Tim and Richard Smucker can’t remember a time when they weren’t involved in the family business of making jams and jellies.
The J.M. Smucker Co. was a frequent topic of conversation at breakfast and dinner while the brothers, great-grandsons of founder Jerome Monroe Smucker, were growing up in the farming community of Orville during the 1950s. On Saturday mornings, they accompanied their father, Paul, to the company offices, where they played with the adding machines while he worked.
When the boys were old enough to hold summer jobs, they went to work for real, loading trucks in the warehouse, cleaning kettles and discarded jars, doing whatever needed doing.
“It was pretty much the Ozzie and Harriet scene, middle class America in a small town,” recalls Richard. “In our case, there really wasn’t any pressure. It was just kind of a natural thing to do. We really never gave it much of a second thought.”
A lot has changed since that simple time. The J.M. Smucker Co. has grown into an international concern that posted gross sales of approximately $650 million last year. Tim and Richard, both now in their 50s, have business cards emblazoned with the respective titles of chairman/co-CEO and president/co-CEO.
And the equipment in the plants has been replaced with high-tech computerized counterparts that are serviced by mechanics carrying chip boards instead of tool belts.
But the values and principles of Jerome Monroe Smucker, a devout Mennonite of Swiss-German extraction, still guide corporate strategy and direction.
“He basically felt that, ‘Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap‘ — that’s a quotation from Galatians,” Tim says of his great-grandfather.
Although old-fashioned by some standards, Tim and Richard say those “Basic Beliefs” concerning quality, people, ethics, growth and independence, are responsible for the success that has made Smucker’s a staple on so many breakfast tables.
Indeed, the “Basic Beliefs” upon which The J.M. Smucker Co. was founded are so strong that when it comes to hiring people, company managers put more emphasis on the stuff of which a prospective employee is made than on his or her resume.
“When we interview people, we can always find somebody who has the technical skills of a marketing person or an engineer or an accountant,” Tim explains. “But we’re really more interested in the person. What are they interested in? What do they do outside of the workplace? How do they contribute to their communities? What are their values and where are they from?
“It comes out very, very quickly, what kind of values people have. We don’t have the corner on values, but we want someone who really understands, in a very simple way, that you want to treat people the way you want to be treated.”
“You really can’t instill values in people once they get here,” Richard adds. “You have to hire people with the values that you want.”
Both Richard and Tim confirm that the business puts its money where its mouth is, so to speak, by giving employees time off from work to participate in their charity of choice on a case-by-case basis.
“People will say, ‘I need to leave at 3 o’clock and go teach a (Junior Achievement) class,’ and nobody bats an eye around here because that’s the right thing to do,” Richard says.
The company also spends a lot of time and money on reinforcing those values and principles through communication. Richard says an orientation program introduces new hires to the history and “Basic Beliefs” of The J.M. Smucker Co.
And twice a year, either Tim or Richard visits each plant — 14 in the United States, one in Canada, one in Australia, one in Brazil and one in Scotland — to update employees on corporate developments, listen to their ideas and address their questions and concerns.
“Sometimes it’s in a warehouse, sometimes it’s in a meeting room, yesterday it was in a hallway between our lunch break room and our plant offices,” Tim says of the get-together locations. “It just depends where the space is.”
The concept of quality is applied to everything from hiring employees to making and marketing a product. Richard and Tim both stress the importance of striving to improve quality in some small way every day.
“Quality really comes in small increments,” Richard says. “Over time, that builds the reputation.”
He gives the example of Smucker’s Simply Fruit, a line of all-fruit spreads sweetened with apple or white grape juice. Executives were never satisfied with the products’ color and flavor, which deteriorated much more quickly on the shelf than those sweetened with sugar. Employees in the research and development department continued to tinker with the recipe, changing it a dozen times.
“Each one was an incremental improvement,” Richard says. “We found something small that maybe made the shelf life and the flavor last an extra two weeks.”
As a result, Simply Fruit’s shelf life has been extended from approximately six months to more than a year.
Tim points to the vertical integration begun by his father in 1940 that now allows the company to control the fruit used in its products from the field or orchard to the supermarket shelf — an endeavor that took more than three decades to accomplish. Smucker’s personnel has worked with generations of growers to help them develop horticultural practices that produce the best peach, apple or strawberry possible.
The fruit is then cleaned, sliced, diced and frozen at one of Smucker’s own processing plants within hours of picking.
“I’ve taken other companies that make jams and jellies through our facility before, and they’re amazed at the lengths to which we go to make our products,” Richard says.
That vertical integration and expertise have resulted in growth through the development of new markets. Smucker’s now sells fruit fillings to Kellogg’s for its Pop Tarts, to Dannon for its yogurts, to Breyer’s and Edy’s for their ice creams, and to Entemann’s for its baked goods.
“Some of the products are simple to make, some are much more complex,” Tim says. “Those are all developed with a different formula or process technique.”
And the company continues to come up with new products of its own. One of the latest is Uncrustables, a frozen peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich with the bread crusts cut off, that is being touted to school districts and restaurants. Tim explains the product’s simple appeal: “Kids don’t like crusts.”
The company has also invested in the growth of its employees by offering tuition reimbursement and by developing a series of in-house training programs. Some are for managers only. Others, such as courses on decision-making and ethics, are attended by all employees.
Tim says one program, “Commitment to Each Other,” is based on a letter written by his late father that listed four ways he implemented the company’s “Basic Beliefs” in his daily life: Thanking somebody for a job well done; listening to someone with full attention; looking for the good in others; and maintaining a sense of humor.
“Obviously, we don’t reinvent the wheel,” Richard says. “But (our trainers and personnel department) have gone out and picked what we call the best of the best in terms of programs, then adapted them for our unique experience here at Smucker’s.”
Although The J.M. Smucker Co. went on the over-the-counter market in 1959 and the New York Stock Exchange in 1965, voting control of the stock has remained in the family, providing it with the independence needed to chart the company’s future. (The brothers alone own a combined 22.2 percent of stock.) That spirit of independence is shared by a strong outside board of directors that the brothers credit with contributing greatly to the company’s success.
“If they’re independent, they truly tell you when they think you’re going astray,” Richard says. “I think that’s very healthy. You have to have a good self-image to be able to take that constructive criticism, but you usually won’t get it unless the board is independent.”
Tim admits that he and his brother could have conceivably sold their stakes in the company long ago. But he believes that maintaining family control is what will keep the company a continuing success.
“If we were to sell to somebody else, I don’t know that those values … ,” his voice trails off. “Some of them would certainly carry on because the people are still here.
“But we still think that being an independent company makes those values more important.” How to reach: The J.M. Smucker Co., (330) 682-3000 or www.smucker.com
Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN Magazine.