About Jelmar

Since Jelmar got its start more than 50 years ago, the Illinois-based company has helped solve some of the toughest household cleaning problems. With Jelmar’s broad range of Greenvenient™ products, it’s simple to care for your home, your family and the environment—all at the same time.

Jelmar has always been a family business, and current president Alison Gutterman is the third generation—and the first woman—to lead the company. Alison’s commitment to simplifying her customers’ lives is evident in her investment in research into what consumers look for in their cleaning products. Much of the company’s recent success can be attributed to Alison’s efforts to expand product development while building Jelmar’s brand.

Through a partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency in their Safer Choice Program as well as other strategic alliances, Jelmar has created innovative, environmentally friendly reformulations of new and existing products that have been well received by consumers. Additionally, since assuming a leadership role, Alison has spearheaded Jelmar’s certification as woman-owned business, enabling the company’s continued growth and supporting women and families everywhere.


Why “Women Owned” Matters

woman_owned_lgFor decades, Jelmar’s been known as the company that can help you with just about any household cleaning need—whether it’s shower head lime deposits, barbecue grill grease, or even that funky-smelling mystery stain on your living room carpet. (Don’t worry, we don’t judge.)


But as amazing as Jelmar cleaning products are, it isn’t just what’s in our bottles that matters, but also what’s on them—like the Women Owned logo.


So what does that little symbol mean, exactly? Jelmar’s president is the third generation in her family to lead the business—and the first woman. We wanted to celebrate that milestone in our history by becoming certified as a Women’s Business Enterprise. That meant an in-depth review of the business and a site inspection to confirm that we’re at least 51 percent owned, operated and controlled by a woman. It’s quite a meticulous process.


But that raises the question: why go through so much just to get certified? Why does it matter?


Part of the answer is that we know it’s important to you, our customers. While we value all our customers and know that both men and women buy and use our products, research shows that in many American households, women are increasingly making many of the everyday purchase decisions. And, oftentimes, these influential women consumers naturally trust women-owned businesses.


But there’s an irony to the fact that despite women’s power as consumers, they still have so little representation as board members, CEOs, and other positions of power at the companies that make the products they buy. In fact, today only 31 percent of all privately held firms are women-owned. In the cleaning products industry, Jelmar’s president is unique as a woman business leader, so our pride in her accomplishment comes with some frustration that there’s still so much work to be done to elevate women in business.


The Women Owned logo is a step in the right direction. This recognizable symbol makes it easy for consumers to identify products from the women-owned businesses they want to support.


While we think that’s pretty exciting, we do occasionally hear the argument that if we want to promote equality, women-owned businesses shouldn’t be singled out. But think of it this way: women-owned businesses are growing at one and a half times the U.S. national average, and they contribute over 1.5 trillion dollars to our economy. Plus, women-owned businesses employ workers around the world at every stage of the production process, enabling women’s economic mobility on a global scale.


In other words, support women-owned businesses, and you’re supporting families everywhere.


So that little symbol on our products tells a big story. And while we’ll never lose our passion for making great cleaning products, we also hope our success will inspire up-and-coming women entrepreneurs to pursue their passions—and turn them into thriving businesses.


Why I love being part of a family business

alison_sun_times_photoWhy do the vast majority of Americans end up breaking their New Year’s resolutions? Well, if you ask me, anything you have to resolve to do is probably a pretty uninspiring task to begin with—not to mention difficult to keep up until December (or, let’s face it, February).


So instead of dwelling on the negative things I’d like to change about myself, I try to think about the positive things that motivate me to have a happy, productive year. And for me, being part of a third-generation family business ranks near the top of the list. I’ve written before about the challenges facing family businesses, but I’d say it’s time I talked about some of their many unique benefits.


Of course, family businesses vary widely, with your traditional mom-and-pop shops on one end of the spectrum and mega corporations like Wal-Mart on the other (and companies like Jelmar somewhere in between). But based on my personal experience, I think the fact that Jelmar is family-owned has a lot to do with these advantages:


  • Supportive of women leaders: According to a recent report, women are increasingly being selected to lead family businesses for a variety of reasons. In my case, I had the opportunity to join the company early in my career, spending many years building my skill set and proving I could handle a leadership role. While I certainly believe my dad made me work harder than anyone else because I was family, I also think my being family afforded me a certain freedom from being judged based on gender—so my work could stand on its own.


  • Social responsibility: Studies on family businesses show that when the business is passed down to the next generation, there’s a tendency not only to transfer wealth, but also the values surrounding it—such as philanthropy. This is definitely true at Jelmar, where family values and business values have always overlapped. My dad taught our family that anyone who has the means to help others has the responsibility to do so; likewise, Jelmar has a long history of charitable giving.


