This blog post originally appeared in Entrepreneur.
Everyone becomes an entrepreneur for a different reason. In my case, I combined a market opportunity with my personal history and passion for America’s diversity. And in that respect I was hardly unique: there are many of us in businesses with roots that grew from decisions our families made.
In fact, according to a study by the Conway Center for Family Business, more than “35 percent of Fortune 500 companies are family-controlled.” The report goes on to explain that, “Family businesses account for 64 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, generate 62 percent of the country’s employment and account for 78 percent of all new job creation.”
While it might seem easy to acquire a business that comes through one's bloodline, innovating products and taking that business to the next level can be a challenge.
Cacique is one such example. The leading brand of Hispanic-style cheese and chorizo (sausage), Cacique is a typical family business that started with humble beginnings and managed to accelerate its growth as it was passed down through the generations. I had a conversation with Gil B. de Cardenas, COO of Cacique, to discuss how he took the incredible foundation his parents provided to the next level, and to learn what he’s doing now to "future-proof" his company for the next generation.
De Cardenas' parents founded Cacique in in 1973, two years after they immigrated to the United States. They arrived in 1971 with two suitcases in hand and three small children, not to mention a fourth on the way. While the family had a strong desire to move to the United States, once they arrived, their options were limited.
The genesis of Cacique began by happenstance, when de Cardenas' father came across some less-than-exceptional queso fresco, a traditional Mexican cheese being sold in a neighborhood store. He spoke with the store owner, who explained that the brand was the only one available -- and that, while mediocre, it allowed stores like his to at least market to that target consumer.
De Cardenas' father determined he could do better and embarked upon the journey of a lifetime, creating his own Hispanic cheese business, Cacique. Each morning, de Cardenas' mother would make the cheese in their tiny, rented plant, and his father would travel to local bodegas to sell it out of his old Pontiac.
The business grew quickly. From a meager, $1,500 investment in the bank and 60 pounds of cheese a day, Cacique developed into a national conglomerate. Today, the product is sold by more than 22,000 retailers across the country. Gil de Cardenas has been running the family-owned business now for more than six years, overseeing the development of 80 million pounds of combined products per year.
And while he attributes much of his business savvy to his front-row seat as Cacique was created and his parents worked through many challenges, he also recognizes that taking over and scaling a business requires skills beyond possessing the right last name. Here are three lessons de Cardenas says he learned as he helped ensure Cacique’s continued success:
1. Then and now: Know your customer.
A pillar upon which Cacique was built was the concept that there is no such thing as being too prepared. De Cardenas grew up watching his parents work endless hours crunching numbers and studying to better understand their customer base. However, as the business scaled and America diversified, the company encountered both a remarkable opportunity and a challenge as it pivoted its strategy accordingly.
De Cardenas stressed how the market is ruthless and how absolutely necessary it is to understand who your customers are and how they may change over time. By taking the time to better understand who is buying your products and how your customer perceives you, you’ll be successful in all of your interactions, de Cardenas says.
2. Encourage a solid education.
One of the key differentiators that de Cardenas said sets Cacique apart is the company’s emphasis on education. De Cardenas now recognizes that while he himself worked hard and grew up around the business, he gained an entirely new perspective at business school and wishes that he had pursued his degree sooner.
Pursuing a graduate degree taught him how much he didn’t know and provided him the intellectual resources needed to propel the business forward and allow it to compete within the broader marketplace.
De Cardenas did not stop there; he ensured that his staff could also benefit from a graduate education. He created a program within the company to allow key employees to pursue their MBAs and secure a good foundation for growth and success. This may be one of the reasons Cacique’s business is outpacing the 8 percent growth market, at 25 percent, and is continuing to expand into new ventures and product lines.
3. Provide perspective.
A final differentiator that propelled Cacique to its current level of success as a family-run organization is that de Cardenas encourages family members to pursue other experiences before committing to the family trade. He believes that in doing so, those members gain the perspective necessary to help drive the business forward and ensure that they are fully committed before they sign on.