Leadership: Don't be afraid to fail

By Patricia Olsen

A Q&A with Alison Gutterman, President and CEO, Jelmar, Skokie, Ill. 

Generation of family ownership: Third.
Size of company: We’re in every state, as well as Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. We have a distributorship in Australia, so our products are also available there and in New Zealand.
Number of employees: 22.
First job at this company:  Reading customer service letters. I never planned on working for the company. I worked for several companies when I graduated from college, including the local Cable News network, a retail firm, the PR department of a drugstore chain and a television station representation company. I didn’t like the last company, so my mother suggested my dad hire me. I thought I’d enter a training program, get the standard office with a window and be taken out to lunch the first day. There was none of that.
At what age? 25.
Most memorable thing I learned from my father: Don’t be afraid to fail. If you don’t fail, you don’t know what it feels like to win. You don’t learn anything, either, because if you’re always succeeding and then you have this big fail, you think, “I’ve never failed before,” and you just don’t know what to do.
Best thing about this job: Knowing that our company creates products that solve people’s problems. We make getting rid of the tough jobs around your house easier.
Our greatest success: Our Brilliant Bath product, a cleaner in a yellow bottle with a trigger spray, had been discontinued at Walmart. We got it back on the shelf, so except for that short period it’s been there since 1998.
A quote from our mission statement: We empower our team to create exceptional products that delight users by inspiring us to do the right thing every day.
On my desk: A glass paperweight from a friend. It has a crack in the middle, which signifies that you’ve cracked the glass ceiling.
One of my greatest accomplishments: One day well before Covid, one of my daughters was sick so I was working at home. I was on the phone with a buyer who was a difficult client. His company was about to discontinue one of our products, and I had to convince him to keep it on the shelf. This was before we started seeing kids on Zoom calls, and my daughter started screaming in the background. I told him, “Listen, I'm at home right now with my kid who’s sick,” and either he had pity on me, or what I said resonated with him. Our product stayed on the shelf.
Best thing about working in a family business: I get to cultivate a culture where people really like to come to work.
Advice for other family business leaders: Don't let your next generation come and work with you right out of college. It would also be great if they’ve been promoted, have had longevity at another company and are able to manage other people.
On a day off… I take time for myself if my daughters are busy. This past summer, when they were at summer camps, I made dinner for a friend whose children were also away. We sat outside and ate. It was really lovely. 
Philanthropic causes our family supports:  The Greater Chicago Food Depository, Habitat for Humanity, Feed the Children, kaboom, Gift of Adoption and Violins of Hope. My family also started the Arthur & Emalie Gutterman Family Center for Holocaust and Human Rights, and we award teachers in South Florida who specifically teach about the Holocaust. 
I realized I had emerged from the previous generation’s shadow when… I proposed that we not come up with a "sub-brand" of CLR that was environmentally safe. (CLR is one of the brands that Jelmar manufactures.) When CLR was designated by the Safer Choice Program within the EPA (then called the Design for the Environment program), I chose to put that designation badge on our label. I knew we had to talk about it and educate people about how products that work can still be green. 
Words I live by: A quote from Audrey Hepburn that I have in my email signature: “Nothing is impossible. The word itself says ‘I’m possible.’”
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