Jacob Kindleberger’s Secret: Caring IS Good Business

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Many people seem to think that being in business means that you can’t care about anybody but yourself. There are many many stories that back up this assumption. But I believe the exact opposite. I believe that caring about others is the very core of any business. It should be one of the primary goals of every business person. Jacob Kindleberger believed the same thing. Jacob spent as much time and energy caring for his employees, customers, and stockholders as he did for himself or his business. He knew that the secret to real, lasting success lies in building up those around you so that you too can be built up.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Jacob Kindleberger was born to John Kindleberger and Otilda Frealich on February 27, 1875. He was the third of what would become six children in all. At the time he was born the family lived about 5 miles outside Strasburg, Germany. His father worked making paper by hand. John Kindleberger wanted to avoid compulsory service in the German army. He emigrated with his family to the United States in 1880. The family first moved to Cincinnati, then Dayton and finally West Carrolton, Ohio.

John Kindleberger continued to work in the papermaking industry but struggled to support his family. Young Jacob, who had very poor eyesight, never entered elementary school. Instead, he was pressed into working to help support the family. He worked at a variety of odd jobs including cleaning up yards, selling papers, and picking up peach seeds out of the gutter. Jacob sold the peach seeds to the men at the old soldiers home who whittled them into small trinkets and sold them. The peach seeds earned him a nickel a quart.

Around the age of 10 or 11, Jacob got a job at a paper mill in West Carrolton, Ohio. He worked in the rag room cutting buttons and seams off of the rags. He emptied the pockets and then sorted the rags by the type of cloth before they were washed and made into pulp. Because of his poor eyesight and the dark work area, Jacob did most of this work by feel. He worked up to 13 hours a day in this dirty, dark and poorly ventilated space. If he made a mistake or slacked off, he would get a kick from the foreman. In the rag room, Jacob received 25 cents an hour for his labor.

A couple of years late Jacob was promoted to working on a paper machine. He also got a raise to 30 cents an hour. Another two years and he got another promotion but no pay raise. He was now doing a “man’s” job and as such his life was limited to work, eat, sleep, work again. Jacob was now 15 years old, he could not read or write and his lot in life was set in stone. Jacob had no ambition. There was nothing to look forward to but poverty and back-breaking work. Had it not been for a singularly transforming event, Jacobs life story could have ended now. A tragic yet boring story of toil and discouragement.

THE TRANSFORMATION

On a fall evening, while he was 15, Jacob and some friends decided to entertain themselves by going to a local church revival and mocking the speaker. Jacob, who expected to be having a grand time heckling the minister, was mesmerized by the preacher’s message that night. At the end of the sermon, an altar call was given and Jacob came forward. This unplanned event changed the course of Jacobs life. He dedicated his every leisure minute to the church. His former companions ridiculed him for wasting his time with the church people. But the time he spent in the church was far from wasted. The woman who taught his Sunday School class gave him a Bible and used it to teach Jacob to read and write.

Reading and Writing were extremely difficult for Jacob because of his poor vision. For years no one had considered that Jacob’s difficulties were because of his eyes. Jacob didn’t realize that he saw anything any different from other people. His world was a blur and he believed that this was normal. At 19 years old, with the help of his church, Jacob finally got fitted for glasses. He saw the world through new eyes and found a new sense of purpose. Because of his appreciation for all the good his church had done for him, Jacob decided he wanted to be a minister.

At the age of 24, the half-blind man who never went to school entered the Academy at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. Jacob sold books, hat racks and steam cookers door to door in order to support himself and pay for his tuition. He worked hard and completed his Academy classes in 3 years. He entered the University itself when he was 27. Almost immediately Jacob found himself completely unprepared for the university level classes. He lived in almost constant fear of flunking out. His poor vision and the need to work to support himself, as well as his mother and younger brother, made studying all but impossible. After 3-1/2 years of university classes, working and studying through sleepless nights, Jacob’s eyes failed him.

A MAJOR SETBACK

Jacob was informed by a doctor that he faced certain blindness if he tried to continue his studies. He had a slight chance of regaining his vision provided he dropped out of the university and gave his eyes a chance to heal. Jacob was devastated by this news but determined to not let his setback ruin his life. He dropped out of the university but never abandoned his passion for being a minister. Jacob redoubled his efforts in his selling and began to see some success. Before long he was making as much as 100 dollars a week selling cookers. This is about the same as making 3,000 dollars a week today.

