We had the pleasure recently of touring two successful companies near Boulder, Colorado. As we concluded the second tour, I was struck by the uniquely different strategies that each of these companies used to achieve success.
It is notable that the two companies share several attributes in common. Both are niche players in a large industry. Both are manufacturing companies. Both are located within a mile of each other in a suburban office park in Boulder County. And each of them is strongly committed to the environment and to sustainability.
However, each company has developed and implemented a unique strategy – very different from one another – that has contributed to their success.
Celestial Seasonings started in the 1970s as a “tea” company that made teas out of the leaves and berries from the Colorado meadows near the Front Range. Their initial products – and most of their best-selling products today – do not contain any tea. They are made from herbals that are grown in the US and not from teas that are only found overseas.
From the moment you enter the Visitor’s Center until you finish the tour and exit through the mandatory gift shop experience, Celestial Seasonings has a big company feel. They are now part of a large conglomerate and the premises reflects a strong corporate attention to detail and rules.
Celestial Seasonings is proud of the amount of automation that they have incorporated into their manufacturing and packaging operations. Robots are used extensively, and the four manufacturing lines are run with a limited number of people. Employees are serious and focused on their area of responsibility. The tour guides are knowledgeable, friendly and informative.
Strategically, they have prospered by developing and packaging unique products that compete with the big players in the tea market such as Nestea and Lipton. A team of in-house artists creates their distinctive packaging. It includes a carefully crafted story that complements the unique artwork covering each flavor’s packaging.
Their strong commitment to quality is evidenced by the role of their Blendmaster who tastes a sample of each batch of tea before it is bagged and released to the market. They source teas and herbals from around the world from boutique suppliers. Their relationships with many of their suppliers span multiple generations.
The other company is Leanin’ Tree. It is a greeting card company that started after World War II by an artist and a young businessman who had recently completed college under the GI Bill. They started as a company that made Christmas cards with a cowboy theme. They have since diversified to offer a variety of greeting cards noted for their innovative artwork. They continue to compete with the two giants in the industry, Hallmark and American Greeting.
At 93, Edward P. Trumble, one of the founders, still visits the factory several times each week. The company now is guided by members of his family. Their involvement is reflected in the friendly and inviting atmosphere that greets visitors in the onsite card shop at their headquarters.
Our tour guide, a relative newcomer to the company with just eight years of experience, spoke warmly of the longevity of the employees. The average tenure at the company is 13 years and many employees have worked there for thirty to forty years. Corporate decisions are made with a strong consideration about the effect those decisions will have on the people who work for the company.
Automation is included in their manufacturing operations but only where needed to address repetitive tasks or to enhance employee safety. LeaninTree is proud that products are inspected manually at each stage of the production cycle to ensure quality.
Leanin’ Tree’s cards and other products are distributed through over 30,000 small merchants around the US and Canada. Their large sales staff is proud of the fact that each merchant relationship is formed and maintained by personal visits, phone calls and emails from the sales staff.
The art for Leanin’ Tree’s cards is solicited via their website. The company’s designers review artwork submitted to the website by various artists around the world. Artwork that is chosen is licensed from the artists. Interestingly, some of their artists are still in grade school. Reproductions of the works of some of their artists are framed and are available for sale in the gift shop.
The tour guide explained to us that all employees are cross-trained. One day you might be conducting tours and then work in various areas of the factory for the rest of the week. This philosophy of cross-training increases everyone’s appreciation for the value of all positions. The diversity of roles that they play keeps employees interested and mitigates boredom and disinterest.
Both Celestial Seasonings and Leanin’ Tree are very successful companies. Both emphasize creativity and the quality. Leanin’ Tree is more focused on their employees and uses automation sparingly. Celestial Seasoning’s plant is highly automated, and they have a strong emphasis on productivity.
Both companies were founded and have matured under philosophies that reflect the values and passions of their leaders. The unique set of values that the founders established at their inceptions still guide these companies today.
The lesson for all entrepreneurs is to determine a vision and plan for your company that reflects your passion and values. Communicating and teaching your employees and future employees these core values is essential to creating a company that will thrive long after the founders are no longer active in the daily operations of the business.