Alison Gutterman is president of Jelmar, LLC.  She is very proud of the company and the products that carry the CLR brand.  Alison is dedicated to bringing the Jelmar quality to an ever-increasing audience.  It is not just the family business, it is truly a part of Alison Gutterman. more>>


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.


The Unexpected Challenge of Generational Succession

GenerationalIf you’re a family business leader like I am, there’s a good chance this statistic will resonate with you: only about a third of family businesses successfully make the transition to the second generation.


Sure, that seems pretty low. But there are all sorts of things that can make it challenging—or, in many cases, downright impossible—to pass down a family business. A younger generation might want to make drastic changes that cause conflict. Or, after growing up around the family business, your kids might just want to branch out.


But take it from me, when you try to pass down a family business to a third generation (like my dad did), things can get even more complicated.


How do I know? Well, let me tell you a story.


I’d worked for my dad at Jelmar for several years, building my career, working my way up the ranks, and gaining valuable knowledge from all my Jelmar colleagues. As they know, the happiness of those years was accompanied by sadness, as my mom suffered a long illness that finally took her from us a few years ago.


Near the end, my mom urged my dad to step back from the company and let me lead. I was ready, she told him. It was time. So my dad had to let go of someone he loved, while also letting go of the company he’d spent his whole career nurturing (after watching his dad do the same.)


In a way, my mom asking my dad to let go—and his promise to her that he would—was their way of unburdening one another. It couldn’t have been easy for him, but handing over the company to me became my dad’s way of honoring my mom’s memory.


At most companies, the board would’ve just voted on it.


So it’s easy to see the ways in which family businesses can complicate things, turning what could be objective, rational situations into subjective, emotional ones.


Plus, families are a lot more complex than they used to be. A few generations ago, for example, a business probably wouldn’t have been handed over to a daughter. And with many parents postponing having children until later in life, it’s increasingly common for family businesses to require interim management to bridge the gap between parents’ retirement and children’s coming of age. And that, of course, brings new concerns about whether the non-family manager will maintain the family’s traditions and standards.


That probably means today’s family businesses face more hurdles than ever before—so there’s a good chance that they’re even more emotionally fraught.


What’s a family business leader to do? In my opinion, it’s important to recognize that some of the challenges family businesses face are broader, cultural challenges that reach far beyond the business. I’m a great example of what’s been termed the “sandwich generation”—people who have responsibilities to both young children and older parents, usually on top of a demanding career. If that sounds like you, I guarantee that the society in which you live is primarily to blame, not your leadership skills!


And sure, you have to have a certain kind of outlook to deal with the ups and downs that come from working with family. Watching your promotion at work become inextricably tied to one of your most profoundly emotional family memories isn’t for everyone.


But in my case, the dialogue between my parents that resulted from my role in the family business imbued that difficult time with even greater meaning. In the end, it provided a sort of catharsis for all of us, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.