Jelly Belly CEO Lisa Brasher

Jelly Belly CEO Lisa Brasher

Sweet Succession

Jelly Belly CEO Lisa Brasher represents the 5th generation of her family to run the candy bean empire. So just what does it take to keep a company in the family for 146 years?

Back Q&A Sep 16, 2015 By Rich Ehisen

The Jelly Belly jelly bean is one of those unique products that has become iconic in American life. Formed in 1869 in Belleville, Ill., it became a global phenomenon in the 1980s when the world learned how much newly elected President Ronald Reagan loved the company’s tiny candies. Jelly Belly’s bean empire has grown exponentially since then, still striving to maintain the family culture it has cultivated for 146 years. We sat down recently with CEO Lisa Rowland Basher, the fifth generation of her family to run the company, to learn a little bit about the Jelly Belly philosophy of sustaining a family business.

Most family-run businesses struggle with succession planning. But you are part of the fifth generation of your family to operate the company. How has Jelly Belly managed this issue so well for so long?

It’s a lot about relationships and communication. Growing up, we actually lived next door to our grandparents. My dad commuted with them to work, so there was constant communication, constant talking. As my dad grew in his role, my grandparents trusted him. They worked with him, they saw what he was doing and they were open to his input in bringing the business forward and coming up with ideas. We’re not like a lot of family businesses where people are at each other’s throats.

As for succession, I just became president in April, and I have sought some outside counsel. We just hired a family business adviser, which I felt was important to ensure that I am carrying on this legacy and capturing all these wonderful things that have been passed down from my grandparents to my father and then to us. We also have five of the six generations working in our business right now, and actually this summer one from the seventh generation as well.

So I think we want to move from more intuitive to intentional. I’m not afraid to ask for outside advice or other people’s perspective on things, knowing full well that we are very sure about keeping our family culture here. I don’t think of us as this large corporation; we’re not. When Jelly Belly was born we only had 25 people. Today we have over 700 worldwide, but I like to think that we still have that culture, that care for our employees, that unity that we had even when we had 25 people.  

Every company has to have a long-term vision for itself. In family-run companies there can often be conflict between generations or even siblings over what that should be. How has the Jelly Belly vision been managed?

When you use the word vision, I think immediately of my dad. My dad is so far ahead and out of the box than anybody else I know. Sometimes we laugh at the ideas he comes up with because they’re hysterical, but we bring them to life and they are totally amazing. We also have an incredible team of trusted people who are all very well respected in the industry and their individual jobs. A lot of our key managers have grown up in the company, have been here 20 or 30 years. We even have some employees who have been here for 40 years. And again, we really value that. We ask those employees that have been here for a long time to please spread that family culture to the rest of the people that are here. We want them to understand and know that we have an open-door policy and that we’re interested in what people have to say and share. So our vision, it includes everybody. It’s something we all work on together.

Related: How former President Ronald Reagan became a fixture in jellybean lore
Do you have a set process for bringing a new family member into the company?

During my time, [people] have usually gone into manufacturing to start learning the candy-making process from beginning to end. I began in customer service and also billing, order entry and payroll. Then my grandmother trained me in accounts payable, and I handled all the money for the company. I’ve done merchandising, product pricing. We have done the same with non-family members as well. You know the people; you know their strengths and weaknesses; you know how you can help them and groom them, and you’re also more aware of what job would be fulfilling to them going forward.

Personal issues can drag down any company, but they can be particularly rough for a family operation. How do you keep family issues from impacting the workplace?

Actually, I would have to turn that question around and say, how do you keep work issues out of family life? That, for us, is the biggest thing. We’re workers. From morning until night, in our dreams and everything else, we are about work. If anything, it’s when we’re trying to have some family time that work comes in, and we really have to guard against that and just realize that family time needs to be family time. Inevitably it turns to work, but we’re really trying hard to keep the shop talk to a minimum.

Many family-run companies operate like closed shops, where non-family employees have little or no chance to reach certain management positions. How do you manage nepotism and the subsequent expectations and relationships with your non-family workers?

I don’t think we really have a nepotism problem. We want all of our employees to feel like they are part of the family. We talk about that. We have all-employee meetings twice a year where we get in front of every single person and we share with them what’s going on in our company, what’s happening in the future, give them product previews of things we’re working on, share struggles we may be having, whether it’s with regulations or whatever. And every employee has direct access in that meeting to either write a note or ask my father and me any question they would like. We do annual family picnics for everybody. We have Christmas parties. We give out candy for each season. We have profit sharing and 401(k). We contribute to their gym memberships. So we try to take care of the perks as well. I know, again, people think of us as this huge corporation. I’d have to say we’re kind of, I guess you would call it flat. We don’t have a whole lot of layers in between. So in that respect there may be some people who think, ‘There’s nowhere else for me to go.’ And that can happen. But I think it’s also a blessing that people have ready access to us, we have an open door and we’re not top heavy with administration.

We’ve all seen situations where a family member just isn’t working out in the family business. How do you deal with family members who are not making the grade?

We have a management structure here and we expect our family members will fit into that structure, just like anybody else. My kids would say I expect more from them than I do from other employees, because — as I was told and as they’ve been told — all eyes are on us. We set the tone for the company. So if there are any issues with a family employee, we have very good relationships with the managers that manage them. We mentor the kids as well, and we have an open-door policy with our managers. I’ll check in with them: “Do you have any issues? Is there any way that we can help with directing?” I think it’s super important. I realize how difficult it must be to be in that manager’s position, to have to guide a family member. That’s tough. What if they don’t do something they’re supposed to? Or how do you guide them in the right way? I want to make sure I’m empowering that manager to do exactly what they need to do with that family member as if he or she were any other employee. I also have an open relationship with the family member, who can share with us if they have any concerns with their manager or how things are being handled. So it really is about open and honest communication, and with that I feel that we have been successful with our employees and our family members.

So what advice would you give someone who is thinking of opening a family-run business, or perhaps someone who is considering bringing family into a company they are already running?

Again I’d have to say communication. What is the next generation’s thoughts and desires? What is it they’re looking for? What is it the generation before them is looking for? Is this a relationship of entitlement or one of what this person can add or give to the company? It’s not great to have that attitude of entitlement. We don’t make positions here for our family. We want the family to work into jobs that are beneficial for the company, and of course we want them to work towards what fulfills them as a person. Because who’s going to be your best worker? It’s someone who feels like they’re contributing and giving back to the company. And I personally think a wise man seeks counsel. That’s what I’m doing in this generation: reaching out and getting advice and learning. Now this is a new adventure for us, so the jury is still out. But I really feel like it’s been great to get together with an outside person and talk about how we can become intentional in everything we do and pass on this legacy to the next generation.