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A strategy that was the business growth key for Joe Kanfer of GOJO Industries
Sound business advice does not need to come from within your industry. We spoke to Joe Kanfer, Chairman and CEO of GOJO Industries, inventor of one of the most recognizable and successful products in the world: PURELL® Hand Sanitizer. GOJO Industries has 2500 employees today, but when Kanfer took over the business in 1976 it had only 25, so he has taken on and overcome many of the same challenges that laboratory owners face in running small to medium-sized businesses.
Q What were the circumstances when you took over GOJO Industries, and what were your goals at the time for the company's future?
A My aunt and uncle, Goldie and Jerry Lippman, started the company in 1946, and I was in my 20s when I took over. Particularly in a family business with multiple generations, youth can bring significant amounts of optimism. I had big dreams of innovating and growing the business. I did not quite understand how difficult it would be, but youth is a great advantage in building a business, because you are more willing to try new things. I wanted growth, and I wanted to put my mark on our business.
We had a leading brand of heavy-duty hand cleaner for auto mechanics when I took over the company, but that was the extent of it—a very small but strong brand.
Early on, I looked at the business and asked, What are our assets and how might we apply them to grow the business? We decided to maintain a focus on hygiene products but broaden our target demographics beyond only auto mechanics. We started creating solutions for health care, industrial environments, food processing, and more.
Q In the early years after you took over, what strategies and philosophies did you implement in order to accomplish your goals for growth?
A One lesson my uncle taught me was to develop close relationships with customers. Too many businesses stand back and focus on an internal view: What can I do faster, cheaper, better? Breakthroughs do not result from that attitude; they come from walking in your customers’ shoes and being out in the world. The greatest successes we have had have resulted from being very close with our customers; conversely, we have made mistakes when we have not been close to the customer.
My uncle succeeded because he was out in the field selling his product, and if customers had a problem, it was his problem. We all face challenges in our everyday lives that we wish someone would solve for us. If someone is there to help, those problems can be solved.
Q What were the greatest challenges and obstacles that you encountered as a young executive operating a small family business?
A With a small business, being accepted as a young person who thought he knew more than he did was not easy. I had to learn how much I didn’t know, which was a challenge.
The biggest challenge for older employees was to allow for the enthusiasm of the next generation. When I made a mistake, my uncle would say “It’s a blessing in disguise, because it could have been worse.” He had a sense of humor about it and gave me room to learn and operate.
In other ways, family businesses have their own advantages. If you have a family mindset and treat your employees like family, you create an atmosphere that is more conducive to productive work.
Q What were some of the pivotal decisions you made in the early years that led the company to where it is now?
A One key is figuring out what needs to be accomplished and making sure you have the talent to do it. You need to make hard decisions. You want to be loyal, so you need to be patient and make sure to hire really good people. It is not about you when you’re running a business; it is about your team. The right people will grow your business. A common mistake is to keep the wrong people because it is a hassle to hire new employees and it is uncomfortable to let people go, but you need to have a talented, collaborative team that wants success for everyone.
Q What leadership qualities have you found to be most helpful in running a successful business, especially in the early years?
A As a leader, you have to both step up and step back. There are times when decisions must be made, but no one knows exactly what the best decision is. Being in a leadership position does not necessarily mean that you know the best solution in every situation, but it means that stepping up and making the most informed decision possible is your responsibility.
It is also necessary to step back because the essence of leadership is developing other people, and the only way they develop is with experience. Assigning responsibility to someone you know is not quite ready for it takes courage. You need to monitor them closely, encourage them, and use positive language. If a child is carrying water across the room, you can say, “Don’t spill,” or you can say, “Figure out how you are going to hold that carefully.” Encourage people even when you know they are not quite ready, and they will grow. That is what a strong leader does.
Q Even with a great product, it is usually necessary to differentiate yourself in the market. How did you accomplish that with PURELL® Hand Sanitizer?
A We didn’t have a great brand; we created a great brand. The category previously did not exist. Health care providers, whether in a hospital setting or dentist office, need to be washing their hands 20-60 times per day, but we observed that this was not possible given the options that were available at the time and the fact that they were always moving around. We identified this as a need, which was the most important step.
The old paradigm has been to wash your hands with soap and water. We broke the paradigm. Asking someone to wash with soap and water 50 times per day is unreasonable due to the damage it will inflict on the skin. Figuring out how to break the paradigm was the key. The product was incidental after we had the courage to recognize the need was not being met. Once we did that, we simply said, “This is a whole new category. Let’s create a great brand so people know we want to own this space.”
The No. 1 differentiator in any market is brand. The No. 2 differentiator is how your treat your customers. Are you solving their needs? Are you responsive? Whether they are right or wrong really does not matter; you need to be there to respond, just as you would for your family. My wife tells me I’m not always right, but I need to always be there. That is how you treat a customer. Brand is important, but in a crowded market, serving your customer well is the key. It is amazing how much that factor is neglected in business today.
Q As your company grew with the massive success of PURELL® Hand Sanitizer, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced related to that growth?
A Small businesses generally do not face communication disconnects. If a customer does not like a product, you know it, and you fix it yourself. You do not have to pass along the message to someone else and try to explain it.
The challenge as we grew was getting all of the company’s functions—the accountants, the chemists, the manufacturers, etc—to communicate and collaborate. All large companies face this challenge, when the left hand and the right hand are not working together. You need to keep actively working to ensure cohesion.
Q What new challenges and issues have been presented to companies of varying sizes by the Internet age and the global market?
A Technology is developing all over the world, and you need to be up to date. Regarding offshore competition, we have not faced much pressure domestically because all of our products are FDA-regulated and are produced in bulk, so it is not efficient to import them.
The Internet age presents entirely new challenges. Information is much more transparent. Excellent service takes on even more importance because customers do not want to call, ask a question, and wait for a call back; they are accustomed to getting answers instantly, both as consumers and in their businesses.
Even small, privately owned businesses must understand that while personal service and value-added components on a local level are important, it is also necessary to have a strong website. For example, you might prefer going to a local restaurant to sit down and eat, but for takeout you might choose a chain restaurant because of a mobile ordering app. It is possible, however, to be connected while also being personal and local.
Q What are your philosophies regarding the implementation of new technologies into your workflow?
A You need to know ultimately that as new technologies arrive, people have different tolerances—early adopters and late adopters—and you need to know where your tolerance is. Being an early adopter is not always necessary, but it is important to not be too late of an adopter. You should always be looking and experimenting. You need to ask the question of whether each innovation can give you a competitive edge. If a particular technology can help produce a better product or reduce costs, you need to use it. If you don’t, then someone else will. It is important to constantly be aware of new developments and keep asking questions. Don’t just ask questions once; ask regularly. I consider two perspectives: the opportunity and the threat. Sometimes you adopt technologies because of the opportunity, while other times it is because of a threat.
Q Looking to the future, what is one rule every business owner will need to abide by over the next decade and beyond in order to remain viable?
A Managing for today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. People are comfortable in their zones, and you—by yourself or with a small team—need to stop long enough to ask, “Are we doing the right things today?” That can refer to efficiency, service, and more.
You also need to keep asking what tomorrow will bring. To explore this question, look around at what others are doing, both in your own industry and in others. It is really necessary to push the edge of change because the digital age has allowed change to occur so quickly.
Still, nothing happens overnight. Major developments usually take years to incubate. That can lull some people to sleep, but if you are always out there looking, then you will see new developments coming and jump on board.
To learn more, contact GOJO at 330-255-6000 and visit GOJO.com.