Earning a Seat at the Table, with Alison Gutterman
Episode 128: Earning a Seat at the Table, with Alison Gutterman
When Alison Gutterman, CEO of Jelmar, was growing up, she had no idea that she would one day become the CEO of her family’s business. On this episode, Alison joins us to talk about her experience working for her parent, the generational differences at work, and the emotional story of how she become the CEO. She also shares the values that shaped her leadership, her experiences as an undercover researcher, and the top lessons she has learned as a leader.
00:12 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace. With my co-host, Maricella Herrera. Hi Maricella.
00:21 Maricella Herrera: Hey, Kristy.
00:22 KW: So I have a question for you.
00:24 MH: I may or may not have an answer for you.
00:26 KW: Do you think you could spend your life at one company?
00:30 MH: My life? No.
00:31 KW: Well, your career.
00:33 MH: Well, my career [chuckle] Well yeah, I mean, I don't think you meant when I was five but.
00:34 KW: I mean, they're interchangeable these days. But, yes.
00:38 MH: My career at one company, I don't think so. But I do tend to stay long at companies. I've been at Ellevate for six years, and I was at my previous company for a few years. And that's really the two places I worked at.
00:53 KW: Sure. Well, our guest today, Alison Gutterman, just has this great story. And I was excited to talk to her because we oftentimes, as we're talking about careers, it's moving from here to there, different industries, different career paths. And her's is about, not... It's not a straight and narrow, I would never say that, because she's really been able to create her own vision of this company and to learn a lot, and to iterate, and to grow. But she's running the family business and it was just fascinating to hear about her journey into that role, and to that identity, and to really taking on something and making it her own. So I was... Yeah, I love talking to her.
01:49 MH: See, that's a different question for me. I get the, staying your career in one company. What I am sure I would never do is go into my family business. [chuckle] Like that... Since I was in college, or even since before, I said, "Absolutely not." [chuckle]
02:08 KW: Really? Why?
02:09 MH: 'Cause I don't want to... I feel like it could either go really well or it could either end up with lots of drama, fights, family feuds, and... I mean, I see my dad, and he's going through that with his brother. And I just wouldn't want that in my family.
02:31 KW: Yeah.
02:32 MH: I guess that was... Well, that and it's in El Salvador. So it's...
02:36 KW: Yeah.
02:36 MH: Yeah. Well, there's that. [chuckle] And you wouldn't know me, so life would be so different.
02:42 KW: True.
02:42 MH: Yeah.
02:43 KW: True.
02:46 KW: It's... I don't know. I think about this a lot because oftentimes, you're at a place for, I don't know, "the right period of time", if it's two years, three years. And then the inclination is, "Okay, it's time to do something else." And we've had Whitney Johnson on the podcast, twice actually, and she talks a lot about the S-curve and knowing when you've sort of ramped up, you've gained the expertise and now you're ready for the next challenge. And so, it oftentimes feel that that means going somewhere else, but I, like you, have spent a number of years at the same place and have always found that it's finding a new challenge where you are. Taking on a new role, a new challenge, gaining a new skill. And so it doesn't always have to be as life changing as going somewhere else, but it's continuing to evolve who you are within your environment.
03:42 MH: 100% agree. And I also think that it depends on what type of company and role you're playing at. 'Cause somewhere like this, the company is constantly evolving. So as some people who work for Ellevate, we are constantly changing what we're doing. Which is a lot of fun, and it seems like that's been my other role as well. Even if the company was big, the department was pretty much a startup within it.
04:08 KW: Yeah.
04:08 MH: So... And you... Your background is startup, so it's also that quick moving...
04:13 KW: Yeah.
04:14 MH: Changing. Keep pivoting.
04:15 KW: Have fun. Absolutely. Well, let's hear from Alison and about her story which there's some really meaningful parts in it as well, and I appreciate her candor in sharing a little bit of that with us. So I hope you enjoy it, and we'll see you here next week on the Ellevate Podcast.
