A Focus on Culture and Ingredients
Although many ice cream companies claim that they make the best ice cream in America, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams has a very compelling argument that they actually do. Founded in 2002 in Columbus, OH, Jeni's ice cream flavors have won numerous local and national awards from the Gallo Family Vineyards, Food & Wine, The Boston Globe, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, among other accolades. By using only the freshest ingredients, Jeni's has grown from one woman making ice cream for friends into a thriving middle market business with stores in three cities and distribution to over 700 locations nationwide.
While much of the success of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams can be attributed to the uncompromising passion of its owners and employees, founders Jeni and Charly Bauer knew that someone with a strong business mind would be essential in taking the company to the next level. So in 2009, Jeni and Charley asked their old friend and GE veteran John Lowe to be their new CEO. Recently, John sat down with students at the National Center for the Middle Market's Student Summit and discussed Jeni's rise into the middle market.
Q. What is the culture like at Jeni's?
A. I don't know if I can put words on what our culture is like. Jeni's has been built around some phenomenal mix of creative people and I hope that we have a strong group of brains all going after the same mission. That mission is to make the best ice cream possible and to make the world a better place. If there's one thing that I really value; I don't care about anyone's credentials, age, or their experience necessarily. What I care about is that they're engaged in supporting our mission. I tell our employees that Jeni's does not have to be a career for you, but while you're with us you've got to be helping us get better and I am ferocious about getting people to be fully engaged in their job.
The other thing we've done related to our culture that I'm proud of is that we don't have an intranet for the company. We have a private Facebook page. We made the decision that we needed to talk in real time across the company, but we wanted to do it in a way that resonates with our twenty-two year old employees who are scooping ice cream. The risk of doing that is that it gives a free forum to any person in the company to say anything they want to everyone in the company and that is scary as a leader. In our mind, the benefits far outweigh the negatives.
We've had one or two minor hiccups, but the benefit of us being able to jump on Facebook and talk about a great sales win, an amazing idea the kitchen came up with, or better yet getting Jeni to talk about what's exciting her is really important to our company. Her brilliance and creativity has to be front and center for our company, so the more we can keep her in front of our employees the better we will be. That has been a big breakthrough for our company's ability to maintain a positive culture.
Q. Jeni's has been very strategic about its growth into markets outside of Columbus. What is your strategy there and why?
A. Well, I think there are definitely some real overseas opportunities for us, but having said that, there are innumerable opportunities inside the US. When we opened in Nashville, Tennessee we were immediately the best ice cream in the city. We got a really “warm hug“in Nashville and we need to see if we can get that same hug in other cities. That's kind of the fun part, but every opening feels like a reasonably big bet because opening to no people and no excitement is a scary thing for any small business. They're not tiny investments for us so we are very careful about how we choose other markets.
When we think about expansion in the US, we start by looking for locations that are most similar to Columbus. What we value about Columbus is that there is a very high “creative class“. There are a lot of artists, designers for the Les Wexner companies here in town (Limited Brands, Victoria's Secret, etc.), and we think the creative class gets what we're trying to do.
It was not an easy decision for us to choose East Nashville as our first location. That part of town has for a long time been considered to be on the other side of the tracks, but it has a growing “foodie“movement and we got a lot of credibility from the community for putting our first store there. It would have been very easy to find a part of town with very high incomes and do well, but we didn't think that was right for us and we will continue to try and find places like East Nashville to open in.
Q. What advice would you give to someone contemplating working for a middle market company vs. a bigger name company?
A. I don't know that the resume looks better with a big name on it. I'm not more impressed because you went to work for a big firm than a small one. When I look at a resume, I value much higher someone who has an entrepreneurial bent. That doesn't mean you have to start your own company, but you have to have figured out how to get things done. That's not always the case when you start out at a big firm. That being said, those are wonderful places to work and they let you do amazing great big things. I'm not here to tell you that working at a middle market firm is better than working at a mega firm because it may not be. It's going to depend on the job.
My suggestion would be to be real honest with yourself about the individual job opportunity and your skills. If the difference is a few thousand bucks in pay, don't worry about that. It's nothing in the grand scheme, so worry more about your gut feeling on where you have the best opportunity to shine or learn quickly.
To learn more about this unique company, the National Center for the Middle Market sat down with John Lowe, Jeni's CEO, to get his insights and perspectives. See what he had to say on these topics:
The Story of Jeni's: Culture:
Working in the MM: What's Next: