Leadership Blog

How I Find the Balance Between Family Legacy and a Sound Business Decision


Six weeks after graduating college, my father presented me with a rare gift: an application for a women’s clothing store in a northern Chicago suburb.

The job turned out to be one of the most challenging of my career — dealing with the ins and outs of retail prepares a seriously motivated worker to excel. Despite the difficulties, I forged ahead. Within a year, I landed a lateral opportunity to work as a sales assistant for a television representation firm.

 I came in early. I stayed late. I finished jobs on time. I was the model employee. Yet when I asked to enter the sales trainee program, I was met with nothing but obstruction. That’s when my father asked me to join Jelmar over a bagel and cream cheese shortly before my 25th birthday. But it wasn't going to have all the trappings of a Hollywood-style role. I didn’t even have a title or a desk. However, I would get a paycheck and the chance to learn the ropes of the family business, so I accepted.

Never did I suspect on that day that I would become president of the company by 2007. But life has a way of surprising you. The key is to pay attention and take chances, never dwelling too long on the past — and that includes approaching leadership with fresh eyes that aren't blinded by history.

Leading Without the Burdens of Legacy

I’m the third-generation leader of Jelmar, something that only 10 percent of family-owned operations can boast. While I respect how my grandfather and father ran our business, I want the organization to be modern and high-tech. In other words, I think of the company as an entity that has reached adulthood and, as such, deserves to be treated differently.

For that reason, I’m a proponent of making sound business decisions that are not only fair and move the company forward, but that are also based on solid data and forward-thinking analysis. We have the information at our fingertips, so why not make the most of it to improve? At the end of the day, our vendors should feel like partners that are able to come up with solutions driven by solid facts and aligned principles.

That being said, we’re still a family business, and I’m a firm believer in approachability. Recently, we hired a new team member. Instead of simply shaking his hand and disappearing into meetings, I took a few hours out of my day to help him organize his office. The one-on-one time we spent allowed us to discuss Jelmar in depth as colleagues, not as CEO and employee.

Mastering Business Balance at the Third-Gen Level

Other leaders are in the same position I am, faced with the constant balancing act between honoring those who came before without allowing antiquated decisions to weigh down your productivity or revenue possibilities. Perhaps you’re one of them. If so, I have a bit of advice: Follow what’s right for your company today.

For instance, I attended a series of consumer focus groups not long ago. There, I listened to what people said, felt, and believed about Jelmar’s products. I’ll take what they said — the good and the bad — and use their input to make improvements for their current and future needs. I won’t simply say, “But we have to do things the way we’ve always done them!” because that’s a losing position.

My goal is to honor my family’s business legacy without emulating what is no longer relevant. Like a person, Jelmar should be given the chance to change and grow as it ages. As long as we hold firm to our core mission of making safe, sustainable choices for our people, our customers, and the environment, I’m happy to keep evolving for the betterment of all our stakeholders.