When Alison Gutterman’s grandfather first launched his company back in the 1940s, he had no idea that decades later, his granddaughter would be leading the family business through a global pandemic.
Back then, Manny Gutterman & Associates, Inc., was a national sales representative organization selling a variety of proprietary products to chain drug, variety, hardware, and department stores while also providing a reliable channel for close-out merchandise.
Now, over 50 years later, Alison Gutterman has helped grow that company, now known as Jelmar into an industry powerhouse with household and business cleaning products in every major retailer — from Amazon to Walmart — despite having just 22 employees. They’re not all just family members, either; for those interested in joining the business, Alison insists they finish college and/or work elsewhere and gain experience first.
Read on as Alison explains the secrets behind the family business’s success — and how she’s gone from being a self-described 25-year-old “punk” with no job title and no desk to the leader of a growing enterprise.
Outsourcing Is Key
Jelmar, which sells its products under the brand name CLRⓇ, has always run lean. Her grandfather relied on experts such as chemists to handle product manufacturing, all the while controlling the process internally of getting their products to market.
Today, Jelmar operates under that same outsourced model, even hiring external experts to handle things like advertising and public relations. These outside parties are able to bring in new information and ideas in a way that would not be possible if they only had internal team members, adds Alison.
At the same time, Jelmar hires internally for some roles when it makes sense to have in-house expertise, allowing for a hybrid process that enables Jelmar to stay agile while continuing to grow.
This model became even more relevant during the pandemic when everyone needed more cleaning supplies. “We had an opportunity to grow our employee base during COVID,” says Alison. Meanwhile, Jelmar’s partners have had a huge head-count increase due to Jelmar’s growth. It’s a true win-win.
Growing With the Times
Speaking of COVID, it also allowed for other areas of growth within Jelmar. During the pandemic, Jelmar’s manufacturers were running out of room in their warehouses, which led Alison and her team to look into opening warehouse space of their own. “We are experts at controlling distribution, so we decided a warehouse would give us more opportunities to pack our product in a different way,” adds Alison.
For example, selling on Amazon means packaging products differently — say, a package of two or four CLR products as opposed to just one — than they would when selling at Walmart.
They also hired an ecommerce expert to tap into this growing medium — along with a research and development lead with whom they can regularly interface and brainstorm ideas.
Combined, these new focuses have brought the employee headcount to 22. All the while, they continue to outsource wherever needed. For those considering a hybrid model like Jelmar uses, Alison says this: “You have to look at your organization and what you feel is best that you can keep an arm’s length away and stuff you really want to keep close to you.”
Her key takeaway? Maximize the things you do really well in-house, and rely on experts to handle the rest. This allows for steady growth with the flexibility to scale up or down as needed.
Marketing in Challenging Times
Marketing is so much more difficult than it was in her grandfather’s era, says Alison, when there were just a few different channels. “I could advertise in 10 different ways now,” she says, and it’s all a matter of finding out which consumers are actually buying her products and where.
“It’s a challenge because there are so many different ways to get to that consumer,” Alison says. “You have to be flexible, and you have to take a chance. The technology has moved far more quickly than the ability to understand the metrics behind it.”
Here, again, Alison relies on a hybrid model, using both traditional and digital mediums. The goal is to get to the people who actually like to clean and will buy CLR products, all while staying a step ahead of the competition. “Who knows, she adds, “I might be on TikTok one of these days.”
Toward that end, Alison remains open to learning from others and embracing new knowledge. “Be lifelong learners,” she advises. “I truly believe that there is so much knowledge you can learn from others, and not necessarily from another CEO. I can learn from people moving product in my warehouse.”
Ramon Ray is a small business expert, motivational keynote speaker and founder of SmartHustle.com. He’s a global speaker, best-selling author and works with tech brands to help them better reach small business owners.