventy-four percent of Velvet's employees have been working there at least 10 years; many have worked much longer. It's those workers, and their families, that motivate Luconda to succeed. And every day when she comes into the office, she sees images of her great-grandfather and grandfather on the lobby wall. Below those is a framed photograph of Luconda's daughter Lauren and her cousins-the fifth generation-snacking on cones.

"I feel really blessed," Luconda said. "I, at 40 years of age, have a wonderful husband and daughter. I get to work with my mom and dad every day, and my sisters. I have this extended Velvet family."

And every day, she still gets to eat a little bit of ice cream. It's a quality-control measure, after all.