Many manufacturers hide behind fancy advertising and glitzy packages, but two small companies with a combined history of 169 years face their customers every day by putting a family member’s portrait on the label.
For more than 100 years, the bespectacled face of Mrs. Stewart--the company founder’s mother-in-law--has graced the label of Mrs. Stewart’s Liquid Bluing, a laundry brightener now made by the Ken Norman family.
And a portrait of a young Agnes Balian decorates the label of the ice cream and other frozen desserts produced by 62 year-old Balian Ice Cream Co.
Although the Normans and the Balians make totally different things, both adhere to a formula for success.
* They produce a limited number of products.
* They put a family member in charge of the manufacturing process.
* They apportion tasks to exploit each family member’s experience and individual strengths.
* They work long hours and support one another’s efforts.
“At the core of successful family businesses are shared values about people, work and money,” said David Bork, founder of the Bork Institute for Family Business in Aspen, Colo. “You’ve got to be a healthy family before you can become a healthy family business.”
Bork, who has counseled hundreds of family business owners over the last 20 years, said: “If you don’t respect your relatives, you shouldn’t be in business with them.”
John Balian, son of Balian Ice Cream founder Jack Balian, believes the company’s longevity is due to intense family involvement and focus on making the best ice cream possible.
Balian Ice Cream has found a niche for its products, selling them mostly to school districts and grocery stores in Southern and Central California. During the summer, they ship truckloads of giant frozen pops to New York, but the rest of the year, they concentrate on serving hungry schoolchildren.
“I think there is better control over things when a family member oversees production,” said John Balian, the production supervisor and “flavor man.”
Balian said his job is to see that the ice cream gets made right with a minimum of waste.
“Every gallon we throw down the drain is money out of our pockets,” said Balian, who recently won first place for his ice cream at the Los Angeles County Fair.
Most days, he arrives at the plant around 4 a.m. A few hours later, the rest of the clan arrives. Uncles Alexander and George are responsible for selling the ice cream. Uncle Fred makes sure the equipment is running smoothly. Aunt Agnes supervises the office. Six cousins also work for the company.
When Jack Balian died eight years ago, three of John’s brothers left the business to work elsewhere. John stayed on to work with his aunt and uncles because making ice cream is something he loves and has been doing since he was 14.
“Following in my father’s footsteps was really important to me,” said Balian. “I feel making ice cream is a good, wholesome thing to do.”
Halfway across the country, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you can find Ken, Betty and Brad Norman mixing up a fresh batch of Mrs. Stewart’s Liquid Bluing, which has been around since 1883. The nontoxic blue concoction was created by a peddler named Al Stewart who originally mixed it up in the basement of a store on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis.
Thousands of grandmothers and great-grandmothers swear that bluing beats any other kind of laundry brightener. Unlike bleach or other chemicals, bluing makes laundry appear whiter and brighter by putting tiny, light-reflecting blue particles between fabric fibers. Loyal customers also swear a few drops is the best way to brighten swimming pools and whiten bunnies and poodles.
“Nobody else wants the bluing business because it’s not that big,” said Ken Norman, who sells about 750,000 bottles of Mrs. Stewart’s a year. It retails for about $1.60 a bottle. “Bluing is used by the drop and one bottle will last for years,” he said.
Norman began working for the Ford family in 1955, after the Fords bought the business from the Stewarts. Through the years, Norman acquired a bigger interest, until he bought it all in 1984.
Like the Balians, the Normans divide up the work to suit their skills and interests. Ken Norman oversees production of the bluing. His wife Betty, a former teacher, runs the office. Son Bradley set up the computer system, which handles billing and accounting.
“We are willing to do the work ourselves,” said Ken Norman, who on production days, dons old pants and shoes dyed blue from many hours in the factory. Through the years, the Normans have introduced other products, including a cold water wash, but “we were bashing heads with Palmolive and just couldn’t do it.”
They do make one other product: a five-color dye kit for use by dermatologists, pathologists and researchers who work with human tissue. Together, the products bring in about $800,000 a year.
Although Mrs. Stewart died years ago, customers still send her about 1,000 letters a month seeking advice on laundry and other domestic matters. Part of Betty Norman’s job is answering those letters and sending back a 16-page “Home Washing Guide.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY Dennis Jaffe, author of “Working With the Ones You Love,” (Conari Press, $19.95), has five tips for successfully bringing new family members into your business. Jaffe, co-founder of the HeartWork Group in San Francisco, counsels business owners around the country.
* Set clear expectations about what the person will do. Don’t assume anything.
* Base salary on service to the business and make it comparable to other employees doing the same work.
* If possible, heirs should be supervised by a non-family member who can become a mentor.
* The new person should be responsible for certain area of the business and performance should be regularly reviewed.
* Give siblings different areas of focus and rotate them into different areas so they can learn all aspects of the business.