Reposted from syracuse.com, an interview by Stan Linhorst on July 24, 2015
The company traces its roots to DeMent Grill in Oswego. DeMent’s grandfather, John DeMent, started the tavern in 1934. Many patrons, arriving at the nearby port on steamships, were hungry. John’s wife, Thelma, saw opportunity.
“My grandmother and my great aunt started seeing if anybody wanted something to eat,” DeMent said. “Rather than make sandwiches, they made the Italian family recipe for pasta sauce and started serving that.”
It was a hit.
By the 1950s, DeMent’s grandparents were bottling the sauce and distributing to grocery stores. Their son, Jack, eventually took over.
Lou joined the company in 1997. It now manufactures on Court Street Road in Syracuse and maintains a warehouse in Liverpool.
Were you in leadership roles growing up?
A little bit. I was a captain of the hockey team and the lacrosse team and things of that nature at Oswego High School.
At Le Moyne College, if there was a project to work on, I took the lead. I liked running things.
My major was business administration with a minor in marketing and also in MIS, management information systems. I’m a quasi computer geek. After college, I worked at Sysco Foods as the field systems administrator, and then I got into managing their network locally.
You came to work for your dad. Tell me about that.
My only stipulation was: I’m up for it as long as we got along. The same with him.
He always said to lead by example: Don’t put anybody to work on something you wouldn’t do. You’re only as good as your reputation. Those are some of the things that he would instruct me on, that stick with me today.
Tell me how he led by example.
When we were in Oswego, he wouldn’t be afraid to go in and fix a machine, because he was very hands-on. He was an engineer — he could just go in and help us design a new layout for our production facility.
For instance, all of a sudden we got a bid to do different size cans. It seemed impossible. He found a way. He would just get his hands dirty, get out there and get it done.
He liked getting out there with the guys taking cases off the end of the line and putting them on the pallet. He’d say that was his gym. He was doing that until just before he died (at age 62 in 2007).
His door was always open. He cared deeply about every individual in our company.
Those are characteristics I hope to live up to.
I think if you’re like that, people will naturally want to support you and your business, and they realize that it comes back. It’s like a community, you help each other out.
What’s your leadership style?
I try to lead by example. You’d probably have to ask other people whether that’s true.
I grew up playing team sports. If you put a winning team together, they can help you achieve your goals.
If you align everybody to have a similar goal and have the same set of values, there’s really nothing that you can’t do.
I surround myself with really strong people who are smarter and better in each of their areas than I ever can be.
What advice would you give a new or aspiring leader?
Some leaders have a lot of pride — or feel threatened by hiring somebody that’s better than them in different areas. I would strongly suggest: Hire strong people, find a way to align your goals and allow them to propel the company to the next level.
I suggest that they find a peer group. For me, it’s other manufacturing companies or other family business companies that go through similar struggles.
When my dad was leading the company, it was 19-20 people. Now we’re roughly 72 people and hoping to grow. I take that job very seriously, so I reach out to peers. I’m part of the New York Family Business Center. I’m part of the Young Presidents’ Organization. And I go to a strategic coaching program to try to develop myself as a leader.
So I suggest they ask for help. Whether it’s a coach or a family friend or anybody, ask for help. There’s no shame in that. It would be worse to be too proud to ask a question.
You have to be humble to lead a business successfully.
I always suggest: Never forget where you came from. That keeps you grounded.
It’s always good to see what you’ve accomplished. I looked at my planning goals for last year. I never thought I’d achieve them. I looked back and I achieved every single one of them. You’ve got to look at that, because next year’s goals will seem insurmountable. If you just get caught up in that, you can get negative. Look at the past to understand how you can impact your work — get some positive energy. Positive energy breeds success.
Tell me about a satisfying success and how it came about.
We were awarded business by a Fortune 500 company. The reason why it was such a success is I could stand back and watch our team as this company came in to visit with us. Each person and each team did an amazing job. All I had to do was say hello at the beginning and say some closing words.
I literally did a cartwheel and videotaped it and sent it to the whole company. They did an unbelievable job. I really had nothing to do with it, but I could watch it unfold. It was awesome.
You literally did a cartwheel?
I tend to make a fool out of myself quite a bit.
Leaders often tell me about celebrating success, sharing enthusiasm and passion, but turning a cartwheel is a first.
When we were still in Oswego, they said they could get 20 kettles done in one day. Back then, I was like: It ain’t possible.
I told them that if they did that, I would shave my head. They did it, and they shaved my head. (Laughs)
I think that we’re always having fun. At the end of the day, how much time do we spend with co-workers? It’s most of our time. It should be fun.
Even on days when things aren’t going well, find a way to create positive energy and look toward some brighter days.
We’re going through a time of change — globalization, the digital age and more. How do you prepare an organization to change?
Change is going to happen. It’s inevitable.
I do love new technology, new capabilities. We are in the food business. People are going to need to eat. What they eat, how they eat it, is going to change.
So we’ve adapted in terms of what we’re going to offer. We make sure we can offer organic products, non-GMO Project Verified, and BPA free — things of that nature.
We’re also adapting our capabilities to be able to offer flexible packaging. The whole marketplace will change potentially with Amazon Marketplace and people wanting food shipped to homes. A company leader needs to look a few steps ahead.
How do you stay ahead? How do you innovate?
Listen to customers. They will tell you what they’re expecting.
Go to trade shows, read all the trade magazines, get on distribution lists.
What are shoppers looking for? Are they starting to really use Amazon? Are they using Peapod?
We’ve been in glass jars forever. As much as I love glass — I think it’s the best package in terms of cleanliness, chemical free and shelf stable — it’s not conducive to dropping in the mail and sending. That’s why we’re looking at new technology.
Where is your market?
For the most part, national. We’re in over 19 different countries, most of it being private label products — all through exporters. We don’t do our own exporting. It’s on the horizon for us, because the population outside the U.S. is growing faster than inside.
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