…The value of listening to customers. American Blossom has only been selling for about two years. In this time, I have gotten to know some wonderful customers. I make it a priority to speak directly with customers at every opportunity. I read every review and I have involvement in any problem that occurs. This gives me early warning about anything I need to improve. I also get wonderful suggestions which helps to improve the product. One customer, Lynn who is a UX writer, has placed several orders with us and volunteered to help us improve our website navigation. Our IT director made several of the changes she recommended.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Janet Wischnia.
Janet Wischnia is the founder of American Blossom Linens, a high quality, sustainable, organic, ‘Made in the USA’ bedding company. Its origins spring from the family-owned textile manufacturing business she grew up in, ATD-American Company. Started in 1931 by her grandfather, the business was passed down to her father Jerome and uncles Spencer and Arnold, and she became president in 2003. Janet is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University (MBA).
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
My dad introduced me to this business when I was 5 years old. He brought home scrap work papers for me to scribble on while he did his own work at night. During school holidays, he would bring me to the office where he taught me how to fold pillowcases. I would deliver folders to other people in the company so that I would get to know them and they would get to know me. I worked in my family’s business, ATD-American Company, for almost 40 years. I became President when my dad retired in 2003. (By the way, my dad passed away in July at almost 95, and he still came to the office every day up until a month before he passed away.)
My grandfather started the company in 1931 with one retail linen store in the downtown area of Philadelphia. When my dad and his two brothers joined the business, they opened a second store. Over the 90 years we have been in business, the company has been reinvented several times. Under the leadership of my dad and uncles, it transitioned from a retail business to a wholesale manufacturer and distributor of textiles and other products to government agencies.
As the company grew, we expanded beyond bedding products to the healthcare and hospitality markets. Those markets grew to be larger than the government market. We sold so many sheets that it became cost effective to start doing the manufacturing in-house. Right after 9/11/2001, we bought one of our major competitors, Thomaston Mills, who had declared bankruptcy. They had a much larger facility, more automated equipment and a highly trained workforce. It gave us the ability to produce higher volumes at a lower cost and faster turnaround.
Much like now, the period after 9/11 was filled with uncertainty. The hospitality industry was heavily affected by a general decrease in travel. We also faced challenges due to changes in the global trade policies and the drive for “cheap” products where low cost rather than better quality became the prime consideration. During this period, more than a million textile jobs left the US.
We have survived these difficult times because of our quality and speed. We have developed the ability to provide customized, quality products with quick turnaround, enabling us to continue manufacturing in the USA.
Can you please give us your most relevant “Life Lesson Quote”?
My favorite life lesson quote is from Winston Churchill — “Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” It is relevant because success is all about the journey. If you never try to get out of your comfort zone, you will never get better and succeed and a big part of that is dealing with the failures that inevitably come. You need to embrace the failures.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much?
The top three qualities that I possess are persistence, faith and constant learning.
A great example of persistence is our company’s insistence on manufacturing in the USA. In the 1980’s and 1990’s with increased global trade, virtually all of the textile manufacturing moved primarily to India, Southeast Asia and China. At that time our business sold to the government, healthcare and hospitality trade. We had been using contractors to manufacture the bedding that we sold to these customers.
As our business grew, we began to sell more product than our contractors could successfully provide. In 1992 we started our first small manufacturing facility in Virginia. My husband and I moved to Virginia along with our children to start this facility. We hired and trained the people and purchased the necessary equipment. As time went by, we began to outgrow this factory. In 2001 one of our previous contractors, Thomaston Mills went bankrupt. We decided to buy them out, and to buck the trend of manufacturing jobs leaving the US. We continued to employ these wonderful American craftsmen and sell products made in the USA.
