Going national requires plan, outside help

FROM SOUP TO NUTS: John Pezzillo, left, and his parents Millie and John Pezzillo, show off Westfield Foods’ marquee product, Millie’s Soups. /
FROM SOUP TO NUTS: John Pezzillo, left, and his parents Millie and John Pezzillo, show off Westfield Foods’ marquee product, Millie’s Soups. /

QVC viewers are used to seeing John Pezzillo, the ladle-wielding pitchman for Westfield Foods’ Millie Soups, adeptly stirring pots of his mother’s soup mixes while extolling their nutritional value and taste.
The Millie’s Soups QVC spots have earned the Smithfield-based family business tens of thousands of customers nationwide.
Pezzillo has traveled – sometimes with mother Millie – to QVC headquarters in West Chester, Pa., at the start of every “soup season” since 1997. That’s the year the network discovered the dry-soup mix while searching for unique products from all 50 states.
The Pezzillos believe the QVC exposure has given the company name recognition worthy of shelf space at traditional retail outlets nationwide.
Going national is the dream of many small businesses, says Sixcia Devine, regional director of the Rhode Island Small Business Development Center at Johnson & Wales University, which has worked with Millie’s Soups. She said tapping into organizations like hers, consultants or successful companies is critical in helping family businesses prepare and understand the business landscape on a national scale.
In some cases, it’s not only about receiving technical advice or how to access capital, it’s about helping the family work better together, she said.
“When a business looks nationally, the philosophy is the same, but the mission changes,” Devine explained. “You need to be psychologically prepared. Some companies need someone from the outside to help provide some kind of model on how to negotiate within the family.”
For example, friction can be generated at family-run companies as members begin to travel farther and more often and, as a result, other family members are left to take on greater responsibilities.
New relationships need to occur as well, whether it’s with new employees, distributors or investors. It’s a necessity that can drastically change the dynamic of a small company. “Growth like this requires a lot of acknowledgments. Maybe it’s the acknowledgement that ‘I don’t have the technical expertise to manage or I lack the marketing skills necessary … I should bring someone on board who does,’ ” Devine said.
Millie’s Soups is now working with a Massachusetts food distributor concentrated on New England and another – United Natural Foods Inc., in Providence – that sells nationally. In the spring, the company will start participating in trade shows with the distributors.
“QVC was a leap of faith. It came with risk and a substantial financial commitment. … as will expanding to different parts of the country,” said Pezzillo, who runs the company with his brother, Michael, and parents, John and Millie. Millie’s Soups has four employees, including Pezzillo and his brother, and adds seasonal employees.
For 25 years, the company’s products have been carried at local stores, including chains like Christmas Tree Shops, Dave’s Marketplace and Ocean State Job Lot. Pezzillo sees further expansion happening in a “push-pull” manner, pushing product into one at a time and temporarily pulling back when demand exceeds company resources.
In order to successfully reach a wider audience, the family believed they needed to step back and re-evaluate their marketing strategy.
That’s when they turned to the Small Business Development Center. They received insights from MBA students at the university who developed a marketing plan to attract younger customers.
“It was important to see our product from a fresh perspective. We now have this book of ideas. It’s something we plan on implementing,” said Pezzillo.
Peter B. Bazar, president of The Bazar Group, an East Providence-based holding company for a jewelry and pearl distribution operation, said his family’s business relies heavily on outside guidance.
He said New England Brokerage Corp.’s Providence office has been critical in guiding his company through several major strategic moves, but it also has helped define roles within the family business. “There’s going to be differences of opinions in a family. It’s just good to have someone who can help us deal with it not on an emotional level but a business level,” said Bazar, whose company, Imperial-Deltah, is one of the oldest and largest pearl distributors in the country. The company has 100 employees.
He added that The Bazar Group – started by his father and uncle more than 50 years ago – has 25 stockholders, all of whom are family members. Only Peter Bazar’s mother and father have voting rights, though.
“Certainly each family member has its own wish and desire, some will say, ‘sell the business now,’ for example,” Peter Bazar said. “In the end, you need to respect the leadership and accept that that is the way it is going to be.”
Bazar said strong leadership is essential to stay competitive on a national or global stage, when acquisitions play a key role in survival.
Whether it’s a family-owned company’s first venture beyond Rhode Island’s borders or 20th, the family must remember that the firm is more than a name on a business card or a bag of soup mix, said Peter Arpin, a senior partner at West Warwick-based Arpin Group Inc., a holding company that includes national and international moving and storage services.
“Our 110-year-old history (as a family-run company) is how we sell and position ourselves against the guys bigger than us, the billion-dollar companies,” he explained. “It’s ‘our family, moving your family.’ It’s very personal. Family businesses should not lose that identity, regardless of where they’re competing.”
John Pezzillo is reminded of the personal connection between his family and customers every day.
“A woman from Ohio called us yesterday. ‘Hello. Is this a real person? What? I’m talking to Millie’s son?’ ” he said. “It’s great to say that, yes, we’re a real family and you can get us on the phone most of the time.” •

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