Accidental innovations Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008

Ilove stories about companies whose first steps toward success were stumbled onto by accident rather than plotted meticulously by design.

One legend goes like this: In 1878, a workman at a fledgling soap and candle company left for lunch and forgot to turn off the mixing machines, leaving a batch of a new “white” soap inside. While the fellow ate his lunch, air worked its way into the mixture. and when he returned, he found a white glop.

Instead of throwing it away, the man spoke with his supervisor, who instructed him to pour the mixture into the soap templates and let it harden. The product was cut, packaged and shipped. Soon, the fledgling manufacturer, Procter & Gamble, began receiving letters from buyers begging for more “soap that floats.”

In the resulting years, Ivory soap became one of the most successful products in American history and launched P&G toward becoming one of the world’s most dominant consumer products companies.

This issue’s cover story subject, Shearer’s Foods, wasn’t started by accident but certainly wasn’t founded by design. The snack-food company evolved from the humble roots of now-CEO Bob Shearer’s parents’ grocery store. When the family began making and selling its own kettle-cooked potato chips, the business began to change. Over time, the company became Shearer’s Foods.

Today, Shearer’s produces more than 60 million pounds of snack foods each year. Much like William Procter and James Gamble, Shearer wasn’t satisfied to rest on accidental laurels. Rather, he’s built the company by investing in people, searching for innovation and using a philosophy of inclusion motivation, where the curtain is pulled back and employees get to see all the pieces of the corporate puzzle.

“A lot of people have a fear of sharing sensitive information,” Shearer admits. “But I’ve always been very straightforward. That’s the key, so people know what your vision and plan is going forward, and everybody can work in the same direction.”

Innovation, as Procter & Gamble learned 130 years ago, begins on the shop room floor. Shearer and his company’s 700-plus employees would probably tell a similar tale.

Even with years of double-digit sales increases and more than 30 percent sales growth expected this year over 2007, there can be little doubt that the Brewster-based snack-food company’s best days remain ahead of it. <<

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