I would say faith is the hardest of these three qualities to maintain but it is so important to have. We started the American Blossom Linens brand in 2019 and sales were good, but I hoped to grow much bigger. 2019 was a year of learning and in 2020 I planned to take all of the lessons learned and rachet up our growth. Then the pandemic hit in March. Like every other small business, I was worried that sales would come to a screeching halt and we quickly tried to slow down production so that we would not have an overabundance of inventory and no one to buy it. The funny thing is that about a month later the exact opposite situation occurred. Due to the fact that people were working from home and wanted to enhance their bedrooms, and also all of the publicity concerning the lack of PPE resulting from our reliance on China, more people to wanted to buy ‘Made in USA’ bedding. Our sales went up 400% and we had to quickly build up our production. I had to have faith that sales would materialize and that my team could quickly fulfill the demand we were blessed with.
The last quality is constant learning. Through my life I have found it exciting and helpful to always read and learn. I constantly read books on business. My current favorite is Building a Story Brand by Donald Miller. Currently I am reading about how to do better email marketing. I also read books about self-improvement. My current favorite is The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams.
At the age of 43, I decided that I needed more business training. I had 3 children, the youngest was 3 and I decided to go to an Executive MBA program. I was working, studying and raising children. It was a fun but busy time.
When we started our brand, my team members and I knew nothing about selling online or about retail marketing. As a team we set out to learn how to do it by reading, watching video tutorials and seeking out people that knew more than we did. Together we learned how to build and optimize a website and do SEO (Search Engine Optimization). We faced and overcame many obstacles.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
As I said earlier, my Dad took me under his wing when I was five and started to train me in business. Although I did go through a rebellious stage when I was in college (more on that later), I did graduate from University of Pennsylvania and started work at the family business two weeks later. At the time our main business was selling textile and furniture products to government and quasi-government agencies. I started as an entry level customer service associate, I worked on quotes to customers, became a product manager and over the years became the manager of the contracts department, the national sales manager and eventually the President in 2003.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
I reinvented myself by doing what I always do: set goals, set up tasks, learn all I can, ask for advice, work with my team, persist in my efforts and try very hard to keep the faith. One of the skills I learned that helped me to reinvent myself was the ability to analyze and look critically at a situation. This was something I developed by working on government contracts for many years. You have to understand what the contract requires and analyze the situation to find the best way to meet the needs of the customer and get the sale of the right product at the right time at the right price. This analysis applies to most situations in business
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
I turned 60 in 2019 and had been doing a lot of thinking about what direction I wanted my career to take. Two of my three children are married, and I had 2 grandchildren. I did not want the responsibility of being President, but I wanted to stay with the business. I had the itch to learn something new.
With all of the publicity about ‘Made in America’, the growing concern about sustainability and the environment and the growth of the direct-to-consumer model, I thought I would try to take our company back to our retail roots. Caring and responsible stewardship are important values in our family. Thomaston Mills, our manufacturing plant, had been in business since 1899 and our company had been in business since 1931. How could we protect some of these last remaining American textile manufacturing jobs, and also satisfy the demand we saw for American Made products? It became my mission to create ’Made in the USA’ products that consumers could trust, that were made to last, using only safe and sustainable manufacturing methods. I stepped down as President, turned that job over to my very capable cousin Robert Zaslow, and began to plan our new brand, American Blossom Linens — bedding made in the USA from 100% organic Western Texas cotton.
What did you do to develop this new entrepreneurial skill set? What barriers did you overcome?
When you are an entrepreneur with a mission, you develop the skillsets you need to do the job. You build a motivated team and help the people around you develop the skills that you may not be good at. I searched for people that could teach me online advertising and learned social media, video and photo production while other teammates learned how to build and optimize websites and do email marketing. You overcome barriers by hard, thoughtful work, teamwork, and brute strength. You just do what you have to do. One habit that helps to maintain my will, perseverance and courage is exercise. I find that when I regularly exercise, I have less fear and my mood is calmer. My exercise of choice is spinning. After my gym went out of business, I bought a Peloton. That bike helped my get through 2020!
How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some stories!
