For a CEO, there’s pretty much nothing scarier than contemplating a change to a successful product. If your company has spent decades building relationships with customers, understanding their needs, and reliably delivering products that have been trusted for generations—well, you probably don’t want to mess with that.
And yet, that’s exactly where I found myself about 10 years ago.
Yes, it was scary. But, in my opinion, it was also very necessary.
You see, I’d recently succeeded my dad as president and CEO of Jelmar, and I’d been doing a lot of thinking about how the company should evolve. And what was clear to me was that as much as people loved our products, we couldn’t really consider ourselves a success unless we found a way to make them safe for the environment.
Cleaning products that are environmentally friendly, but as effective as ever? Yep, sounds just about impossible. But we worked with an expert chemist, tested multiple formulas over many months, and eventually landed on some CLR® reformulations that we felt great about.
We knew the planet would thank us—but would our customers? We decided to introduce our new formulations quietly, replacing the products but making no changes to the packaging. All our hard work paid off when we got the outcome we’d been hoping for: sales continued to grow.
Since the early 2000s, we’ve worked closely with the EPA to make sure we meet their standards for environmentally friendly products, and CLR® packaging now bears a prominent EPA Safer Choice logo. Today, CLR® contains more than 85 percent natural ingredients, and we’ve been awarded Safer Choice Partner of the Year for three years in a row.
What seemed at one time to be a slightly crazy gamble has become one of the defining aspects of Jelmar products—one that’s been met with gratitude by both new and longstanding customers.
But I don’t mean to suggest that all of this was easy, because it certainly wasn’t. That’s why I want to share a few key insights that might help other business leaders who are looking for ways to improve the sustainability of their businesses:
- Embrace technology and science. I’m not gonna lie, I’m no expert in chemistry. But when we hired an experienced chemist to lead our green product reformulation, it opened up possibilities I never new existed. And sustainability isn’t just about products; there are so many ways technology can help make your business easier on the environment, and working with those in the know can be a game changer.
- Don’t compromise your values. Any green initiative you undertake for your business will likely involve a great deal of time and cost—especially if you’re overhauling processes or products with lots of tradition behind them. It’s important to remember why you’ve chosen to take these steps begin with; for me, it was simply that I believe caring for the environment is no longer a choice. As challenging as it was to implement more sustainable business practices, I knew it was a necessary evolution.
- Listen to your customers. As much as you might care about the environment, it’s only natural to worry about how your customers will react to changes—I certainly did! I recommend listening carefully to their needs, whether that’s on social media, in focus groups, or even by observing the way they interact with your products in a retail setting. If you focus on understanding and solving your customers’ problems, you’ll discover the best way to improve sustainability while keeping your customers happy.
- Be the leader you are. On the other hand, the fact is your customers won’t always make the right decisions about environmental issues. Maybe they’re busy, they’re on a budget, or they don’t have time to become as informed as they’d like about how they can help the planet. That’s where your role as a business leader becomes especially vital. Through your products, your marketing communications, and your everyday business decisions, you set the tone of our culture and shape the evolution of our society. If you want to see others take action to help the environment, you need to lead the way.
Jelmar’s green product reformulations began with one simple decision—that sustainability should be integrated into our day-to-day lives, not something we only think about once in awhile. Change is never easy, but if you’re like me, you also know it can be worth it.
People always ask me about which business leaders inspire me, and oftentimes they are looking for recommendations on the newest business book to buy. Truthfully, what inspires me most are the people and companies I have learned about in my travels and in the many business organizations I am lucky to participate in.
I thought a great idea for my blog for 2017 was to start sharing some of these stories and companies with you about once a quarter. Some may be companies or products that you have heard about; some, like this company, Innovative Office Solutions, from Eagan, Minnesota, you may never have heard about. Jennifer Smith and I had an opportunity to talk about being a woman-owned and led company, what makes her company’s vision unique, and what really inspires her about her company’s corporate culture. We hope you enjoy these interviews, which have been edited a bit for length.
