Independent Can Company
According to research, only 12 percent of family-owned businesses are still operating and viable by the third generation. With two fourth-generation progeny at the executive level, Independent Can Company, a family-owned business since 1929, has already beaten the odds.
“We operate the company from a core set of values we developed with our employees,” explains company President and CEO, Rick Huether. “Fair, Flexible, Market, Customer and Improvement Driven, Dedicated, Responsible, and committed to Teamwork. We hire, fire, retire and promote using those values to guide us. It’s what’s allowed us to not only survive but also thrive over the years. We work hard, but we’re committed to having fun while we do it. We all agree that if that ever changed, it would be time to do something else.”
While he has no day-to-day responsibilities, second-generation owner, Doug Huether, must still be having fun. The 86-year-old chairman of the board reports to work every day, making his way through the 370,000-square-foot company headquarters in Belcamp, transporting the mail, greeting employees and asking questions that he expects to be answered. He still maintains an office and regularly challenges staff members regarding customer care and product movement. “He overheard me once explaining the difference between two cans to a customer and was concerned they would be jeopardizing their product if I was switching them to a lower grade can,” remembers Donna Sichette, company marketing specialist. “I explained to him that I was reaffirming their decision to stay with the better can for quality. He’s very in tune to everything we do here.”
A popular adage about family businesses states that the first generation starts it, the second generation builds it, and the third generation kills it. A third-generation member of the business, Rick Huether defies that notion. “One of the first things my dad had to get used to was me wanting to obsolete things,” Huether admits. “When I started working here and tried to change something, he would argue that the company already made an investment and we should run like before. I had to show him that our customers’ desires were changing and that if we didn’t give them what they were looking for, someone else would.”
“Rick has a gift for knowing what we should be involved in,” says sister and fellow board member, Cathy McClelland, who works in sales. “He’ll have us invest in tooling for a new product before any of our customers actually ask for it. That way he knows we can be ready to deliver when the time comes.”
Huether joined his father’s company in 1975 after a call from then-sales manager Bob Link, a.k.a. “Uncle Bob,” asking if he was interested in a sales position that was opening up. “There was never a plan to just follow in the family business,” he declares. “I worked here every summer and holiday since I was 14. I never worked in the office. I was usually the dirty one under the equipment or packing stuff that came off the equipment. I always enjoyed it. I also enjoyed working with Uncle Bob. I was in graduate school and needed a job, so I interviewed.”
Cathy McClelland moved from New Jersey when her husband, Mac McClelland, was hired by Independent Can – a job she didn’t even know he had applied for. “I was planning on redoing my kitchen in New Jersey when Mac announced, ‘We’re moving to Baltimore,’” she adds. She later joined the company when her brother asked her if she would run an outlet store he was planning to open in the front of their new location in Harford County. “I said yes only if I could leave whenever my kids had something at school or needed me. Of course, part-time eventually turned into full-time and the outlet store was eventually relocated several times then closed because we needed the space for more productive ventures. Currently I work in inside sales, but I’m planning to join my husband in retirement very soon.”
The Fourth Generation
Joining Huether and McClelland at the executive table are sons Bob McClelland, executive vice president, and Ryan Huether, the newly minted vice president of business development. Both sons worked at the company during summer breaks and holidays, but like their parents, never assumed a role would be offered or waiting for them in the family business.
“I interned in the engineering department for two summers,” remembers Bob McClelland, who graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. “I was actually studying structural engineering but changed to industrial engineering after interning and really liked it. I was part of ushering in the CADD systems during that time. When I graduated, someone called and said they liked what I was doing while I was here and would I be interested in interviewing for an unexpected opening. I said yes.”
The family members agree that a job within the family business is not an entitlement. “My sister even asked me once why had I never asked her to join Independent Can,” says McClelland. “It was never in my thoughts. We don’t ask people to participate. We treat it as a professional business – not a family business.” In fact, when the company responded to the economic recession by evaluating their employee base and eliminating positions, Rick’s daughter didn’t make the cut. Moreover, when both his son and his nephew looked to him for advice about joining the company, he did his best to discourage them. “Family members have to work twice as hard to gain employee respect. If you don’t have the respect from the people on the floor, you can’t get anything done,” Huether emphasizes. He also demanded a two-year commitment from both Bob and Ryan telling them, “You’re not worth anything to us until you’ve learned everything, and it will take at least that long.”
McClelland joined the company in 1995 and learned his way around the company working in several departments, the machine shop, facilities management of their Ohio plant, and eventually running the engineering department. When his father retired, in addition to heading up engineering, the younger McClelland assumed management of administration, which included IT and finance. “It would be hard if I didn’t have really good people to support me,” he admits.
