We are all learning to slow down and appreciate everyday experiences. Before the pandemic I never realized how much I took for granted. I’ve been spending a lot more time with my kids than I ever have before, and it will probably be the most time I ever will get to spend with them. While I have to balance being a business owner and a mom, I cherish the time I get to spend with them and appreciate that we’re all happy and healthy.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of my series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alison Gutterman, president and CEO of Jelmar, the family-owned cleaning products manufacturer of CLR and Tarn-X products. She began her career at Jelmar in 1993 without a title or a desk, and in 2007, she was named president, bringing the company unprecedented success with her modern approach and leadership techniques. She also balances work with parenthood as a single mother of two children, and she resides in the greater Chicago area.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Jelmar is a third-generation family-owned business that my grandfather, Manny Gutterman, started in 1967. My father and his brother came on board in the 1980s, and I started at Jelmar in 1993 without a title or a desk. I got promoted to CEO in 2007, and now hold the titles of President, CEO, and Owner of Jelmar. When I first joined Jelmar, I had no official training in the company, but I don’t think my father had any formal training when he took his role in the business with his father. I tackled a lot of projects no one else wanted to do — and that I wasn’t necessarily qualified to do.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
As someone who runs and owns a business that focuses on cleaning products, a lot of people find it ironic that I really dislike cleaning. I learned early on in business that you should outsource the things someone else can do better, so I have people who help me with my cleaning. I outsource the things I don’t necessarily enjoy doing, which enables me to spend more time with my kids.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are working to develop new products that we hope will be in distribution in the first quarter of 2021. We are introducing more products at once than we ever have in our 70-plus years of operating. These new products will satisfy cleaning needs by offering customers the cleaning power of CLR that customers want and need.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My mom is the person who helped me get where I am today. After college, I thought I’d end up working in communications or going to law school. Had it not been for my mom, my father would have never thought to offer me a job in the family business. My mom was always a great cheerleader who supported me in my endeavors; she also challenged my father when transitioning the company leadership in 2007 to “get out of Alison’s way and let her lead.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
As a single mom, it has been a challenge to make sure that my kids are not only going to school but also engaging in the lessons their teachers give them. My kids usually go to overnight camp during the summer, but that camp was canceled due to COVID-19. As a result, it has been difficult to figure out my summer plans after theirs have changed so much.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I am lucky that I have a long-term care provider who has really stepped in and helped keep an eye on the kids. Having this support has been great for me and my children. I’m also thankful that we do have technology so that they can connect with friends virtually.
I’m also helping the kids keep up their relationships with their friends while balancing my own friendships and work. A lot of my mom friends already dislike summers because there is too much free time and kids are bored, so it’s important to make time for yourself as a mom to catch up with friends and family your own age. To stay connected with my friends, I send them funny memes, Snapchat messages or videos, and new music I’m enjoying to let them know I’m thinking about them.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
Personally, it has been challenging to not have the same interpersonal relationships with my team that we enjoyed when we were in the same space. When I worked in the office before the pandemic, I routinely spent time with co-workers by popping in for quick chats to remain visible. This is difficult to do now that I have to set up a video call and calendar invite instead of just stopping by someone’s desk to say hello.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I’ve just had to accept that this is the way we’re doing business right now. I try to keep in touch with my team by setting up Zoom meetings, and then I send them little gifts to show how much I appreciate all of their hard work during this challenging time.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
People have to learn how to be kind to themselves and give themselves grace. No one can do it all, and we all have to let go of some control. Understand that it will take time to adjust to this new way of life. I’m not quite sure how everything will work this fall as I have two children at different schools — which have different schedules — but I have to trust that it’s ultimately going to be OK.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
I view this time as a way to connect with my kids. I am spending much more time with them than I ever have before — and more than I probably ever will. Here are a few ways I’ve maintained my sanity throughout our time together:
- Take walks outside. It’s the middle of the summer, so we have more freedom to be outside while social distancing. We currently like to take family walks nightly to bond as a family and to be physically outside of the house.
