It's that simple Featured

10:49am EDT October 23, 2001

I am constantly searching for innovative companies to feature on the pages of this magazine. However, when most of us define innovation, rarely do we picture a century-old family business whose staple product is jelly.

This month, I was surprised to find out how much The J.M. Smucker Co. has to teach other businesses. That's right. Even you, running your dot-com start-up, can learn from this family-run producer of jelly, juices and butterscotch sauces.

What, you may ask, is innovative about food items so basic your grandmother probably had the same ones stocked in her refrigerator?

The answer can be found in two words: Magic Shell. You know, that topping that magically freezes in seconds on your ice cream. Sundaes gained new appeal for me at age 12 after my mother brought this product home and I figured out that I could have a fun, candy-based science experiment while enjoying my ice cream.

While I don't know exactly how the Magic Shell product came to be, I do know about some of the new products The J.M. Smucker Co. has unveiled recently. Like frozen, round, crustless peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches that are already becoming a hit not only in the grocery store, but with school districts and restaurants.

The company has been able to create new products, with incredible appeal, that aren't really new. The company's governing principles dictate that the company be run by Jerome Monroe Smucker's 1897 basic beliefs. So, Tim and Richard Smucker, who run the company today, don't diversify much from their core products. The J.M. Smucker Co. has always produced peanut butter and jelly. It just turned it into a product that every kid wants. And in an age where parents are buying cereal that comes packaged with milk and a spoon, what parent isn't going to like the idea of buying a pre-made, crustless sandwich?

So who comes up with these innovative, yet traditional ideas that have helped maintain the company's success over the years? The J.M. Smucker Co. employees, who, not-so-coincidentally, have put the company within the top 25 of Fortune magazine's list of the 100 best companies to work for since 1997.

The ranking is based on a number of factors including a low employee turnover rate (the company boasted a 4 percent turnover rate in 1999), job growth, and employee training. It's also interesting to note that 31 percent of the company's employees have worked there for more than 15 years.

When I asked Tim Smucker, co-CEO, about the ranking, he was somewhat aloof: "Our goal isn't to get the award," he said. "Our goal is just to treat people the way they want to be treated."

That sounds too simple. Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is the editor of SBN Magazine.