04:42 KW: Alison, thanks so much for joining us today on the Ellevate Podcast. Really excited to have you here. Many of our listeners probably know your company, but don't know that they know it yet, and we'll talk about what exactly it is that Jelmar does. But you're the first woman President and CEO of your family-owned business, and would love for you to share with us a little bit more about how that journey looked and where you are today.
05:10 Alison Gutterman: Well, I can tell you that when I was a little girl, I did not dream of becoming the CEO of my family business. In fact, we didn't really talk about it at the dinner table. I mean, we certainly talked about what my dad did. Really, I was mostly impressed by him selling Mr. Microphones. Yeah, I don't think that you're old enough to know maybe what a Mr. Microphone was, but it was the first kind of karaoke. You would plug it into your FM radio. And TV Magic Cards. And he kind of made this chemical product called Tarn-X. And in the '80s, came out with this thing called CLR. But we really didn't talk about any succession planning. And my parents, neither of them, expected me to come into the business, nor my sister, who is five years older than me.
06:03 AG: So after I graduated college, I was sitting on the couch and looking for a job and my dad made me go into retail. He gave me an application and he said, "Stop sitting on my couch." Six weeks after I graduated from college. So he, even at that time, did not expect me to work for him. And I was the only one in the family, including my uncle's kids and my mom, and my aunt, who had never worked at the company. Worked my way around for a couple of years, was treated not very well at some of the other jobs that I had. Would come in early, would stay late. Had a really great work ethic, just because that's how I was raised. And finally, my mom put a bug in my ear... In my dad's ear, and said, "Well, why don't you think about offering Alison a job?" And I was about 24 and we met for a bagel and cream cheese at a deli down the street from my apartment. And my father said, "Listen, I'm gonna offer you a job. And if you're bad at your job, I'm gonna fire you." And...
07:13 KW: [chuckle] Thanks, dad.
07:16 AG: [chuckle] And if you hate your job, you can quit. But you'll always be my daughter. Always, first and foremost, you'll be my daughter. So, do you want the job?" And I said, "Oh, okay. Sounds fine." And that's really how it started.
07:32 KW: I love this story because I actually... My dad was a dentist, and I worked at his office with... I'm a twin, so my twin sister Katie and I worked there. I mean, starting really young. And every summer, we worked there. And the biggest lesson learned from all of that was that, I had no intention of ever being a dentist. [laughter] After many summers there. But yeah, I mean, there's something about being part of that family business. And I think it can be intimidating because it's family, but it can also be a great way to kind of dig in and learn new skills and start to gain that experience. Was that hard for you? So, I love your dad was like, "I'm gonna fire you, or you can quit if this doesn't work." But was it hard once you started working there, and the family relationships and dynamics?
08:23 AG: Oh, it was really, really challenging. So when I first started to work at my dad's company, I said, "Well, the one thing I would really like is an office with a window." I thought I was being kind of a smart aleck. I know that millennials kind of get a bad rap for thinking very highly of themselves. I kind of think that all of us, when we're 24 or 25, we all think very highly of ourselves. And I was no different. I just didn't have great technology like they have today. So I said, "I need an office with a window." My dad cut the conference room in half and gave me a window to the hallway, which was right across from his office. Also maybe not a great decision for him. So I walk into his office, I have no desk. I have a chair and a table. And I walk in, I'm like, "Well, what is my training protocol? What am I supposed to do?" And my dad looked at me and said, "I don't know. Figure it out. Read customer service letters." And that's kind of what I did. I... And he didn't take me out for lunch. I mean, that's...
09:36 AG: He... He's like, "Oh yeah, you always tell that story about how you... I never took you out for lunch." It's true. He did not... He and my uncle and the sales person, they never took me out for lunch my first day. Five days after I started working there, my dad and my mom, they were looking for a condo in Florida, and they had for a few years, to vacation. They were at that age where both of my sister and I were out of college. And they happened to have found one, five days after I started working for the company. So he left. He just went down to Florida to buy an apartment. [chuckle] And so, "Okay, what am I supposed to do? I don't have a boss, really. I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing."