- Set up a shared document for food and drink recipes. It seems like people who had no cooking skills whatsoever before the pandemic have suddenly become incredible chefs who make fantastic recipes. Creating a shared document with family members and friends is a great way to share recipes that older kids can make on their own, try new foods, and rediscover traditional family recipes.
- Order carryout or delivery. For those who need a break from cooking, I recommend picking up some restaurant gift cards. Food delivery purchases have increased since the start of the pandemic, but a lot of people may not be treating themselves to a “night out” in their own homes. Gift cards from area restaurants offer a great way to support local businesses while safely getting curbside pickup or delivery.
- Set up video calls with friends and family. My daughter’s birthday usually falls during the summer months when she’s at camp, so she sadly wasn’t able to celebrate with her camp friends this year. Thanks to technology, the camp was still able to share a special birthday wake-up song and care package to make her feel special.
- Reach out to your friends or other working parents to connect during this difficult time. We’re all going through something we’ve never experienced before. As working parents, you can share stories and tips to help keep your kids entertained while you work.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- We should recognize that this crisis is a way for us as communities to reassess our behavior. I believe there are two ways to think about this:
- Give yourself some grace: I have noticed during this pandemic that business leaders are cutting themselves and their teams more slack, being more empathetic, and feeling more relaxed, which has been a step in the right direction. No one really knows what’s going to happen next, so it’s important to look at how we treat our employees as what we do now will be remembered for years to come.
- Practice Sustainable Ethical Behavior: The other important idea to keep in mind is to ask whether your business is practicing sustainable, ethical, and moral behavior. Consumers are more conscious than ever about how their products are made, which is why the team at Jelmar is committed to producing products that perform while being safer for human health and the environment.
- We are all learning to slow down and appreciate everyday experiences. Before the pandemic I never realized how much I took for granted. I’ve been spending a lot more time with my kids than I ever have before, and it will probably be the most time I ever will get to spend with them. While I have to balance being a business owner and a mom, I cherish the time I get to spend with them and appreciate that we’re all happy and healthy.
- Allowing colleagues to see a glimpse of our family life. As the president of Jelmar, I think a lot about the happiness and well-being of my employees. I want to do everything I can to provide them the same flexibility I want for myself and my family. I have tried to find way to reward them, such as regular 4:30 p.m. closings and half days on Fridays. The majority of us have been working from home since the pandemic started, which means we’re seeing our co-workers’ lives outside of the office. We see messy houses, pets that want affection, kids playing in the background, etc. It might sound distracting, but it has allowed us to see each other in a whole new light — I’m more appreciative of how everyone is still able to get their work done under these unusual circumstances.
- Realizing that workers can operate in different environments. At Jelmar, we’ve always empowered employees to use their judgment to determine if and when they would like to work remotely. My team members have repaid this trust with their loyalty and a desire to help the business succeed. Now that many office jobs have transitioned to a remote setup, we can see that working remotely doesn’t mean that people aren’t working effectively.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain? For my children, I just try and listen to their fears. Like most parents, I don’t know what will happen from day to day. I have to acknowledge my kids’ anxiety and fears.
I’ve also found myself reaching out to my friends more to make sure they’re OK. I’ll make time to interact with them by sending them a quick message or a funny meme to let them know I’m thinking about them, but it’s OK to keep to yourself if you’re not in the mood to interact.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Life Lesson: “Unless you fail, you’ll never know what success really is.”
One business setback I’ve faced came when a major retail account discontinued one of our products. We ended up losing millions of dollars in sales, and I felt like I had lost the respect of my colleagues. After some reflection, I realized how fortunate I was that our company could sustain this setback until we were able to get distribution back on track. That experience showed me that I have a trustworthy team that will support me through difficult times while we work together to improve our company.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!