Reality Based: Reinventing A Family

Reality Based: UMass
Reinventing A Family

by Kitty Axelson-Berry

Tyler Young carries on the tradition of reinventing a family business in step with the times.

When Tyler Young was a 27-year-old junior account executive at an Atlanta ad agency, his dad called and asked him to come back and get into the family business. Tyler and his wife liked it in Atlanta but said OK. That was in 1987.

The day after they arrived back home in Springfield, Tyler’s 66-year-old father passed away. Three years later, Tyler became president and CEO of W.F. Young, which manufactured Absorbine and Absorbine Jr. Five years later, a thorough evaluation of the company resulted in a major step: After 104 years in manufacturing, W.F. Young moved away from manufacturing its products and refocused its efforts to their marketing.

The transition has been neither easy nor instant. Related Matters interviewed Tyler Young at the beautiful old Lyman Street building that headquarters W. F. Young Company. The mellow sounds of trains approaching and leaving Union Station filtered through the windows and a wonderful hint of herbal liniment permeated the room. It seemed an appropriate ambiance in which to interview a reality-based 30-something UMass graduate striving to grow the company into the next century.

How about a short background on the company, first.

It was started by Wilbur Fenelon and Mary Ida Young in the 1890s in Meriden, Connecticut. They’d been an apple-growing family, but Wilbur took a job moving pianos. The means of transportation was different then, they used horses, and Ida, who was an amateur horticulturist, made up a liniment out of calendula, echinacea and wormwood to soothe and heal their horses without blistering. The liniment worked so well that within a few years it was being sold worldwide.

Then their son, Wilbur Young Jr., convinced his father to sell it not just for horses’ aches and pains but for people, too, and that was the start of Absorbine, Jr. (Jr. stands for Junior), in about 1910. The liniment happened to have antibacterial, antifungal properties and was used widely by soldiers in the Pacific, so the family coined the phrase “athlete’s foot” and used it for marketing Absorbine Jr.

Now, 104 years and five generations later, we continue to market our flagship Absorbine liniments, and a number of other equines and human products, from our corporate headquarters here in Springfield. We have 35 equine brands. Absorbine and Absorbine Jr. are sold in 33 countries as well as the U.S. In other words, our sales base is not New England. We’re the second largest manufacturer of horse care products in the world, and for any single product, ours is considered the top of the line. About 60% of our sales are in the equine division, the other 40% is for Absorbine Jr.

You’ve been through some major changes, I hear.

Yes. You need to reinvent yourself every generation, and we’ve been doing that. (One aspect of that is that) with a new CEO, you need a new commitment from everyone on the team, with unequivocal support given to the person who has taken over. (Another is that) the family business is only as strong as the non-family managers, and I have a very good team of professionals here.

(A third is that) we went through a complete and very open evaluation of the company and realized that our biggest asset is our name, our trademark, rather than our facility or our ability to manufacture our products. Therefore, we decided that what was called for was to refocus our efforts on marketing, instead of manufacturing. In June, we notified our production people that we would be outsourcing manufacturing 100% by December. Our products are now made in Wisconsin, Georgia and Rhode Island. We recently acquired a one-step leather conditioner from a small company in upstate New York, and formed a sales distribution alliance with E.E. Dickinson, which makes witch hazel in Shelton, Connecticut.

How much smaller is your payroll now?

We had fifty, now we have about 25, so we all have to be much more multi-functional.

So now you’re more into marketing than manufacturing. Would you have your products manufactured in other countries if it was cheap enough?

I’m patriotic enough to believe that we should keep jobs in this country, and I think it benefits us to have our products made here.

So money is not the most important consideration for you?

Companies have to do what they have to do. I think the changes we made have allowed for our survival into the future. But I take the plight of the loss of these jobs to heart and believe that you also have to give back to the community in which you’ve fostered a relationship. In the North End here, we had employed a great number of people and it pained me to have to let them go. So we’re working on becoming an incubator for businesses here. We have space now and we want to use it to help small local businesses. We’re not in the real estate businesses though! What I’d do is let them use the space and pay for their own utilities. Help them develop a business plan. Maybe even meet with the banker, back them to the point where they can get up and running.

What’s the timetable on that?

We’d like to get somebody in here this fall. I have a warehousing operation here and we still utilize parts of our facility to make the herbal tincture for Absorbine Jr. From a numbers point of view it doesn’t make a lot of sense long-term (to hold onto this presence) but I don’t want to leave.

You have a sentimental attachment to the place?

