Sam Waltz: Herr’s Potato Chips is a family business on steroids

Sam Waltz
Founding Publisher

Ed Herr, son of the Mennonite founders of the Lancaster County company, told an audience of 150 at a Delaware Business Times/Small Business Development Center event last month that 10 of the 20 third-generation family members work in the Herr’s family business. And eight of those 10 also have spouses employed there.

Wow! That just leaves one breathless.

Four of the 10 are on the “leadership track,” three of them already at a senior vice president level and moving onto a newly reconstituted company executive committee for Herr’s, a company that was founded in 1946 and is prospering today with some $300 million in annual sales.

That’s a lot of potato chips and cheese curls.

“Culture trumps strategy,” I’ve often told audiences, and, in the view of Ed Herr, that’s what has kept the business a family business.

Shared values and principles are the bedrock of any transcendent business culture, lessons taught by Charlie Cawley in the founding of MBNA and by Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals in his turnaround of WSFS Bank, bringing it back from near failure some 30 years ago to become the biggest bank today headquartered in the Delaware Valley.

“My goal is to be a blessing to you today,” Herr told the audience, opening his remarks on family business. After describing the business, he talked about the stewardship of a family-owned business.

“My main job is to preserve that family culture,” said Herr. “Our values are based on our Christian heritage. I know a lot of other family businesses that don’t profess Christian values but have great values,
as well.”

“Leadership in a business — nonprofit, church or family — is essential,” said Herr. “What makes us the best person we can be?”

“At the top of my list: Loving people! My parents loved to be around people. Remember that people won’t care how much you know unless they know much you care.”

“For me, practicing the Golden Rule is a big part of that. Remember Jesus’s two commandments: Love God and love everyone else,” Herr said. “Integrity is the next thing.”

Other gems from Ed Herr:

• “Build trust — if people trust each other, people will run through walls.”

• “Be your personal best! Three things to be your best. First, eat right. Second, exercise. Third, get your rest, on a consistent basis.”

Finally, he told the audience, “in a leadership culture, be a learner. Be open to new ideas!”

In recounting the maligned historical limitations of family-owned businesses, that 85 percent sell or fail in the first generation, Herr recalled that “my dad, my brother and I worked side-by-side for 40 years, and we never one day went home angry at each other. Today, we in the second generation want to give our third generation the same opportunity we had, to work side-by-side in a private company.”

Two takeaways for the audience from the essence of Ed Herr:

1. Professionalizing a business culture in a family business without losing the family culture, something that becomes essential with growth, is not an insurmountable challenge.

2. In any business, and particularly in a family business, given its transparency, there’s no place to hide, making essential the need for the social capital of shared values around treating each other right, and well.

Building that on shared faith is a plus.

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