10:26 AG: I read customer service letters, for a while. And then in the process, all of the lousy jobs that he doesn't know how to do, he says, "Well, why don't you do it?" So at the time, we were still using Microsoft... We weren't using Microsoft OS-based products. We were using DOS-based products and Word Perfect. And I don't know what... Maybe Lotus, I don't even know what spreadsheet applications we were using. Pretty old school. And we changed over our computer systems. And he, my dad said, "Well, why don't you handle that?" Well, I was a speech communication major. I have no clue what I'm doing. And I kind of pissed off our customer service manager and office manager at the time because she thought she was my dad's right-hand person. And it... Kind of all these little lousy jobs my dad just gave to me. And he didn't realize, I think at the time, how that would interact with the other people at the office.
11:32 KW: Yeah, I mean, there's... Alright, there's two big lessons or points that I see there. I mean, one is, bringing in the boss's daughter. How is that managed and communicated to the rest of the company and what are the expectations? And making sure that it's a smooth transition for you, and for everyone else there, because I think for a lot of employees that idea, whether it's overt or not, of favoritism, or of imbalance. "What does this mean for my job?" Is scary. But then, on the second piece, it's giving you the opportunity through customer service, through technology and operations, to really understand so many aspects of the business. Which all lead to being a stronger CEO, right, because you now really know all of the nooks and crannies of the business. And so as a leader, you're really able to speak to that in a very powerful way.
12:33 AG: Yes, I was thrown into a lot of different situations, but I don't think that my father announced it to anybody. I... In reflection, you bring up a really good point about how things are communicated to the staff. And I would doubt he even thought about that, and he told people what my job responsibilities were, or the fact that I was even coming in. I would doubt he sat people down, and he had a discussion about that. So it was an interesting few years. And at that time as well, my father had really high expectations of me that I would work in the same way he worked, which is really similar to how people view the differences in how we as Generation X and older people work versus millennials work. I mean it's the same conversation that we're having over and over, and over again. So my father worked from 6:30 in the morning to 6:30 at night. He just came into the office and he worked every day. And it wasn't efficient work, but he expected me to come in early, before everybody else, and to stay late. And I said to him, "Well, why do you expect me to do that? If I can get my job done between 8:30 and 4:30, which is our business hours, that's when I'm gonna come in. Between 8:30 and 4:30. I think that I can be pretty efficient between those times."
14:16 AG: And he couldn't understand that concept. Because he thought you have to show your employees how dedicated you are to working, because you're putting in those long hours. It seems pretty similar to the conversations that millennials are having now with their current employers, that they want a better work-life balance. It seems to echo, on and on and on. The difference to me, I think, is that they have faster and faster and faster technology.
14:51 KW: Yeah.
14:51 AG: That is aiding them and helping them work even more efficiently.
14:55 KW: Well so, fast forward to when you became the CEO. And how was that transition and what were some of the first things that you wanted to implement, to really create your own legacy and one that was unique to you?
15:11 AG: Well, I hate to tell you that it's a kind of a sad story, so I hope that you'll bear with me. But it's... I think it's a poignant story. My mom, during the entire time that I had been working at the company, also was sick with various different illnesses and had had a kidney transplant. And so, that kind of put a pressure on a family-owned business. It puts a stress on, an invisible stress, on a business. And she was at the end of her life, and we were in the hospital. And my mom was dying and said to my dad, "You have to let go. You have to let go and you have to let Alison lead." I'm sorry, I always tear up when I tell this story, but...
16:02 KW: Oh, of course.
16:02 AG: And my father... So my father and my sister and I were sitting there, and I cannot even imagine how difficult it would have been for a man to see his wife that he adored pass away. And watch her, and held her hand, and then have her say, "Not only are you losing me, but you also have to give up control of the company. You have to let Alison lead. We're fine, go and live your life." Right? How difficult that transition would've been for anybody?