  • Shared sense of purpose: The idea of finding your purpose as a business sounds fundamental, but it’s tricky to maintain that sort of vision if your day-to-day concerns are meeting quarterly estimates and satisfying stockholders. Like any business, Jelmar invests in growth and development, but the luxury of being a decades-old family business is that making the numbers doesn’t need to be our only concern. So we’re free to focus on our shared purpose: creating great products that make people’s lives easier while helping the environment.


While I don’t think these characteristics are by any means exclusive to Jelmar or to family businesses, I do believe that Jelmar’s generational succession has helped maintain the continuity of our core values and beliefs (and I suspect that many other family businesses benefit in similar ways). My own kids are still too young to decide whether they’ll be involved in the business, so I don’t know what the future holds. But I do know that our three generations of family leadership are part of what make me so proud of Jelmar’s past—and excited for its future.


Reflections on 2016 and a look ahead


We all have different feelings about the holiday season. Depending on your perspective, it can either be a treasured opportunity to spend time with family or a stressful month and a half of frantic cooking, cleaning and shopping—or even both at the same time!


But wherever you stand on the holiday love/hate continuum, one thing we all have in common is that this time of year tends to inspire at least a little reflection. Did I meet my fitness goals this year? Was I a better parent? Did I advance my career? Self-assessment is only natural at the end of a year, so I’m guessing these sorts of thoughts are pretty universal right about now.


And while I notoriously never make new year’s resolutions (because trying to force your life to go exactly right just never quite seems to work), I’m incredibly proud of the Jelmar team and its accomplishments. In the past year, I’ve used this blog as an opportunity to share some of my favorite experiences at Jelmar, from connecting with customers through our rebranding, to celebrating our “greenvenient” product line, to our proud history as a third-generation family business.


Admittedly, one calendar year—12 months—is a pretty arbitrary time frame in the grand scheme of our lives if you really think about it. But these self-imposed beginnings and endings serve as both the yardstick by which we measure our progress and the motivation for our future growth. Because the best thing about an ending, of course, is that it enables us to begin again.


So before this year comes to a end, I’d like to take a moment to look ahead to 2017. We’ll continue sharing stories on issues that matter to Jelmar—such as caring for our environment, empowering family businesses, and encouraging more women and girls to seek out leadership roles. You’ll hear from a broader range of voices and perspectives than ever before, and you’ll get to know even more about what makes Jelmar truly unique. It’s going to be an exciting year.


Happy holidays from the Jelmar family, and we’ll see you in January 2017!


4 key lessons women in business can learn from the presidential election

EPA-1770Political views aside, I think it’d be pretty tough to find a woman in business who can’t relate on some level to the gender dynamics of this election.


Just think about it: one of the most grueling, bitter, divisive presidential races in our collective memory also happens to be the first in which a major political party has nominated a woman for president. I’m pretty sure that’s no coincidence.


And if that woman wins next week, her monumental accomplishment will feel, in a sense, bittersweet. On the one hand, the rocky path to victory will underscore the enormity of the achievement. On the other hand, as many women who have succeeded in male-dominated fields know, gender bias—both overt and subtle—can be a career-long challenge that doesn’t end just because you’ve achieved success.


It’s the men who rudely interrupt you when you’re trying to speak your mind. The ones who dismiss your ideas because of the way you look and suggest that maybe you’d rather be out shopping. The ones who embarrass you in professional settings with demeaning, inherently gendered nicknames like “sweetheart” and “little lady” (and, yes, “nasty woman”).


Of course, lots of men are wonderfully supportive of ambitious women. But some seem to refuse to believe that a woman can compete on their level, despite evidence to the contrary—whether that’s a major party’s nomination for President of the United States or a promotion to president of a company.


But I learned not to let that stop me from pursuing my goals, and based on my own experiences, I’d like to share some advice for other ambitious women in business.


  1. Be the smartest person in the room: When I was working my way up the ranks at Jelmar, I learned early on that a surefire way to prove my value and be taken seriously by men was by knowing more than anyone else. When I had to prepare presentations, I studied excessively and pulled all-nighters. I worked harder than just about anyone else and it showed—and, over time, I earned my male colleagues’ respect instead of their judgment. Most importantly, I also made a habit of taking classes and doing outside research, then bringing that knowledge back into the company. That made me the invaluable, in-demand expert.


  1. Develop your presence: Presence is less about how you look and more about the confidence you project. In my experience, many women sometimes seem uncomfortable looking someone in the eye and giving them a firm handshake, but these are fundamental business skills that women must cultivate to be taken seriously in a male-dominated environment. If anything, we need to be even more polished, poised and reserved than men because we’re often judged more harshly. I’ve been criticized for the smallest, craziest things—and it’s an unfortunate double standard—but it’s especially important for women to have a thick skin.


