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Kessler's and Martin's carry family food legacies

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Kessler Foods Inc. employees Jonathan Kern, left, and Joe Strouss vacuum pack ham cubes in the packaging department of the Cumberland County-based meat processor. The company is currently run by the grandson of founder George Kessler.
Kessler Foods Inc. employees Jonathan Kern, left, and Joe Strouss vacuum pack ham cubes in the packaging department of the Cumberland County-based meat processor. The company is currently run by the grandson of founder George Kessler. - (Photo / Amy Spangler)

The name on the factory building — especially on the food production side — more often than not is shared by at least one executive inside.

If not, chances are there is a rich history of same-family leadership.

Think Kessler Foods Inc., a Lemoyne-based meat processor with roots dating to 1916. Kessler's, as it is more commonly known, is currently run by the grandson of founder George Kessler.

Consider York County-based Martin's Potato Chips Inc., a snack food maker founded in 1941. The Jackson Township company is on its second generation of Potters, who bought it from founders Harry and Fairy Martin in 1971.

What makes this industry ripe for family succession?

Historically, a lot of parents envisioned their children following in their footsteps. Company leadership was passed on to the oldest son or husband of the oldest daughter.

That's how things went at Kessler's until the early 1990s, said Robert Kessler Jr., the president and CEO. He was the first company leader selected through an organized search. He took over in 1993.

Kessler said he is hopeful that another family member will eventually assume the mantle. A fourth generation is involved in the business, he said.

"By getting the next generation involved here really helps instill a good and solid work ethic," he said. "It's important to teach work ethic. Kids learn from their parents."

Kessler scrubbed toilets and performed other small tasks growing up. He later worked there over vacation breaks from school.

He has a nephew learning about production line work, which includes packaging and sanitation.

"Food safety is paramount here at Kessler's. Sanitation is crucial to continued success," Kessler said.

Meat manufacturing is not just about grinding up meats and adding spices and water, he said. Chemistry is involved.

"It's an art. It's also a science," Kessler said.

Kessler received his bachelor's degree in economics from Albright College. He studied food and meat science at Rutgers University and the University of Georgia and received a mini-MBA from Northwestern University.

After college, he worked as a commercial underwriter for an insurance company before coming back to the family business in 1974.

"I wasn't sure if I wanted to do it," he said.

'More than a job'

Other than some family expectations, there has to be a passion for the business, said Ken "Butch" Potter Jr., president and CEO of Martin's, who came back to the family-owned and -operated company in 1988 and took over in 2004 from his father.

Butch and his brother, David, co-own and manage the business.

"If you're a family owner, it's more than a job," he said. "Your whole self is involved in this. The commitment level is higher, and you're doing it because you want to do it."

Potter was exposed to the chip business early on. His father worked at the El-Ge Potato Chip Co. in York County. Butch was 10 when his parents purchased Martin's.

"Dad used to take us into El-Ge," Potter said. "(But) my first exposure was when we bought this (company)."

The possibility was always there that he would eventually run the company, he said. But he pursued chemical engineering and ended up working for Nestle before his father persuaded him to come back to the business.

He admits he was always interested in the operations side.

Potter said his philosophy has always been to let his children, who are college age, and other family members follow their own career interests.

"If you have to talk them into it, they probably shouldn't be doing it," he said. "It's either going to happen or it's not."

Succession planning

It is fairly common for family succession plans to be set up in which a family member retains a passive interest in the company but does not run it, said Donald DiCarlo, managing director of wealth advisory services for Delaware-based Wilmington Trust, a division of M&T Bank.

DiCarlo, who specializes in succession planning, said that's because the next generation often doesn't have the skill sets of the previous generation.

"It's nice when you find someone who has that ability or interest, but you also have to plan for siblings not being in the business," he said.

His advice: It's never too early to start planning, whether that's a strategy for ownership or management succession or both.

Challenges and competition

In an ever-changing industry that has seen its share of consolidation through mergers and acquisitions, public demand for more variety, increased regulations and rising health care costs, finding the right people is another big challenge for companies such as Martin's.

"I don't think the skills required to run a company today are all that different from what they used to be," Potter said. "It's not a one-person show. We need people with all different abilities. The general job or strategy of running a company is not all that different."

Relating to all the different skill sets is the challenge for the CEO, he said.

The top executive in this business doesn't need a particular degree as some professions do, he added. It also doesn't hurt.

"There has to be an understanding from management of why we do the things we do," Kessler said. "It's not necessary to have a financial degree, but an understanding of basic math and economics."

Kessler stressed the importance of cross-training, especially in smaller companies.

"The common perception is that family members are highly compensated. I try to make sure there is no favoritism here," he said. "If anything, family members have to have skin in the game. They are highly responsible."

First organized search

It was Robert Kessler Sr. who broke the mold of how Kessler Foods chooses a new leader.

Kessler Sr. is the father of current president and CEO Robert Kessler Jr. In 1993, Kessler Sr. opted to pursue a more organized search within the company, rather than simply pass the reins to the next generation.

In a bit of irony, Kessler Jr., who was the company’s sales manager at the time, was chosen over three others who applied.

“The search process took several months,” Kessler Jr. said. “I was chosen and elected into the hot seat.”

The process included an outside consultant, and even a psychologist was involved, he said.

“There has (always) been a lot of cross-training,” he said. “Because we’re a small company, in order for management to fully understand what goes on in various departments, people including myself have worked in sanitation, production, packaging, shipping and receiving.”

The management team at Kessler is small. Other top management includes a controller, quality assurance director and a head of production.

In the future, Kessler said a similar leadership selection process will be used. However, he expects that search also will include applications from outside the company.

Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jasons@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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