I’ve Lived for Half a Century — Here’s My Take on How to Run a Business

When you’re a 17-year-old in high school, half a century seems like an eternity.

When you’re an adult celebrating your 50th birthday while leading a 50-year-old company, the number takes on a whole different meaning. More than anything else, it causes you to reflect on what you did with the five decades that seemed to fly by — not to mention search for what you’ve learned along the way.

After a little reflection, I can say with assurance that every ounce of who I am today personally and professionally came straight from the arms of perseverance, observation, and risk-taking. And it didn’t hurt that I embraced good fortune, even when it was disguised as dead-end work.

Who Says the Route to the Top Isn’t Zigzagged?

When I graduated from college in 1991, the country was in a recession. Within six weeks, my father came home holding an application to a local clothing store. Why? He wanted me to look for a job while I was looking for a career.

After landing the job, I tackled the “Wild West” atmosphere of selling women’s clothing in the northern Chicago suburbs. Certainly, that job was supremely taxing, but it brought out the best in anyone who wanted to thrive in business. Yet when I asked to be considered for the sales trainee program, I was denied.

It was time to move on.

What I didn’t predict was that “moving on” meant working for the family company. One morning over a bagel and cream cheese, my father told me he wanted me to join Jelmar. Seeing it as a steppingstone and not necessarily my endgame, I said, “Yes,” and soon moved into a role that had no title, no job description, and no consistent rhythm.

Eventually, I undertook the role of sales manager and mentored a team of professional men twice my age. In 2007, I found myself sitting in the president’s chair as my father stepped further and further away from the business.

And there I was.

And here I am.

Yes, There’s a Deeper Meaning to Everything

Ups and downs. Ins and outs. They’ve all brought me to this unique crossroads. We can only be successful if we’re willing to change, embrace technology, and keep asking, “Why?”

These aren’t existential questions, really, because they all have answers. In terms of Jelmar, the answers are obvious: The brand has stood the test of time, and we’re seen as a dependable, trustworthy partner. In an environment where 90 percent of businesses that are family-owned fail by generation three (my generation), Jelmar clearly stands out.

I am continuing to change the way we operate without losing the integrity built by my father and grandfather. We’re leaning on the opportunities presented by big data to make wiser marketing and sales decisions and hiring people who bring diversity of thought to the table.

At the same time, I’m thrilled to share a 50,000-foot look at the personal and business insights I’ve gathered throughout my life journey thus far:

1. Promote workplace flexibility.

It’s physically impossible to be in two places at one time. But with the advancement of technology, there are so many ways parents and caregivers can still play an active role in our children’s or loved ones’ lives while we are “road warriors.”

For me, being able to video chat with my children from across the globe is a luxury my father never had. When I was growing up, we had to make sure we were at home to talk to him before bed, and he had to make sure he was near a pay phone or in his hotel room to make a call home. Today, as employees have the ability to have connectivity outside of the office, it is much easier than in my grandfather’s or father’s day to allow employees to work from remote locations.

2. Surround yourself with smarter people.

Just because you’re a leader doesn’t mean you’re all-knowing; there’s plenty you can learn but don’t necessarily have the time to study. Do yourself a big favor and find a circle of people who can bolster you in areas where you’re not very strong or clear. Chances are good that you’ll repay them similarly by sharing know-how you possess and they don’t. You’re not showing weakness by asking for mentorship or critiques; you’re showing strength.

3. Overcommunicate for maximum efficiency.

Even if your team is small, practice the art of overcommunication. Lay out everything as many times as it takes to ensure no one has any questions. As you become accustomed to overcommunicating, fewer tasks will be lost in translation, and your staff will run like the proverbial well-oiled machine.

4. Take advantage of your adaptability.

If you’re at the top of a small company, you and your teammates have the luxury of fewer hoops to jump through to make changes. Celebrate that fact by pivoting when necessary. You don’t have to make snap decisions — nor should you in the majority of cases — but stay open-minded to evolution where it makes sense.

Right now, I’m in the prime of my life, and I’ve lived through a lot. I’ve also tapped into strength and stamina I didn’t know I had, and it fosters my belief that any storm can be weathered with a smile. All you need is the right gear — and a few loved ones to help you eat a 50th birthday cake fit for royalty.

Alison Gutterman is the president and CEO of Jelmar, the family-owned cleaning products manufacturer of CLR and Tarn-X products. She began her career at Jelmar in 1993 without a title or a desk, and in 2007, she was named president, bringing the company unprecedented success with her modern approach and leadership techniques. She also balances work with parenthood as a single mother of two children, and she resides in the greater Chicago area.

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