It is going great. As I said earlier, in 2020 our sales went up 400% over the previous year. Of course, the pandemic did cause a few supply issues, as experienced by most manufacturing companies. Demand was greater than the supply — but that is a good problem to have. The best and most surprising aspect of this has been that I have gotten to know some great people. I have become friends with many of our customers. We email, text and I have even taken a socially distanced walk with one of them. When my Dad passed away in July, many sent me condolence emails. The support for our products has been overwhelming. People email me all the time to tell me that they have been looking for bedding like their grandmother had and that they want to buy only USA made products. We have close to 500 very positive reviews.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are?
Frankly it is hard to choose just one. I have wonderful sisters, children, friends, cousins and coworkers who provide me constant encouragement and ideas. The people that took care of my Dad when he was ill, have helped me with support and even ironed sheets for my photo shoots. I would say that I am particularly grateful toward my Dad, Jerry, and my husband Eric. My Dad started training me in business and he taught me the meaning of being responsible, dedicated and trustworthy in all aspects of life and business. He encouraged me to learn from the ground up about business and had me do almost every entry level job at the company during my summer vacations.
Like many teenagers, I did go through a rebellious stage. When I went to college, I decided to only take liberal arts courses, but no business courses. When I was nearing the end of my senior year at the University of Pennsylvania with no idea what I was going to do upon graduation, my then boyfriend, now husband, Eric, said you should go work at the family business. He said you have a really good mind for business, and you like it, so why not do it. I am very thankful to both of them for their encouragement. It has been fun so far (most of the time) and I look forward to seeing where this new venture will take us.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
I would say the most interesting thing that has happened has been working and becoming friends with Sally Fox. Our brand prides itself on sustainability. I had been looking to introduce a new color to our line at the end of 2019. A colleague who works at a weaving plant introduced me to Sally who created a brand of cotton called Foxfibre®. She is a “cotton pioneer”: in the 1980’s she was the first one to develop the systems to grow and promote organic cotton in the USA, which started the conversation about organic textiles. The naturally colored cottons that Sally works with have existed for centuries and can be traced back at least 4300 years and originated in the Americas. Heirloom cotton was once abundant and grew in a rainbow of shades including green, yellow, blue and brown. She did what no one thought was possible. She hand-bred ancient, naturally pest resistant varieties of cotton that can be grown using organic and biodynamic farming methods. She was able to develop long staple lengths that allowed the cotton fiber to be spun into high quality yarn. Together we created our Latte Linen fabric which is made from a blend of Foxfibre® and West Texas organic cotton https://americanblossomlinens.com/collections/all/products/classic-american-made-organic-foxfibre-cotton-sheets. When we introduced the product, we decided to make a series of videos interviewing Sally about her journey. That was something I had never done and certainly got me out of my comfort zone. You can see them here https://americanblossomlinens.com/pages/fox-fibre.
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome limiting beliefs about yourself?
I struggle every day to believe in myself. Every day I don’t feel up to the task and the mission of this brand but then I just get up and go do it. I take one step at a time and one thing at a time. Frankly having a mission is so crucial because it helps you to get over the self-doubt and gets you back on track. The mission outweighs the doubt. I just keep pushing forward. My husband says that I am courageous because fearless people have it easy, but I have to constantly fight my fear and do what I do in spite of the fear.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
One of my strengths networking, so this really helped in this new endeavor. Cultivating teamwork is crucial. It has been so important for me to gather experienced, motivated individuals within our company to handle manufacturing, packaging, shipping and building our website. I also have friends helping — my best friend from college writes blog posts, and another friend helps with line art, and yet another does photo shoots. My family — husband, sisters, and cousins — have tested the product and given me so much encouragement. Experts outside of our company help with design, advertising ideas, strategy and implementation. Tanya, wife of one of our sales people, has her own graphic design company (https://designfiveseven.com/) which helped me to develop the look of the brand and we have had such fun. We even went on a road trip to do a photo shoot together before COVID . After working with three online advertising companies, I found Uri at Adjust Media (https://www.adjustmedia.co) who has been wonderful to work with and a perfect advisor. I feel blessed to have such a talented and supportive network to help me bring my idea to market.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that?
