Photos by J. Alan Paul and courtesy of KLN Family Brands
If there’s one thing Allegro Group Founder and CEO Kara Jorvig is passionate about, it’s leadership — how to spot it, how to develop it and how to keep it. “Coffee with Kara” is her chance to sit down with prominent local business leaders to discuss their own leadership philosophies and get to know another side of their personalities. This month, she chats with KLN Family Brands President Charlie Nelson, the third-generation leader of the Perham, Minnesota-based candy and pet food manufacturer.
Kara Jorvig: It’s so interesting how KLN has chosen to stay and grow in Perham for all these years, despite being surrounded on either side by two major metro areas. Tell me about that.
Charlie Nelson: Perham is home. It’s where the people who have made us who we are live and call home, and it’s where we always plan to be. We’ve expanded at times, but we’ve never left and never would. We have a number of people who have been with us for 30 or 40 years who started on Saturdays sweeping the warehouse and now make decisions that affect our business every day. They treat our business like it’s theirs because it is.
Jorvig: Being based in a town of a few thousand people, do you ever feel pressure to succeed not only for the business itself but also for the community?
Nelson: A little bit. But we have a number of organizations and companies in town that are doing really good things. In general, we’re progressive and aggressive. You’re not seeing a lot of that with smaller towns now, which is a bit unfortunate, but with us, it’s who we are.
We have a lot of good leaders in the community, and as much as people might think we’re the leader in the area, we’re often following outstanding people making great decisions every day. We all scratch each other’s backs and have a good thing going right now.
We do talk about employment quite a bit, though. As we continue to grow, we need to find people, and we need to offer a program that attracts them and makes them feel a part of the company family. I think we’re pretty good at it, but we’re trying to get better.
“Coffee with Kara”: Now on YouTube
Ever wonder what a rotten fishflavored jellybean tastes like? KLN Family Brands President Charlie Nelson found out, as he and “Coffee with Kara” host Kara Jorvig took the BeanBoozled Challenge together. Check out the bonus video content on Fargo INC!’s YouTube channel.
Jorvig: What’s it like running a third-generation family business?
Nelson: There’s a story I sometimes tell when someone brings that up. When I was debating getting into the family company about 15 years ago, I sat down with a person I respect a great deal. I said I was thinking about doing this, and I expected a pat on the back and a “You’re perfect. You’re the guy. It’s gonna be a gas.” And instead he goes, “You know what they say about third-generation
companies.” I said, “I don’t.” And he says, “Oftentimes, the first generation builds the company; the second generation maintains the company; and the third generation blows the company.”
And we laughed a little bit, but I immediately took it as a challenge. I hadn’t really thought of that, that there were going to be some expectations, and people were going to be keeping an eye on things. And certainly, my grandpa built something, but the last thing in the world my dad does is maintain anything. He’s always been about building, creating and growing; I’ve never even heard him use the word “maintain.” I had a sense that wasn’t going to be who we were as a family, and certainly, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was see things go in the wrong direction.
What Is KLN Family Brands?
KLN Family Brands is the parent company of Kenny’s Candy & Confections and Tuffy’s Pet Foods, two companies well-known for their national brands. Based in Perham, Minnesota, and family-owned since its founding more than 50 years ago, KLN employs more than 500 people, who work for the company for 20 years on average.
Darrell “Tuffy” Nelson
Jorvig: I’m interested in your thoughts on the dynamics of working in a family business, both the good and also the challenges that come with it.
Nelson: Well, my dad is semi-retired now as of a couple years ago. That “semi” means he still works plenty, but he comes and goes a little more. Every day he’s in, though, we’re sitting in a room talking about what’s next.
It’s really, truly been a good thing. My dad and I tend to agree a lot on where we want to take things. Certainly, there are times when we close the door and say, “Let’s get on the same page a little bit,” but I’ve always watched my dad treat people a certain way, and I’ve tried to learn from that. He always makes time for people, and that’s one thing I try to do as well.
