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Green, clean dynasty: Jelmar LLC

Alison-Gutterman-of-JelmarA manufacturer of cleaning products, Jelmar LLC was one of six U.S. formulators-manufacturers to win the 2015 Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice Partner of the Year award in June.

The EPA’s Safer Choice label (formerly known as Design for the Environment) is given to products that meet strict human and environmental health criteria. Launched in the early 1990s, today the program has nearly 500 formulators-manufacturers among its partners. “It was an honor to win an award from such a prestigious agency,” says Alison Gutterman, president and CEO of the Skokie, Illinois-based Jelmar. “And it was nice for us because although people think our products are really effective, they don’t necessarily know they’re green.”

Becoming more environmentally friendly is an initiative Gutterman spearheaded in 2006. Today nearly 70 percent of the company’s SKUs bear the Safer Choice label. Ideally, Gutterman would like all Jelmar products to be green. “Yet we haven’t found a solution for some of our products, such as Tarn-X,” she explains. “And we don’t want to come out with a lousy product just for the sake of being green. They have to be effective.”

Six decades of squeaky-clean

Jelmar traces its roots back to the late 1960s when Gutterman’s grandfather, who operated a sales rep organization, acquired a warehouse of cleaning products. After reformulating and repackaging, he launched Jelmar with its first proprietary product, Tarn-X Tarnish Remover. In the early 1980s the company introduced its CLR brand of calcium, lime and rust remover products.

Fast forward to 2015, Jelmar generates about $50 million in revenue and has 14 employees. Job count is somewhat deceiving because the company uses contract manufacturers to produce its proprietary formulations, Gutterman points out. “So even though jobs may not increase at our headquarters, as our company grows we’re helping create indirect jobs through our partners.”

Gutterman marks the third generation to run Jelmar, which is no small achievement. According to industry statistics, only 30 percent of family businesses survive into the second generation — and only 10 to 15 percent make it to third generation.

Interestingly, Gutterman’s entry into Jelmar was more of a career detour than a matter of succession planning. “It wasn’t anything that was expected of me,” she says, noting that after getting a bachelor’s degree in speech communication from Syracuse University, she first held jobs in advertising and news production.

Gutterman joined Jelmar in the mid-1990s at age 25. “I was unhappy at work and planning to look for another job,” she explains. “My mother suggested that my dad offer me a job, so we met for bagels to discuss it. He said, ‘If you’re bad at your job we can fire you, and if you hate your job you can quit — but you’ll always be my daughter first.’ ”

It was a bumpy ride at first, and there was “a lot of firing and a lot of quitting,” Gutterman says. “People often asked me what it was like to work for my father, and I’d say that 50 percent of the time he’s the best boss and the worst father, and the other 50 percent he’s the best father and the worst boss.”

With no formal training program in place, Gutterman spent her initial days at Jelmar responding to customer service letters and phone calls. “This was actually a great place to start,” Gutterman says. “I learned that people can be very passionate, either negatively or positively, about the products they used. They generated long letters about what they thought of our products and what was going on in their lives. You could tell they wanted someone to reach out to them, which is why we still have a customer service rep personally respond to letters and email.”

Ramping up revenue

Jelmar has doubled its annual revenue since the mid-1990s, and Gutterman characterizes the company’s growth as slow, but steady — with an emphasis on steady. Indeed, during the recession while other companies saw revenue nose-diving, Jelmar achieved average annual increases of 7 percent.

To continue Jelmar’s growth trajectory, Gutterman has launched an industrial division, PRO Line. Although still in its infancy, PRO Line could represent 5-10 percent of Jelmar’s business by 2020, Gutterman says. “Retail will always be dominant, but the industrial division gives us another revenue stream and helps us have a well-rounded portfolio.”

Jelmar has also beefed up its exporting muscle and now supplies Home Depot stores in Mexico. Gutterman is eyeing other international markets including the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Central America and South America.

In the United States, CLR and Tarn-X products can be found across the country in a wide variety of retailers including big names like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Safeway, Kroger and Walgreens. With products so widespread, the general public is usually surprised to learn that Jelmar is a family business — and run by a woman, Gutterman says.

Yet Jelmar has gained visibility in business circles under Gutterman’s aegis, and the Safer Choice award isn’t the only plaque on her trophy shelf. Earlier this year Jelmar was the only woman-owned business in Illinois chosen by Wal-Mart to be part of its Women’s History Month promotion. In 2013 Gutterman was named Woman Business Owner of the Year by the Chicago area chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, and in 2012 the U.S. Small Business Administration named Jelmar as its Family-Owned Business of the Year.

“I’m proud that we’ve continued to grow and be profitable,” Gutterman says. “The consumer-packaging business is pretty large, and I’m competing with companies that probably have petty cash accounts that are larger than our annual revenue. But I think we stand out for being reliable and nimble — and being able to innovate in ways a larger company can’t.”

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