While at the train station, supervising the unloading of some cookers he had sold, Jacob ran into the head of the local paper mill he had once worked for. The man was so impressed with Jacobs success that he offered him a job selling paper for the mill. Jacob was offered 15 dollars a week to sell paper. He took it, seeing it as a much better long term opportunity than door to door selling. Jacob was given the entire United Staes, Canada, and Mexico as his sales territory. As a salesman on the road, Jacob made many contacts and acquaintances that would be of immense value to him later. He also provided himself with an invaluable education about the paper industry and about the various industries that relied on paper. It didn’t take long before Jacob was earning more than 500 dollars a month. He became well known for his paper sales success.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

In 1909 Jacob received a letter from his sister’s husband, Harry Zimmerman. Harry had gone to Kalamazoo, Michigan to work at a paper mill there. Harry was quite excited about the possibility of starting another paper mill in Kalamazoo. A parchment paper mill. Parchment was a very specialized paper at the time. It was valuable for its being insoluble in water and very greaseproof. The burgeoning food industry was overcoming the challenges of packaging and many food manufacturers were using parchment. Jacob went to Kalamazoo to assess the possibilities for himself. Kalamazoo was already well known as a paper manufacturing center and Jacob found it to be well suited to start another mill there.

Jacob was fired up by the possibilities in front of him. He immediately set to work raising the capital to start a parchment paper mill. His talent and experience selling served him well and he quickly raised 50,000 dollars. On October 27, 1909, Jacob Kindleberger started the Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Company about two miles outside of Kalamazoo along the Kalamazoo River. The company started with one cheap machine in the newly purchased grounds of a defunct beet sugar factory. To be close to his new business Jacob moved his family into the office building of the old sugar company. His 12 employees lived in tents nearby.

START LEAN, STAY HUNGRY

Jacob, his family, and his employees lived in rough conditions for the first two years after starting the company. The workers living in tents, cooking in the open and working long days at the new plant. As in any business, the start was slow and there were few orders coming in. Having spent most of the capital on the property, the machine, and the raw materials to get started there was little left. In fact, the company was unable to make its first payroll. Sliding into the red and with a dark future in front of him, Jacob was pressed to find an outlet for his product.

One day Jacob overheard two women talking on a trolley car. The women were complaining that nobody made shelf paper in a width suitable for their shelves. This meant that they either needed to cut the paper and waste the remainder or use newspaper. This gave Jacob an idea about a completely new and untouched market. The KVP Company began making paper in sizes suitable for home use. They make shelf paper. They also made paper for a variety of other household tasks from covering ice in the summer to changing babies. The company put together packages of a variety of household sized papers and printed packaging that listed the uses for each size. With no competition and a welcoming market, these papers sold quickly. The orders generated the income needed to support the mill. For the rest of the companies existence, even through the Great Depression, the KVP mill never shut down due to a lack of orders.

Because of his sales experience, Jacob knew how to expand and grow his flourishing company. By 1910 KVP had purchased a waxing machine and began production of waxed parchment. This relatively new product was in high demand in the meat and dairy industries. It quickly became popular in other kinds of product packaging. The company added its own printing press so it could sell preprinted packaging besides the raw paper. The papermaking industry was becoming very profitable for KVP and Jacob Kindleberger.

CARING FOR YOUR EMPLOYEES

The Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Company was just starting to take off. It began purchasing the land around itself for worker housing. KVP offered this land for sale to its employees to build real houses for themselves and their families. Jacob Kindleberger oversaw most of this house building himself. He had a real knack for seeing the potential of a piece of land. He helped his employees build nice family homes with beautifully landscaped yards. He helped see them filled with happy people.

Jacob knew the value of his workforce. He understood that happy loyal employees were the best kind. The town grew along with the mill. In 1930 the Village of Parchment was formed from the northern part of Kalamazoo Township. Because the KVP mill bore most of the municipal expenses the taxes in Parchment were low and the residents quite happy. The residents of Parchment enjoyed nice streets, water and sewer services. Parchment had a police department and a fire department. All paid for by the KVP company where most of them were employed. Parchment was no ordinary mill town and Jacob Kindleberger was no ordinary businessman.