His younger cousin Ryan started running errands and helping at the outlet store when he was nine. His summer job experiences changed as he got older, packing popcorn cans at 14 and working on equipment when he was 16. While attending college in Florida, Ryan interned at the company’s distribution plant in California. He was planning to attend graduate school when the California plant manager called needing someone in sales. Although his father gave him the same “unsell” advice, the appeal of California won him over and Ryan headed west to become a sales representative in 2003. Ryan moved quickly from inside sales to outside sales, which grew into roles in logistics and overseas sales support. He became the distributions and sales manager and managed the California plant from his Belcamp office. He was recently promoted to vice president of business development, a responsibility his father has had for the last 25 years.
From Lard to Litho
The family may discourage other family members from joining the ranks, but the company’s employees feel a different way. “We’ve had third-generation families working alongside us,” claims Cathy McClelland. “They’ve watched us grow up.” Marketing specialist Sichette adds, “More than 20 percent of our 259 employees have a relative who is currently or was previously employed by the company. That doesn’t include seven married couples on staff.”
Independent Can Company was founded on South Howard and Ostend Streets in Baltimore City during the early years of the depression, making and selling cans that were used to hold lard from the city’s slaughterhouses and package fresh food for the growing seafood industries. These simple products were the focus and sustaining force of the company for more than 40 years.
As technology and computers started to impact the world in the ’80s and ’90s, Independent Can kept pace adding 3-D modeling, robotic packaging and metal plate lithography. The addition of the latter allowed ICC to enter the market of decorative tins – internationally known as “fancy cans” – as well as nostalgic signs, specialty closures and high-end packaging. The company has made huge capital investments in equipment and machinery that gives its customers like Disney, Target, Nestlé and Elizabeth Arden options like embossing, textured surfaces, specialty varnishes and photographic quality.
Becoming their own printer in 1991, ICC secured a way to not only guarantee quality control of their product from start to finish, but also enabled them to provide a faster response to customer request.
“We are very customer driven,” says Rick Huether. “Our customers change what we do every day. We schedule manually so that we can make the arrangements to get our customers their products when they want them, not when we can do them.”
This flexibility can be credited to sustaining the company as the country continues to weather a difficult economic recovery. Huether explains, “We were on schedule to have a record year in 2008, when the door slammed shut. Our sales went down 25 percent over the next 14 months. We took the opportunity to not only make sure all our employees were on board with our philosophy, but that our manufacturing would be ready when the business returned. We spent the most money in the company’s history during that time on new equipment and upgrades. A lot of it we did because we were able to purchase $7 million of equipment at recession bargain prices – probably 25 to 30 percent below normal pricing. We also hired and trained a lot of people so that they could concentrate on new projects and be ready to lead. 2011 was a record year and 2012 should outpace that record.”
That investment has paid off. “We’re booming and we need space for new opportunities and new growth. We have to look for ways to make room for new items to our line,” says Bob McClelland. “And,” adds Huether, “we are always looking for talented machinists, mechanics and lithographers. These are highly-skilled, high paying jobs that don’t always require a college degree.”
While pundits talk about foreign competition and sending jobs overseas, Independent Can sees a different problem – or opportunity. “We’re less threatened by overseas markets then we were 10 years ago. We’re more flexible and better at the technology. We may go over there to learn, but we’ll bring it back and do it better,” he adds.
“China is going through their Industrial Revolution now,” states Ryan Huether. “The United States did it over 100 years while China is doing it in 20. But the second generation over there is killing it. The Chinese wages are going up, so the price differential is lessening. Workers are getting savvy about demanding higher wages and threatening to walk out of a factory during critical production times. Companies here are worried that a factory delay or container hold in China could keep products from reaching their stores, so they are coming back to us. They consider that 10 percent price differential insurance for quality control and delivery assurance.”
Rick Huether continues, “We’ve re-shored several million dollars in product because we’re more flexible. Because of the recession, retailers are pushing their commitment and buy dates to keep inventories low. This forces suppliers to reconsider overseas manufacturing and packaging because they may only have six weeks to fill an order.”
Although the company is growing, growth is not a company goal. Huether points out, “Our mission statement is ‘To be the best not the biggest.’ We’re committed to strategic planning, but we work on the things that will support growth. We don’t aim for a number. It goes back to our values card [referencing a wallet-size card employees carry with the company mission, vision and values]. If we’re doing the things on that card, then growth will be a successful by-product.” I95
Top: Adorned with holiday and whimsical designs, pallets of pre-printed tin sheets lay ready for the next order. Middle and bottom: New Kit Kat candy promotional tins run on the line.