Alison: Please tell us a little about your business.
Jennifer: We make workplaces more productive. We deliver products and solutions to offices all over the country. We service people from the boardroom to the breakroom to the bathroom. We do sell the obvious items that are in the office such as pens, paperclips and post-it notes, but it’s all about office productivity. For example, we have a solution that hooks up to your network, and when your toner gets low we just send you more. It’s not just a commodity product that we’re selling—we’re selling a solution along with it.
Alison: That’s interesting, so it sounds like it’s not just about the product but it’s about sort of that emotional aspect of it. Where you hate the idea of someone having to be frustrated, having their work and productivity inhibited because of a problem like that. Would that be accurate?
Jennifer: Yes! Absolutely. Our whole vision is to inspire people to love what they do and who they do it with. So, for example, we design collaborative workspaces for people that bring their brand to life and spark productivity.
Alison: I love that you mention that your vision is to inspire others to love what they do and who they do it with. How do you inspire people at Innovative? And how has this changed with the increase in telecommuting?
Jennifer: Our environment lends itself to inspiration. We have a very open and collaborative work space that encourages innovation. People understand their purpose and how their actions truly matter every day. This really has not changed with the increase in telecommuting, as each new location we open has the same core values and foundation associated with it. Each location does take on its own personality, though, which is fun to watch.
Alison: How did you decide to name your company Innovative Office Solutions versus “office supplies”?
Jennifer: Most of the companies in my industry had either “office supplies” or “office products” in their name. We purposefully knew we were much more than just an office supply or office product provider. We knew from the beginning that we would be a company that provided solutions to businesses to help them be more successful.
Alison: Did you ever find that you were not taken seriously or that you had to work extra hard to make your ideas a reality because people just didn’t understand?
Jennifer: There was a time 15, 16 years ago when people did not see that the paperless world was really coming. I knew that was going to come, because my kids weren’t printing off their homework assignments. But it was very hard to get others to believe this was actually a reality. It took a tremendous amount of energy to get people behind changing our business model due to the decline of paper.
Alison: Did you ever find that you had a more difficult time or had to work harder than your male counterparts because you’re a woman?
Jennifer: You know, this industry is very, very male dominated. I kind of grew up in that as well, so I never saw it as a hurdle, I saw it as a huge benefit, because it was a differentiator. My glass is always half full, though. You know, it’s never half empty. I had my purpose, I had my vision, and just plowed through it. There were probably some obstacles, and I just said, you know what? I’m going to pivot and go in a different direction. I never let it stifle me.
Alison: Were there specific events in your career that inspired you to take a leadership role?
Jennifer: Sports were a huge influence in my life. I was the team captain in track and that is when I knew I liked leading people. I grew up in that environment that encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be. That’s what I knew. Why couldn’t I be the leader? I never thought, oh, I bet you I can’t be. I always thought, well of course I’m going to be! Because that’s what I saw from both my mom and my dad.
I think it’s so important, for example, it’s great that you and I members of the Committee of 200, and their vision of “shared success.” One of our most successful programs in Minneapolis is when we took the programming down to the high school level for girls, to show girls what business women and business leaders look like. We had roughly 100 girls, and all but one never remotely thought of business as a choice because they’d never seen it.
Alison: I wasn’t able to go to that one, but because of the success of your program we held a similar program in Chicago with inner-city girls. We had the same result: not only did the girls never think about a career in business, but most of them never thought it was possible to even go to college. It was an inspiration for us as women leaders just as much as it was for the girls who attended. Hopefully our positive modeling and showing these girls that a woman can be anything goes a long way.
Jennifer: Absolutely. And I did, I grew up in an absolutely amazing family that said you could do anything. I mean, I played boys’ baseball until seventh grade. I just liked baseball. I didn’t see being a girl as a big hurdle, because my parents just encouraged me to sign up for whatever I wanted to do.