  1. Stand up for your ideas: It certainly takes a great deal of strength to stand up for what you believe in—especially in a male-dominated environment in which a woman may feel unfairly judged. But it takes even more strength to change your mind. As in politics, business leaders are often expected to make a decision and stick with it. But if new information arises that invalidates that choice, doesn’t it become cowardly—even foolish—to stubbornly stand by it anyway? If you find yourself in a situation in which you believe a change of course is called for, don’t be afraid to argue for what you believe.


  1. Don’t leave other women behind: It’s imperative that women who have achieved success support other women who are working toward similar goals. My industry is only just beginning to become more inclusive of underrepresented groups, so I consider it my obligation to help give more women the opportunity to contribute their unique perspectives and opinions. In addition to sponsoring women within my own company, I work with outside groups as a mentor to help young girls develop skills that will help them succeed in business later on. These mentorship opportunities are incredibly rewarding and available to women in business at any experience level.


Over the course of my career, I’ve been pleased to watch old gender biases break down, opening up more doors for women. But in many industries, as in politics, there’s still a long way to go. And as I think about the many hurdles I’ve faced throughout my 20-plus years in business, I’m struck by how often an offensive comment or sexist business practice actually inspired me to work even harder to succeed.


In the same way that “nasty woman” was quickly reclaimed by countless women and turned into an empowering show of strength and defiance, being a woman in business often requires finding ways to turn negative experiences into positive motivation. I’ve done it my whole career—and you can too.


Why We Need to Rediscover the Lost Art of Selling

dadAs a family business leader, I’ve been lucky enough to inherit decades’ worth of business knowledge from my father and grandfather. And if I had to pick which of those early lessons was the most formative, the first time I accompanied my dad on a sales call would be at the top of the list.


Back then, rather than an email or phone conversation, “sales call” usually meant a genuine, in-person visit. This one was pretty typical, including hours of travel, a lengthy lunch with our local representative, a candid and in-depth discussion about our retailer’s business, and a good, old-fashioned sales pitch about how Jelmar products could help the retailer meet his business goals.


My dad, I realized, was sort of a performer. He’d always had a tendency to mumble when he spoke, which I’d always believed was just a quirky habit. But now it seemed like a brilliant bit of added intrigue that encouraged buyers like this one to lean in, listen a little more closely, and let themselves be persuaded. Anyway, it was impossible to know for sure, and maybe that was the point.


In other words, my dad’s physical presence—his unrushed face time with our retailers—was an indispensible part of his work.


And, yes, there were numbers. Like any good salesperson, my dad had the data to back up his claims. But in his day, selling was so much more than that. It was about giving the data context and meaning, enhancing numbers with added color. A skilled salesperson, I learned, knew how to build relationships, becoming a trusted problem-solver whom retailers could rely on to help build their businesses.


Selling, then, was less of a science then an art. And nowadays, it’s rapidly becoming a lost art.


Too often, today’s “sales call” is more of a data dump than an opportunity to build relationships. Salespeople may have 15 minutes to review sales from the past year and sell new products. There’s little or no time to add context to the numbers, let alone build any sort of personal rapport with the buyers. And the final decision may not be made by the buyer we meet in person, but by a corporate team that makes choices based solely on data.


There’s a big problem with that: numbers can lie. For example, it’s far more common than you’d think for a severe snowstorm to decrease sales or for an in-store promotion to boost them significantly. Without a knowledgeable salesperson to provide explanations for these anomalies, it becomes far too easy for decisions to be made without understanding the context. Face-to-face, relationship-based sales, in other words, benefits both the salesperson and the retailer.


And yet, it seems that many business leaders and top salespeople don’t see any problem with a data-driven approach to sales. For example, I came across an article in Forbes that advises salespeople to “sell remotely,” celebrating the fact that technology has made “the traditional face-to-face sales process a thing of the past.” It certainly has, but the author seems to have very different feelings about it than I do.


Of course, technology provides businesses with new levels of efficiency and freedom that I’d never want to give up. But I also believe that if we let the pendulum swing too far in that direction, we can actually end up inhibiting communication. In a world in which email makes it all too easy to lose the complexity and nuance of real-time, face-to-face conversation, an in-person meeting can go a long way.


Another argument for reviving the lost art of selling? It isn’t just about business. It’s also about selling yourself. Due to the prevalence of technology, opportunities to make an impression—to develop a strong presence—are increasingly rare. And yet, as long as there are in-person job interviews, they’ll be no less important.


So when it comes to my two young kids, I’ll continue encouraging them to develop their skills in science and technology. But the same goes for art: the art of shaking someone’s hand, looking him or her in the eye, and telling a compelling, persuasive story.