The truth is I never get comfortable getting out of my comfort zone. I make it tolerable by continuing to learn and exercising to reduce stress. The main thing that keeps me moving forward is focusing on our mission to create jobs in the USA and having gratitude for all those that are on the team and the customers who care so much about us and support us. The whole journey has been an exercise in getting out of my comfort zone. Remember, I knew nothing about retail marketing or building a website!
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” ?
- The value of listening to customers. American Blossom has only been selling for about two years. In this time, I have gotten to know some wonderful customers. I make it a priority to speak directly with customers at every opportunity. I read every review and I have involvement in any problem that occurs. This gives me early warning about anything I need to improve. I also get wonderful suggestions which helps to improve the product. One customer, Lynn who is a UX writer, has placed several orders with us and volunteered to help us improve our website navigation. Our IT director made several of the changes she recommended.
- The value of listening to employees. Not being very experienced with retail packaging, I went to our sewing supervisor, production planners and plant manager for guidance. It was their idea to make the box from recycled cardboard and not use any plastic packaging. We have less waste which is of course better for the environment and is appreciated by our customers.
- The value of listening to vendors. I was looking to make a product that was environmentally friendly and different from other products in the marketplace. One of our long-time partners introduced me to Sally Fox, the breeder and supplier of FoxFibre® organic cotton that is grown in a color. It enables us to produce fabric that is colored, but dye free. I have had the opportunity to visit Sally at her farm and now we have become friends.
- The value of listening to your “Gut”. I started this process because I wanted to make sustainable, ‘Made in the USA’ bedding that I personally would love to sleep in. Using organic cotton, heavier more substantial fabric, deeper pockets and more generously-sized flat sheets was the right decision. Customers are ordering, we have 96% 5-star reviews. Best of all, customers call me just to tell me how much they like the product.
- The value of NOT listening. When the going gets tough, don’t listen to” it can’t be done.” Throughout my career I have been told many times “you cannot do that”; “it’s cheaper to make bedding overseas”; “no one will pay the price for the American Blossom quality”. Well, after two years we have proved them wrong. We will make this a success because it is a great product, and it is also the right thing to do to keep jobs in the USA.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
This is a very easy question for me. I would start a movement to educate people on the importance of buying products Made in the USA. For over 30 years we as consumers have allowed our manufacturing jobs to be sent overseas. This has affected most industries from medicine to electronics, equipment, furniture, clothing and of course bedding. The American people have continued to support companies that have moved production to China and India in pursuit of “cheap.” Economists say that if things cost less everyone benefits but is this really true. Is “cheap” really the best?
In times like this ,with COVID-19 threatening supply chains and jobs, maybe we should rethink our buying habits. We pay the price for these “inexpensive throw away” items in lost jobs, environmental problems, ever larger landfills, and lack of control of products that we rely on to live our lives.
Manufacturing here in the USA certainly helps our economy. USA manufacturers are held to much higher wage, environmental and safety standards which makes price competition difficult, but the benefits are worth the extra cost. While most of the textile manufacturing left the USA, as a family business, we felt it was important to take care of our larger community, so we made the decision to do what it takes to continue manufacturing in Georgia. It has not been easy, but we have been committed because it is the right thing to do. In the process we have built up our manufacturing capabilities, used technology where we could, partnered with other American suppliers and most importantly worked hard and just kept pushing forward.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there someone with whom you would love to have a private meal with, and why? (He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂 )
There are two entrepreneurs that I would love to meet. First of all, I am a Shark Tank junkie. It is practically the only show my husband and I watch. We have watched most episodes more than one time. I would love to meet Laurie Greiner. She is intelligent, hardworking, persistent and still very kind to all of the contestants — and I love the way she dresses! The second person is Peter Thiel. He believes in avoiding competition by thinking in unique ways that overcome the status quo. American Blossom bucks the trend of chasing after the lowest price at the expense quality, sustainability and responsibility.
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?https://www.pinterest.com/americanblossomlinens/
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!