Alison: So in terms of inspiring more young women to pursue leadership roles in business, in addition to modeling that for them, are there any particular skills that you would encourage parents to help their daughters develop?
Jennifer: Well I think it’s great if you are involved with helping them pick some of the correct classes and activities that could show their leadership. There are different classes and summer programs; there are different activities that you can encourage your kids to sign up for. Sports were a huge, huge thing for me growing up. You know, being part of a team and having that opportunity to maybe be a team captain. Different extra-curricular activities I think are really important if you’re a male or a female.
Alison: So just finding opportunities for them to be leaders in their lives?
Jennifer: Correct. And I think the Girl Scouts, for example, have a CEO Camp for girls. I mean, how great is that? I wish I would have had something like that, so if you can search for some of those opportunities for young girls, that would be advice that I would have for young parents.
Alison: As a leader at your company, I’m curious as to how you would describe your leadership style, and whether you think being a woman leader might make you either better or worse at certain aspects of leadership.
Jennifer: I definitely think that it does. I think being a woman leader, the creativity, flexibility and openness to try new things has been a huge part in the success of Innovative. I’d rather try something and fail than not try it at all.
Alison: Your company is known for having a unique, fun company culture and for being a great place to work, and we were curious if you could tell us more about the culture and what makes it special, and maybe what you do to cultivate it.
Jennifer: We have a very, very intentional culture here versus more of a dictatorial culture where there are tons of rules. So we don’t have a lot of management in this company, because of that very intentional culture. We hire to culture, we fire to culture, our interview questions are all based around our core values, and when you walk into our building, you can just feel it. We have a vibrant feel when you walk into the building with glass moveable walls and pops of color everywhere. We also have Inspiring words covering the walls. Each person who comes into our building also gets a culture book to take with them.
Alison: You have been named one of the best places to work in Minnesota for a few years in a row. How did your intentional, fun culture help you create a great place to work?
Jennifer: We have been honored to receive the best places to work award for six straight years. We feel very strongly that you have to love where you work and that translates into a better customer experience. We have a strong set of core values that people live by coupled with a strong vision, and that sets us up to have a great place to work. We also have a very strong care committee that puts on activities within the company and many opportunities for our employees to give back to charities and nonprofits in our community.
Alison: What are some of the comments your employees have made about working at Innovative?
Jennifer: We produce a fun culture book each year, so I will quote some of the employees from our book:
- “Our culture helps fuel the energy that makes me want to come to work” —Barb K.
- “I love to BE INVOLVED because it allows employees to not only be involved with the company events, but also offers a variety of volunteer opportunities throughout our community.” —Anonymous
- “When you’re smiling, everything seems to work out better.” —Maria R.
Alison: How has the use of the word “In” with the circle in your logo help to create your intentional culture? What does this logo mean to you, and how do you think it will help grow your company in the future?
Jennifer: Your brand is so much more than a logo or a slogan; it is who you are. We use the In Circle for many things. For instance, with new prospects it is an easy question to ask, “are you IN,” for employees you are “all IN,” and if someone wants to be involved they “get IN.” It is a fun but professional image that we love to show off.
Alison: Another unique aspect of your culture is your use of employees in your catalogs and YouTube videos with themes to start out your yearly catalog. How did you come up with that idea?
Jennifer: Our employees are our company and they love to be “all in,” so about six years ago we started using our employees for all of our advertising and social media. When we started putting people on the cover of our catalogs, it just naturally transitioned into our theme for the year. So we pick a theme and transfer that throughout the year for our customers, vendors and employees.
Alison: You’re also certified as a woman-owned business. Tell us a little bit about why you went through that process and what it means to you.
Jennifer: Absolutely. Again, I think in all businesses you try to find what differentiates you. We are a woman-owned company, and it is a differentiator. It was a great group to join, because it allows you to network with not only other women-owned businesses to see how they’re being successful and how you can learn from them, but also with large corporations that have diversity champions.
Alison: This has been great. Thanks so much for your time and for sharing your inspirational story.
For 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 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.
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!