Remembering how he had been treated earlier in life, Jacob was careful to treat his own employees with respect and reward them for good work. He believed in the Golden Rule and he believed that it applied to companies as much as to people. Jacob was a firm believer in promoting employees in accordance with their abilities. One of his goals was to never see a man langer in a job for which he was overqualified. This helped to motivate him to expand and grow his company. This way he could hire more employees and promote those who deserved it. Jacob believed the most charitable act that could be performed was to give a man an opportunity to earn a good living through his own efforts and an opportunity to advance as his ability dictated. As the company grew most of his senior staff came from the ranks of men who had worked hard to help build the company.

CARING FOR YOUR CUSTOMERS

Mr. Kindleberger’s fundamental principle of business was to know what your customer wants and excel in serving that need. He knew most of his customers personally. He would spend large amounts of time working to ensure that the paper KVP made was the best product for each of them. Even in his early years as a paper salesman, Jacob was known for calling on clients himself to ensure their needs were being met.

Because KVP supplied a large amount of waxed paper for the food packaging industry he demanded all areas of the mill be clean at all times. He expected his employees to keep their work areas every bit as clean as the food packaging plants their paper was being sold to. KVP was an innovative company because Jacob wanted to serve the needs of every customer in the best way he could. He is said to have found a number of new markets simply by listening to the people around him. He then worked to develop a product to fill their needs. Like two women on a trolley car who needed paper to line their shelves.

The man was known for being a superb public speaker but he is too often not recognized for his listening skills. Listening to his customers and potential customers was a big part of KVP’s success. Jacob cared about these people. He wanted them to be successful, especially if they were successful using KVP parchment. KVP was an innovator in the paper markets because Jacob knew how to listen and made his customers’ needs a priority.

CARING FOR YOUR COMMUNITY

One summer, during the Great Depression, Jacob noticed that young men and boys who were having trouble finding work were beginning to hang out on street corners. There were no real problems yet but Jacob knew that it was only a matter of time. He commissioned the school principal to take charge of the young men and see them set to some constructive tasks. Under Jacob’s supervision, the principal organized the boys into a kind of corporation. They became administrators, salesmen, laborers and so on. The boys were set to the task of finding work for all of them by doing odd jobs for residents or working on projects for the town. The young ladies of the town soon saw the boys earning money and they wanted in on it too. The girls were turned over to one of the Ladies Auxiliary leaders. Much the same structure was applied to them. This helped keep the young people of Parchment from idle troublemaking. It taught them the value of money and hard work.

Jacob and his wife deeded 40 acres of farmland to the City of Parchment in 1932. This land was used to create a community park for the benefit of the entire community. This park became known as the “Jewel of Parchment” and owes a lot of its aesthetics to Jacob himself. Jacob would walk through the park and the town most days making mental notes about what improvements could be made. He would not hesitate to tell a property owner that his fence needed painting or his lawn needed tending. There was no resentment over these suggestions. It was well known that they were made for the benefit of the community.

Jacob’s principles of caring for his employees carried over into all the community. He believed that his obligation did not stop at the person he employed. He felt obligated to every member of their family and to everyone that lived in Parchment. He threw lavish Christmas parties every year at the Parchment community center. He took an interest in the schools of parchment to ensure that the children were being brought up well. He took a personal interest in every building project to ensure that it met the needs of the community.

THE END OR THE BEGINNING

Jacob Kindleberger is a businessman that I admire and aspire to emulate. He truly cared about his company, his employees, his customers, and his community. He was a generous benefactor to numerous charities. He was a man of principles and character. At his funeral in 1947, he was remembered as a man who started with nothing and built a life that enabled him to give back to his community more than most men ever earn. A man of great enthusiasm and good humor, well loved and sorely missed.

Now it is our turn. Can we reach for success while keeping our souls? Can we build our businesses and our lives on the principles of honesty, integrity and caring for our communities? I believe we can, the bigger question is, will we? I will, how about you?

Thank you for reading my ramblings. I hope that I have inspired you to achieve success through listening and serving. I would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions in the comment section below or you can use my Contact Form. If you have any questions about ethics in online marketing please check out this blog post where I discuss that very subject. Above all, have a wonderful day!