To the community, not so much to the building. I could operate this business very nicely in a much smaller building. But there’s a tendency to take minority groups and try to forget they are here, and we need to open up opportunities here in Springfield for culture, restaurants, businesses to flourish. Places like Baltimore, in similar situations, have taken the bull by the horn and decided to do something about it. Something’s got to break so that (there are more opportunities here for small businesses and cottage industries).

It’s important that people know that W.F. Young is not going to get up and walk away from Springfield. We could. Literally, the only reason I’m here is because of my family and my connection to this community.

For some people, that’s a strong reason. For others, it doesn’t mean much. What is it to you personally?

I’ve got key employees who are rooted here as well.

Yes, but what do those roots personally mean for you? This is a philosophic question.

I think it’s cultural and has a lot to do with the fingerprint on the product. Absorbine is a western New England product. It emanated from the Pioneer Valley, from a long string of generations of people who made it what it is today, and who lived right here.

Is it important to be part of a locally rooted history? Where does that come from?

It comes partly from consumers who write and tell us that they appreciate the fact that they’re dealing with a family company. That’s been part of the success of the product and part of the pride of quality. This company has moved four times and four times it’s been in the Pioneer Valley. It’s also a way of thinking. The people here, the standards we adhere to, our code of ethics on the environment, how we relate to our government, how we relate to our faith–it’s all tied together to how we market our products.

To be able to do what we’ve done with little or no resources is a testament to the people in this area. Absorbine Jr. is number eight of the top 10 external analgesics in America. It’s a privately held company with very limited resources. No public offerings. No huge divisions. We’re competing against Merck, Pfizer, Ciba-Geigy, a lot of international companies that could bury us with a sleight of hand. Yet here we are, an anomaly in the marketing world, still alive, still in distribution, still doing what we do. I think it’s good old Yankee ingenuity.

If you stepped outside here and went to a pharmaceutical house in certain other parts of the country, they would dump things in the river, they would employ teenagers, they would do everything outside the norm. It’s only in New England–believe me when I say this–we have the most rigid standards in the entire world.

There are pros and cons to that. Businesses are leaving here because they can’t compete. We’ve chosen, however, as a society to run a clean ship. We’ve gone out of our way to do that, and I’m proud of it.

Previously, you were right here to oversee the manufacturing processes, but with outsourcing you may not know if the factories you use are mistreating their workers or creating environmental disasters. How will you know?

I would never want to be tied with any manufacturer doing things that were not lawful. We have to live up to strict EPA and FDA standards. We’ve tried to locally source the manufacturing as much as possible, but we are one of the only pharmaceutical products in the region. Many pharmaceutical products are made in New Jersey and Long Island, New York.

You may be aware of the new non-profit organization, Verite–it is based in Amherst–that will audit foreign factories to ascertain human rights and environmental conditions there. How will you investigate conditions in the factories you use?

We are in constant communication with the manufacturers and we go there and audit them ourselves. These things are actually very important to me, and with our evolution into a marketing company, we’re going to pay even more attention to what consumers’ wants and needs are. As a small niche marketer, we have to go beyond the norm, to be outside the box. It’s all part of the evolution or transfiguration of the company.

That relates to another question, about the reinvention of the business’s leadership.

For a long time, I’ve observed how family held companies struggle moving the leadership from one person to another. Because my father is not alive, I have a great deal of control. I have a board of directors that I rely upon for guidance, but basically I call the shots. There’s nobody pulling me back. So it’s easier for me in some ways (than for other companies).

The down side is that I don’t have that person–my mother or father–telling me maybe I ought not to do that. But what I often see in some family-held companies is a person starting off with a lot of self-doubt because they’re being questioned by their parent. I’ve seen more companies hit the wall because they haven’t made that quantum leap. I’m not saying you have to rip the business apart and change everything, but you better be in tune.

Is this the “strong mayor” model of business?

It’s just good, solid leadership. What we have here now is a small group of associates or “specialists” with a lot of latitude to run his or her part of the business. We come together as a collective group on issues.

I grew up in a hierarchical system, which is very indicative of a manufacturing organization. But a marketing company requires a different environment, a lot of creative thinking and drawing out information from people. Quite honestly, when people are pre-conditioned to a hierarchical approach, it’s extremely difficult to change to (a structure that is non-hierarchical). It is so different. It’s all part of the evolution of the family business, though, and when you make that leap into a new way of running your company, you’ve got to get the buy in. 

Reprinted with permission of the UMass Family Business Center, online at www.umass.edu/fambiz.