16:40 KW: Yeah.
16:40 AG: And my dad handled it like a champ. I mean, it was really a poignant moment for him to have to listen to his wife who was a really... Worked at our company and was such a strong, confidant, and was brilliant in her own way in business. And gave my dad some unbelievably fantastic business advice all throughout our life, to hear her say, "You've gotta let go. You just... You've gotta let go of me, you've gotta let go of the company." And, to his credit, he did. And when my mom passed away, it was like... You know those pictures of the nuclear mushroom bombs that you see?
17:28 KW: Yeah.
17:29 AG: That's kind of like I... How I viewed it. I mean, it wasn't like a bomb that went off, but it was like that stress bubble that kind of exhaled from the entire company. And it's a very odd sensation. And I've asked other people at our company that were around about it, and they all kind of described the same feeling. I think everybody was holding their breath a little bit because there was so much stress and tension. And even though my dad wasn't here every day, he was in Florida much of the time, there was just always that stress. And as... When my mom passed and when my dad could move on and not have two... One foot here, one foot there, and have that constant worrying, there were a lot of things that we could experiment with and we can change. So, right around that time, our chemist... Right around 2007, our chemist, who is brilliant, but you would not expect that she looks the way that she looks. She's tiny, like me, and calls my dad Mr. Gutterman. I always say that she looks like she belongs in Mad Men. I mean, she really... That's what she reminds me of, a secretary in Mad Men.
18:52 AG: So she comes up with these formulas that happen to meet the now Safer Choice formula standards from the EPA, which are not easy to meet. And you have to go through third party testing, and it's a process. It's probably one of a more strict process than any other green certification that you could have. Most people don't know about it, but it really is the best. And we decided to switch our formulas and put that, what it was called at the time, the Design for the Environment, on our labels. And I got a lot of pushback from my advertising agency, and from other people in the company, that we shouldn't talk about it because nobody was talking about being green at the time and nobody cared about being green. And I said, "Hmm. Well, you know what? I'm not gonna come out with another brand. I'm not gonna come out with CLR and CLR Green."
19:52 KW: Sure.
19:53 AG: I believe that people do care and people will care, and I care about it, and that's when we started putting it on our label. We've had... Over time, they changed their name to The Safer Choice. We've had it on the front of our label since 2007-ish. We've come out with one, two... We have about six different products that have the EPA Safer Choice logo on them. We've been the Partner of the Year with them for three years running. So we have, interestingly enough, become a greener company. I can't say that we are totally green, because Tarn-X is not a green product, and some of our other formulas are not, because the science just isn't available for us to come out with an effective product that is green, but that's when we started. So, and that was part of what my legacy, I think, will be, is that we were able to make really effective products that were green because at that time, I don't think that you could come out with one that was really effective and green. And I actually, at that time, had the term Greenvenient trademarked because I thought that, "Well, if people think it's convenient to be green, then they'll switch." So, why don't we come up with a term called Greenvenient? It's just the Greenvenient way to live. It's not anything special. It's just Greenvenient. That's it. So, that's kind of one of my legacies, I think.
21:40 KW: You know, back... I would imagine that the majority of your consumers are women, and I know that this is very important to me as a woman, is to have safe products in my home. So, kudos to you for doing that. And I think that that's such a powerful story overall around women as leaders and the types of changes we make based on our values.
22:07 AG: Yes. I can't say that in the 80s or the 90s we came to that conclusion because we had a different chemist then, so the product was not as safe. It evolves over time, and the chemistry evolves over time. But it's interesting, that you are correct that the women... People... A lot of women buy our products, but I think a lot of men use our products, and it's very interesting. I just had the opportunity to be an undercover... What I call an undercover researcher, which was the most fascinating thing I think I've ever done in my career. We're working with an innovation partner to develop new products and new technologies, and as part of their process, we do focus groups, we have focus groups. But they had in-home focus groups, and they invited me to participate, so I went into these people's homes, and... Unannounced, and I was so happy that none of them had gone online and had researched me because... Or had researched CLR, or Jelmar, because if they did, I kinda pop up a lot, and I went in and I saw how people were using our products.
