Letter from the Editor: Growth Odyssey
BY John Koten
How Zingerman's found a breakthrough strategy.
Letter from the Editor
Identifying "The Coolest Small Company in America" -- as Inc does in this month's cover story -- obviously involved some pretty subjective thinking. It wasn't an idea we conceived at the start of a reporting project. Instead, the description first came up in staff discussions about editor-at-large Bo Burlingham's compelling portrait of Zingerman's Community of Businesses. Some of us wondered how Zingerman's compares with other truly imaginative companies that Inc has written about over the years -- outfits like Ben & Jerry's, the Body Shop, and Great Harvest Bread Co. Do all those innovative businesses have something in common? On the most fundamental level, the answer may be that they all grew out of the unique personalities of the people who founded them. Zingerman's is certainly a powerful example of that. The college-town (Ann Arbor, Mich.) company, which is the creation of Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw, is a collection of seven small businesses pursuing one of the most original growth strategies we've come across. After gaining international fame as a delicatessen, Zingerman's easily could have adopted the cookie-cutter franchise formula that so many other successful businesses have followed. But Ari and Paul rejected that obvious strategy because they weren't interested in the kind of life that it would entail. In some ways Ari's most telling comment in the story is that he didn't want to spend his time "flying to Kansas City to see some mediocre Zingerman's." So the two founders set about devising a new approach that fit their personal goals. It took them two years of reading, discussing their ideas with other business owners, and meeting regularly at a picnic table next to their deli. The grand plan that resulted, however, was far better than anything a management-consulting firm could have devised for them. Summarized in a document titled "Zingerman's 2009: A Food Odyssey," the scheme that the two partners came up with not only created an original business structure but also helped attract an array of smart, interesting, talented people -- including M.B.A.'s and other entrepreneurs -- to an exciting business adventure. Today the common mission at Zingerman's is to explore together the possibilities of having a great life while building a great company. What could be cooler than that?
Robert X. Cringely, the author of Inc's What's Next column, is known for his lofty connections to technology's best and brightest. (His reporting once opened a rift between the industry's two highest-profile figures, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.) This month, however, he zeros in on an Internet pioneer who has yet to gain even a tiny measure of fame. Why? Because Cringely believes that Bill Scott's company -- an application service provider based in Ridgeland, Miss. -- may just be one step ahead of giant IBM.
As a partner in the Manhattan-based advertising and marketing firm Hanft Byrne Raboy, contributor Adam Hanft is someone who has observed the good, bad, and the kiss-up in business -- not from the safe perch of the full-time journalist but from the conference-table vantage point of the business owner. Grist, his back-page column, is dedicated not only to exploring the issues he encounters firsthand on the job but to doing so with the flair and style that led him to coin one of the most famous lines in advertising: "Flick Your Bic." Hanft coauthored Dictionary of the Future with Faith Popcorn.
Donna Fenn contributes this month's Case Study about a business that had to decide whether to completely revamp itself to get its products on the shelves at Target. The author, who lives in Pelham, N.Y., has written for Inc for more than a decade. Her June 2000 piece on welfare reform won the 2001 Entrepreneurship Journalism Prize (Honorable Mention) from the Women's Economic Round Table. Last summer she contributed an article to our sister publication Parents about mothers who start companies. Fenn has also written for the Washington Post and the New York Times Magazine, and she was a correspondent for the Associated Press in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for four years, including during the Gulf War.
Editor-at-large Bo Burlingham has been writing for Inc for 20 years. He also coauthored several books on management, including A Stake in the Outcome, with Jack Stack of SRC Holdings Corp. In reporting this month's cover story, Burlingham couldn't help drawing comparisons between the values and energy of Zingerman's and those of the Body Shop, where he once served as a director. But one major difference soon became apparent: Zingerman's has never had any interest in going public.