All in the Family

Graeters BobChipRich Graeter 4

Graeter's Ice Cream demonstrates how challenges can ultimately bolster your brand.

By Richard Graeter

Along with the many benefits in owning a family business come several unique challenges. To meet those challenges, families need to both look inward and leverage what made their brand succeed in the past, as well as look outward for help to build the future. For brands like Graeter’s Ice Cream, the tact and strategy that went into its transition of leadership was one that challenged the brand to think about everything from structure to day-to-day operations in a new light.

While not every brand may be a family-owned business, there are lessons to be learned from the delicately navigated decisions the Graeter’s Family tackled at the onset of transition … and continue to navigate as the brand evolves.

Consider three primary areas in which Graeter’s Ice Cream succeeded where the brand’s transition was concerned.

1. Remember Your Roots

Sometimes, change is good, even necessary, and in a rapidly changing world, only the nimble survive. Graeter’s is the poster child for the exact opposite strategy: stubbornness. Our very first business transition came when our family matriarch, Regina Graeter, took over the business from her recently deceased husband and stood firm for our family’s values against the winds of the industrial revolution.

At one time, ice cream was a neighborhood affair where the proprietor froze product in the back room, sold it in the front parlor and lived upstairs. Then, in the 1920s, ice cream became commercialized. Large factories mass produced huge values of cheap ice cream that drove neighborhood ice cream parlors out of business. Except for Regina, who stubbornly refused to compromise the quality of her product. Today, Graeter’s is the last commercial ice cream producer to use the artisanal small-batch French Pot process to freeze ice cream.

Every succeeding generation of the Graeter family had the opportunity to modernize the process. Modern equipment makes ice cream much more efficiently, and even had the seemingly miraculous ability to produce more with less (by pumping in large amounts of air). But not surprisingly, quality suffers when modern technology performs this “miracle.” While the allure of easy money was always there, each generation of the Graeter family remembers, and honors, Regina’s stubborn decision to stick with the tried and true French Pot process.

2. Value Everyone

Family members each have a different skill set to lend to the success of the company. It is important to recognize and leverage those differences to make the absolute most of them. Furthermore, exposing and bringing to light those differences is a powerful way to strengthen a family brand. Resilience comes from those differences, and from the appreciation each team member has for the others. For many family brands, the idea of unequal ownership can be a catalyst for unwanted tension. Resolving this tension may come most directly when family in leadership realizes by working together, they just might be better and stronger than if they divided the business.

3. Get Help

Transition is hard! Successfully navigating the treacherous waters of succession and transition requires expert help – and not just accountants and lawyers. The turning point in our transition came when we turned to a psychologist who specialized in family business relationships to help us work through difficult issues.

Family businesses are about so much more than just selling products and services. A successful business transition can only be built on a solid foundation of good family relationships. Oftentimes, setting up a formal family council or board of advisors can help to facilitate difficult conversations, especially as family members transition into, through and out of the family business. Consultants can act as a resource for the company in establishing formalized systems and processes. Acknowledging a family’s missing expertise, and then being willing to look outside to find it, has been the Graeter family’s most valuable secret to long-term success.

It is also important to realize transition affects more than just family members. Put into practice, Graeter's Ice Cream created a training program for the retail store employees to develop a pipeline of future leaders since the customer experience is such an important part of the business. In doing so, this helped to streamline the business processes that keep the company seamlessly functioning.

Looking to the Future

The systems established by your family food brand should lay the foundation for a stable business, with the hope that the current generation will turn it over to the next, and turn it over better than they found it. Within every family-owned business, not only should leadership and the systems they have developed continue to strengthen over time, but the family’s story should continue to be told, ultimately bolstering the family’s vision for unity.

By celebrating the fact that it is a family-owned business, carrying out values instilled in it since its inception, the Graeter’s Ice Cream brand can remain the steadfast, high-quality brand consumers know and cherish. In fact, Graeter’s commitment to its French Pot Process, in-house production, SQF 3 certification and conviction to keeping ice cream a craft, handmade trade is something the family will never abandon. If Regina were to walk into the Graeter’s plant today, she would instantly recognize our process and recipes (after all, they are hers), and she would be proud of the fact that her progeny is just as stubborn as she.

In continuing the brand’s authentic story, many of the recipes Graeter’s uses for every pint that leaves the door are from Regina herself. Because consumers have made it clear they are looking for authentic brands they can resonate with, supporting your brand messaging with the values only your family can bring to the brand is an inherent way to infuse personality and unmatched care into everything you do.

As a member of the fourth generation of the Graeter family to own and operate the business, Richard Graeter is dedicated to the family tradition of making ice cream, while embracing new opportunities and technology to grow the business. Visit www.graeters.com for more information.

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