23:33 AG: Unbelievably fascinating. I encourage CEOs to be able to do that. I love the concept of Undercover Boss as well. So being able to be an undercover researcher was totally up my alley, and being able to see how people use our products, it was amazing to me. A lot of people, because they don't know what the EPA logo is, it hasn't gotten to the point where people recognize it like Energy Star, which is really the goal. I know that the EPA has not gotten such a great rap lately, but a lot of the programs that they've done... The Safer Choice is one of the ones that has gotten support from a lot of different constituents, from retailers and NGOs, and big chemical manufacturers, and consumer packaged good product manufacturers like myself. There's across the board recognition of the importance of the Safer Choice in industry, and it's unfortunate that consumers don't recognize it.
24:49 KW: It's been really wonderful talking to you today and hearing about your story and the changes you're making. I would love it if you could leave our audience with some final thoughts on the top three lessons you've learned as a leader, and what's next for you.
25:09 AG: Top three lessons I've learned as a leader. I think that you have to not take yourself too seriously. I certainly know that I am not the most important person at the company. I don't process the orders, I don't make sure that we're getting paid and without functions like that, and I don't make sure that the bottles are being packaged correctly, without all of those functions our company would cease to exist. I know that I'm not the only person that makes this wheel go round. And I view it as a wheel because we go round and round and round and round. It's not like a pyramid because I think that it's collaborative, it's more like a spoke in a wheel. I also think that there should be an enormous amount of humor in your life. Aside from not taking yourself too seriously from the perspective of you're not the most important person at the company, you also should understand that there's humor in life and in the company and people are gonna make mistakes.
26:25 AG: And I'm not curing cancer. I'm making a product that people use. Things happen. People's lives get interrupted and that's just life. And you have to be flexible in your mind to think about that. And what else have I learned in life? To constantly challenge yourself to learn something new. And have people that are smarter than you at your company and that have enormously different skill sets. My father was able to trust me. He brought in a different generation. I was a totally different generation. And it took him a while to trust that I would bring something different to the table, a different point of view, a different thought processie. We have been very lucky that we have 16 people that work at our company, that have been here a long time. A lot of people have been here a long time. And we're bringing in younger people because we know that in order to sell our product to the millennial generation, we need to connect and we don't have all the answers. So we have to get a more diverse thought processie here, and it might change, I might be challenged in the same way that my father was challenged. And have somebody come in here and say, "Okay, well, what do you want me to do?" I'm gonna, "Well, I wanna do this. I wanna change this. This isn't right." "Okay, well show me. Give me the justification." And that's something that we're gonna be challenged with, again and again and again.
28:09 KW: So what's next?
28:10 AG: Well, I think that we still have to figure out how to reach millennials in a fresh and new way. That's something that is paramount that is on our mind constantly and we are in the process of a big innovation challenge development. So there are gonna be some new products, some new technologies that might come out from our company in the next 18 to 24 months. So we're working on that. I'm very excited. I'm gonna make sure that I raise my girls to be strong and independent and forward thinking. I think that that's all on the horizon.
28:53 KW: Well, that sounds amazing. Please let us know all the exciting things that happen. And now my interest is peaked, so I'd love to stay in touch and hear all about it. And thank you so much for being here today on the Ellevate podcast, and sharing your insights and lessons learned. It's been, I'll tell you, just a really powerful interview for me and hearing your story. And I'm sure that our audience feels the same way.
29:20 AG: Oh, thank you very much.
29:24 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on Twitter at EllevateN-T-W-K, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, www.ellevatenetwork.com, that's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E network.com. And special thanks to our producer, Katherine Heller, she rocks, and to our voice-over artist, Rachel Greisinger. Thanks so much and join us next week.
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