On March 15, 1946, when James Stauffer (Jim) Herr invested $1,750 to buy a tiny potato chip operation in Lancaster County, Pa., did he imagine that enterprise would some day grow to be one of the top snack food companies in the U.S.?
According to Herr, the answer is "No." On one level, he attributes many of the company's accomplishments to a strong, traditional work ethic. And some of the developments on the road to success he even credits to what many people think of, in business as in other areas of life, as "happy accidents." But from the perspective of a business leader who also happens to be very much a person of faith, perhaps these turns of fortune are not accidents at all, but blessings.
Today, Herr and his wife, Miriam (Mim) Herr, both still active in the company, sit in his office, surrounded by pictures that tell their story. Yes, on one wall you see images you would expect in the office of the leader of one of the top companies in its industry--photographs of Mr. and Mrs. Herr with U.S. presidents, captains of industry, and other dignitaries.
But other images in the room put these pictures in a context that reveals much about the couple's personalities and values, about what matters most to them. A wall behind Herr's desk is occupied by a magnificent mural, painted by Dan Glubizzy, of vast farmlands. And a large picture window reinforces the rural-Pennsylvania beauty and its link to the business, harmoniously framing a view of the Herr's factory buildings in the midst of rolling farmlands
Another wall is filled with photographs of their five grown children, several of whom are active in the company's management today, and their 20 grandchildren -- some of whom are also now learning the family business from the ground up.
When asked about factors that helped them grow a $1,750 investment into the third largest chip company in the U.S., Herr says it boils down to a few surprisingly simple elements.
"We never worried about whether it was going to be big," said Herr. "We just sort of kept going and stayed strong in our faith. We worked hard. And we've always tried to show our appreciation for the people who work hard for us and reward their efforts with profit sharing. When challenges came up, I like to think we made smart choices. But mostly we've just been very blessed. So many things went our way that we never could have predicted."
For example, after losing one of the Herr's early factories in a fire, the Herrs built a 40- by 90-foot plant in Nottingham, Pa., where their headquarters remains today. Later, an adjacent tract came up for sale, and they bought it because they needed room to grow. They knew little about the land's geology, but eventually learned it was rich with underground springs that, today, satisfy entirely the factory's substantial need for water--which Herr's in turn reclaims to irrigate nearby farms.
The Herrs also credit a tenacious commitment to quality and a willingness to experiment with new flavors for helping them build a growing niche of loyal customers. The remarkable flavor innovations have ranged from Baby Back Rib and Kansas City Prime potato chips to Jalapeño Popper cheese curls.
"It's risky, because stores only have so much space," said Herr. "But our customers want their favorite flavors. We've always been proud of our sales team, and it's their job to work with the stores to make sure people get the flavors they want. And that's good for business--we want our snacks to taste so good that people just LOVE to buy a bag of Herr's."
Looking ahead at what the next 65 years could bring, the couple's persistent optimism and emphasis on faith and family paints, like the mural, a future that's bright, yet wide-open enough to embrace any scenario -- ready to harvest unpredictable opportunities ahead and persist in the face of challenges.
"We already have nine family members from the third generation involved in the company," said Mrs. Herr. "And we're especially proud of how many other people who work here say they feel like part of our family. We feel the same way about them."