If you have visited Don and Sue Sykes’ Waldwick, New Jersey, office in the past few months, you probably noticed the changes. “SYKOR” signs are now displayed where “MARPAC INDUSTRIES” signs have long adorned the walls. The Sykes sold their beloved Marpac and have moved onto new projects.
Former NJAWBO President, Aldonna Ambler, recently interviewed former Bergen Chapter President, Suzanne Sykes, about her life as the CEO of Marpac Industries. Her story illustrates the fact that owners of even the best companies face tough choices as their businesses mature.
Aldonna: Sue, first I’d like to thank you for doing this interview. Your story will no doubt help members of NJAWBO who have mature businesses. Let’s start from the beginning, if you don’t mind. I know that Marpac was started in 1967 in Kingston, New York. Think back. Why did you and Don go into business in the first place?
Sue: We created Marpac because we wanted to start a small business that could be developed into a family company, a legacy if you will, while Don continued his career as a research scientist. We successfully identified a market need (assembling plastic parts for the copier industry), and while I handled the administrative duties from a home office, we hired people to manage sales and production in a renovated chicken farm we had purchased in Kingston, New York. Within ten years, we had expanded into making our own plastic injection molded parts and the custom technical blow molded containers our customers required. That may not sound too glamorous, but Marpac gave us access to Fortune 500 accounts and opportunities to innovate.
In his combined careers, Don has personally earned about two dozen patents and also overseen many of the 16 patents gained by Marpac personnel. One of our proudest achievements as owners of Marpac was gaining ISO 9002 registration in 1997. It was the end result of our life long dedication to total quality operations that we believe Marpac always exemplified.
Being the CEO of Marpac made more of me than I could have imagined for/of myself, although it’s been tough sometimes to live up to what others expected of me. In the early years, Don had major responsibility for R&D as a “weekend warrior” until he retired from his “first career” and became Marpac’s Chairman. (He loves to tell people he got that job by sleeping with the president!)
Aldonna: I’ve always been impressed by the corporate culture of Marpac. Over the years, you’ve enjoyed much lower turnover than your competitors. Could you share some of the ways that was accomplished?
Sue: We never started out, as so many entrepreneurs seem to do, thinking that “we were it.” The name choice helped us keep our options open. Right from the beginning, we were blessed with bright, hard working employees. We’ve had as many as 150 employees. At the time of the sale last fall, we had just under 100 employees as a result of having sold the California and Ireland companies 1988. As you have noted, we did not sell our “corporate office” in Waldwick. We kept this as our home base for future endeavors which are well under way as we speak, but there will always be some Marpac memorabilia around here, I suspect.
Aldonna: You did the usual things: an employee newsletter, service awards, anniversary parties, company picnics, company tee shirts, etc, but it always seemed to go further than that.
Sue: We always thought about our business as our family. When we would meet people at a shopping mall, we would never introduce someone as one of our employees or use a phrase implying that they “worked for me.” It always felt better to say something like, “Jane/John and I work together at Marpac.”
Don and I felt that the investment in everyone’s career was important for his/her self-esteem as well as the advancement of the company. That is why we had tuition reimbursement, in-house seminars, and encouraged attendance at outside seminars and training programs as well. We enjoyed seeing others grow individually and knew that it would benefit Marpac.
Aldonna: You have always been generous people.
Sue: I guess that may be true. We never lost sight of the fact that the people working with us enabled the building of Marpac. We could never have done it all by ourselves.
Aldonna: People were genuinely proud to be called “Marpacians.” We both know individuals who proudly brag about the fact that they were named “Honorary Marpacians.” What makes someone a “Marpacian”?
Sue: People who
- work as part of the team,
- are realistic about their own capabilities,
- know how to deal with others,
- believe in quality…doing it right the first time,
- are bright enough to add something,
- bring something to the table,
- take responsibility.
And most importantly, people who shared our principles, wanted to share our goals, and help us achieve them. Naturally, they were very special to us.
Aldonna: Were either you or Don disappointed when neither of your children expressed an interest in a career at Marpac?
Sue: At first, it was a disappointment, but if their hearts aren’t in it, you don’t really want them to do it, do you? Besides, we are proud of their accomplishments and their independence. We never wanted to raise clones. The family is much more interesting that way!
Aldonna: What prompted the sale of Marpac? Were you working on this for a long time or was it a sudden decision?
Sue: A little bit of both, I guess. There really will be no better time to sell a company like Marpac. The stock market is high. There is a lot of money out there. Larger corporations are interested in acquiring smaller specialized companies like ours. And it was time for Marpac to have access to new resources, including capital, that could take it to new heights. We had given it 31 years. It was time for some fresh blood.
Aldonna: Had you tried to sell Marpac to any employees?
Sue: First, about three years ago, we were approached by the same individuals who had purchased our Irish operations with an offer to “buy into” Marpac. It was completely unsolicited but knowing the people we decided to consider their offer. Unfortunately, it became very complex and would have meant a five-year diminishing involvement from us. After 30 years as our own boss, we decided that it was not what we wanted, so after 14 months of “trying to make a deal” we walked away from the table, so to speak.
Naturally, our employees were kept informed when we were considering the Irish “offer,” and, unfortunately, that made a few of them nervous that their jobs might be at stake. A small group in our New York State facility filed a petition for a union vote. Although we won the election by a resounding majority, it was a very emotional time for us. Happily, there was a wonderful “reaffirmation” that followed from many, many employees. However, that experience crystallized for us how important it was for us to begin planning for the future of the company and, of course, their job security. And Marpac was ready to tackle new challenges requiring fresh financial resources and possibly some new management blood.
So, early last year, we contacted the mergers and acquisition group associated with our auditing firm (Ernest & Young). Their professional experience, industry contacts, and assistance with preparing offering documents as well as conducting the on-site visits for prospective buyers, were invaluable. They were able to bring objectivity to the process, and we give them full credit for facilitating a more than satisfactory transaction.
The entire process from the preparation and mailing of “offering Packets” to potential buyers, on-site visits, receipt of letters of intent and evaluation of offers took approximately four months. We selected the most suitable offer early in July and closed on the
deal September 3. A total of not quite six months! It proved to us that when you work with people who truly know what they are doing, the expense is justified.
Aldonna: Do you have any advice to NJAWBO members facing tough decisions regarding the potential sale of their business?
Sue: Spend some time evaluating where you are personally in your business. Have you achieved your objectives? Have you built something up to or beyond your early expectations? Consider your responsibilities to your employees and their future. If you continue in your current path with the business, are you still making significant contributions to its expansion and preparation for the future? Or are you on the brink of holding it back? Consider the consequences if something sudden happened to you and the business had to be sold, or worse, liquidated in a crisis situation. Will you be “the problem” someday or part of its solution today?
Now, someone else can take our baby (Marpac) to its next level while Don and I work on our newest horizon, SYKOR.
What’s ahead for us…
Don and I are very excited about our future. There are so many other things we want to do that have waited in the wings while we spent our life building Marpac. It was a “great run” but we needed to move on and so did Marpac. We are very happy with the chance now to get into new things, we’ve already registered our new company, Sykor, LLC. Our first product, “Patent Patrol,” will be launched by the time this is in print. And finally, I intend to continue my college education! We certainly are not retired–we’re just re-directed.
Aldonna Ambler, CMC, CSP, knows how to Achieve Accelerated Growth With Sustained Profitability®. She has done it for six international companies of her own and is the growth strategist behind the success of dozens of companies that appear on lists of fastest growing privately held corporations. A past President of NJAWBO, Aldonna can be reached by phone at 1-888-Aldonna
or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.