Looking outside

When Bertha Jenkins applied for a job in Liniform Service’s uniform make-up department in 1971, it’s safe to say the 21-year-old wasn’t gunning for the president’s office. But over the years, she worked her way up the proverbial ladder at the Barberton-based uniform/linen sales and rental concern, graduating from mending torn aprons and linens to the position of production manager, then general manager.

By the time Pat Shultz was hired as a part-time office/production worker in 1980, Jenkins had been appointed vice president. Shultz would follow in her footsteps, moving from doing the billing and ironing linens to managing the office and, eventually, becoming vice president when Jenkins assumed the title of president. Today, Jenkins is in charge of production, maintenance and purchasing, while Shultz oversees sales, service and finance.

”Any time you would ask them to do something, they would do it,” remembers Ed Good, Liniform’s 80-year-old chairman of the board, during a conference call. ”In the beginning, it was pretty basic stuff.”

As the years went by, Jenkins and Shultz kept shouldering more and more responsibility until, as Good puts it, ”they had it all.”

”Liniform was a pretty small company and didn’t have a lot of levels,” Shultz interjects. ”Ed always believed that people had to do a job. They didn’t necessarily go by a title.”

The recounting of these women’s careers could be regarded as just another hard-work-pays-off American success story if it weren’t for one major twist — they hold the top two positions in a company owned by a family neither calls their own. Good has four children who own stock in the company and sit on its seven-member board of directors, where they actively participate in developing strategic plans, making decisions regarding major purchases, etc.

The arrangement, according to Jenkins and Shultz, offers one distinct advantage over management made up entirely of family members: It isn’t encumbered by the emotional baggage so many of them bring to work. Both women point out, for example, that they were promoted to their positions strictly on their individual merits and can be fired if they stop performing on the job. At some family-run companies, Shultz says, people ”slide into” top positions simply because they’re related to the boss, not because they’re qualified.

Getting rid of them, she adds, is almost impossible because of the relationships involved.

It’s pretty hard to separate family from business,” Good admits. ”In our case, the family and the business are separated.”

Until Shultz was named president, the day-to-day operations of Liniform had been handled by a family member, first by Good’s father and uncle, who started the business in 1924 as a residential laundry, then by Good himself. The laundry expanded into dry cleaning and in 1971 began renting towels in an effort to replace the sagging laundry business.

Today the company, which employs 48, provides tablecloths, napkins, dish towels, bar towels and aprons to the hospitality industry and sheets, patient gowns and doctor’s coats to medical facilities. As the business grew, Good started to think about who would succeed him.

”You see people turn over their business when they retire, and the whole thing falls apart,” he says.Although his kids had sampled all facets of the business by holding summer jobs throughout high school and college, they ultimately chose different career paths — three are teachers and one works for a publishing company.

Fortunately, Good had never let the idea of his children taking over the business keep him from developing and promoting executive stock. As a result, Jenkins and Shultz were waiting in the wings.

”It’s rare that you find a person who really comes in and is part of the business, who looks at it as their own,” Good says. ”Those people can manage it.” Shultz says she and Jenkins have had few disagreements with the board over the years. ”They do trust us, and our hearts are all in the right place for what we want, which is really what’s best for Liniform in the long term,” Shultz says.

Indeed, the company grew by 12 percent last year — prosperity few boards would argue with. That doesn’t mean, however, that there haven’t been concerns. The first arose when Jenkins and Shultz received shares of stock equal to what Good’s children owned — a situation both women feared would upset the children and, in turn, disrupt solid working relationships.

”Bertha and I had a problem with that because we felt like Ed was giving away their inheritance,” Shultz explains. ”But (the kids) felt that their inheritance was worth more in the future with us being part of it.”

A formula for calculating the company’s worth as well as a payment plan is in place should Jenkins, Shultz or anyone else decide they want to sell their shares. That information was shared with the children of shareholders at a family meeting this past summer. Shultz admits the board has yet to develop a training program should those children — either Jenkins’ and Shultz’ kids or Good’s grandchildren — show an interest in working for the company. A few have worked at Liniform during the summer, but their names alone don’t guarantee a place in the executive offices.

”We have some managers … we’re trying to develop to run this business,” Shultz says. ”We’re trying to do exactly what Ed did,” Jenkins adds. ”We’re always looking for that individual or individuals who can fill our shoes.”

How to reach: Liniform Service, (330) 825-6911