It’s one thing I expect us, as a company, to do. We should always have time to visit with our employees, to visit with our suppliers or to call a customer. That’s first and foremost, and we try to never lose that.
Jorvig: When I think KLN, I think innovation. Tell me a little bit about your process. How do you stay focused on your traditional lines while also trying to open up new products and markets?
Nelson: Oftentimes, it’s about what the customer is looking for. We try to listen to them. They might like that we have “this” but also wonder why we don’t have “that.” With the pet food, specifically, we’re fortunate to have about 5,000 retailers we can reach out to and say, “We want to be No. 1 to you. What are we missing? What is the pet parent looking for?” We’re always listening.
The fun thing about being family-owned is that we’re nimble, and we don’t have to spend five years developing something. We kind of fly by the seat of our pants. It doesn’t always work, but that’s who we are. It allows us to be cutting-edge sometimes.
We’re also always visiting with our local farmers and growers and better understanding: What’s the next ingredient coming along? We look at organic ingredients and ancient grains and figure out how we can implement them into our products. We really try to listen to people who do it every day.
A Unique Perk
Perhaps the most progressive benefit KLN Family Brands offers is an on-site clinic for employee and dependents. When employees use the clinic, they pay zero for the office call and zero for hundreds of different medications if they use the company health insurance. Company president Charlie Nelson explains the thinking behind the concept.
“We’re competing for people,” says Nelson, who adds that employees don’t even have to make an appointment to be seen. “Whether it’s with a larger city like Fargo or anywhere in between, we have to offer it. It’s great to see parents be able to take their child in who has a cold, and they only have 15 minutes to do it.”
Jorvig: What’s a perception you think people have of what you, as the company president, do on a daily basis versus what you actually do?
Nelson: My dad and I were just talking about that the other day. One minute, we could be making a big decision that could affect our business for the next 50 years, and the next, we could be deciding who wins a $500 scholarship. It varies immensely what we’re doing one day, or even one minute, to the next.
One thing I do find myself doing now is getting more involved in a department where I feel like there’s more of a need. We try not to micromanage anybody. If a department hasn’t seen us for a while, that’s a good thing. If we’re spending a little more time in a particular area, that probably means there’s a little bit of a focus there. And for an employee, I think that again creates the mindset of: “This is my company. If we make money, I make it.”
A Different Approach to Workforce Development Perham Scholarships
KLN Family Brands provides scholarships to all Perham High School seniors who are pursuing some form of secondary education, whether it’s a four-year college, vocational training or military service. Just this year, they awarded more than $30,000 worth of scholarships to students in the community.
“We’re seeing a change right now in what ‘secondary education’ means,” says KLN president Charlie Nelson, who adds that the scholarships serve a number of different purposes. “Our thought with it is, ‘Hey, don’t forget about us.’ I’m kind of an example myself. I left Perham, didn’t know if I’d come back, and here I am, 25 years later with a family and enjoying the community.
“We hope everybody pursues their dream, and if that dream can take place in Perham, we’d like to ask you to consider doing so. It’s fun to give back to them when they’re 18, and we hope they remember us when they’re 28.”
Jorvig: What has been one of your most significant developments as a leader over your career?
Nelson: One of the biggest things for me was when I first joined our family company. I came from Merrill Lynch, where one day I was talking to people about how they should invest their money, and a week later, I was handing out a dog food sample in a feed store. It was about wearing whatever hat you had to wear, rolling up your sleeves and getting it done.
We try to do the best we can for our people, but there’s an expectation that they will do what it takes to get the job done. Nobody’s above anything. In fact, just recently, I asked our interns to go hand out some of our licorice to the truck drivers who sometimes have to stand in our lots for hours and thank them for being patient. And I said to, “If any of the interns have a problem with this, I’d like to know. Because they certainly won’t fit our company long-term.”
From a leadership standpoint, that’s our expectation, and we lead in that manner. We don’t expect anybody to do anything we haven’t done ourselves.