President and CEO Elaine Bellin, who comes from an Italian family, never expected to run the family business, Paragon Foods. If anything, that was reserved for the son, she says.
But Bellin joined the company in the 1980s, discovered she loved it and took over for her older brother in 1993 when he faced serious health problems. Under her leadership, she’s brought a $12 million company to more than $80 million in annual revenue and nearly 200 employees.
Paragon is expected to grow even more over the next couple of years — now that it has built a new facility in Warrendale that’s twice as big, created the brand JustCut and acquired John V. Heineman Co.
“Over these past several years, as I knew we were going to build a new facility and grow, I spent a lot of time and resources on recruiting and networking so that I could augment the corporate management structure, and that’s what I did,” Bellin says. “I feel that we are very well-poised for the accelerated growth because of the positions that I have filled with strong leaders.”
She’s invested in both the physical — buildings and technology systems — and people.
“The people were more important, frankly, because if I don’t have the people to lead the group and inspire the group, then what good are we?” Bellin says.
Here’s how Bellin invested in her people, which were not only her greatest challenge, but also her greatest opportunity to encourage Paragon’s growth.
Augmenting the talent
When a company grows beyond a certain point, it needs more corporate structure and that means investing in human resources. Bellin saw that need coming by observing it in other organizations and learning from her peers; she knew she needed to act for the future well-being of Paragon.
“I knew that for us to get to that level of structure and discipline and good management that I was going to have to build both a strong C-level team and a strong middle-management team,” she says.
While Paragon still has flexibility with individual ownership and an ability to keep red tape from being so sticky, it needed a sustainable corporate structure. That meant spending time and resources on recruiting and networking to augment Paragon’s management. Then, the company would be poised for accelerated growth because strong leaders were already in position.
Bellin had to recruit from the outside because she was filling positions the company had never had before, such as a human resource director. As she did, those new employees could strengthen Paragon’s training, as well as develop manuals, SOPs and specific guidelines in writing.
“There has been a great emphasis on training. Probably more needs to be done though, and we’ll continue to evolve in that area,” she says. “So we’re not done yet. I think we have a much, much better foundation now to do the things that we want to do.”
With this kind of investment, Bellin says the quality of the individual that you hire is paramount. It’s critical to know exactly what kind of positions you want, to define the actual job descriptions and to spend time getting to know the candidates.
“When you’re adding people, you cannot spend enough time getting to know them, making sure they’re a right fit,” she says. “Because I think that will continue to be my challenge personally moving on, because if we grow the way I want to grow, then I’m going to have more people come on board.”