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Entrepreneurial Expert Tami Longaberger

What she learned from her father about business and life
April 16, 2001
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/39672

Dave Longaberger wasn't your typical entrepreneur. Despite having a learning disorder and hardly any schooling, he managed to create the largest basket manufacturing company in the United States. He grew The Longaberger Company from his early days of selling baskets door to door to a current workforce of 70,000 sales associates and 8,500 employees. Headquartered in Newark, Ohio, the company's home office is an actual replica of a Longaberger basket-but 160 times larger. If this creativity seems a bit unorthodox, it seems to be working: Company sales were more than $1 billion in 2000.

With the help of business writer Robert Shook, Dave Longaberger's uncanny business sense was captured in Longaberger: An American Success Story. Longaberger passed away in 1999 shortly after completing the book. We've asked Tami Longaberger, Dave's daughter and The Longaberger Company's current president and CEO, to share her father's secrets to success, both professionally and personally.

Entrepreneur.com: Your father ran two profitable businesses before The Longaberger Company and sold them to finance his struggling basket company. And despite never going to college or taking a business class, he managed to build a billion-dollar company. Robert Shook said he attributed your father's incredible success to his people skills. Do you agree?

Tami Longaberger: My father really was an entrepreneur, whether he knew it or not. My father taught me that people are the key to success. He really valued people and demonstrated this by listening to and respecting the opinions and ideas of others. A person on an assembly line knows the most about her job, and the job of the person next to her. Dad understood the value of that knowledge. He believed that if you treat people right, they will support the company.

"Our business has a core set of values and a core culture that can't be replicated. It's built around the idea that if you genuinely care about people, they will care about your company."

Entrepreneur.com: You obviously grew up around your dad's business and dream. Since you were Dave's daughter, did you feel you had to really prove yourself?

Longaberger: I've been with the company for 17 years now, and from the beginning, my father told me "You can't inherit respect. You have to earn it." Dad was a great teacher who taught me if you respect people around you, whether its employees, customers, sales associates or vendors, they will respond positively and constructively.

Entrepreneur.com: I understand your father encouraged his employees to leave by 5 p.m. sharp and had them evaluate their managers. Your father definitely subscribed to a different style of management, didn't he? He believed work should be fun.

Longaberger: He was definitely an out-of-the-box thinker on management. He understood the different roles we all have to play. He really valued people and valued their differences. He believed that 25 percent of the day should be fun. He believed if you spend half of your life at work, it should be an enjoyable [and] satisfying experience. When people enjoy what they do for a living, they're more productive.

Entrepreneur.com: What are the advantages to having a big business in a small town?

Longaberger: We weren't always this size. When my dad first started the company, we were very much a small-town business. Even though our size has increased, we still practice the same business philosophy-that by believing in people and encouraging them to exceed their own expectations of what they can achieve, they can succeed beyond their wildest imagination.

Entrepreneur.com: Obviously, The Longaberger Company is a family-operated business. Do you think this has hurt or helped you? What role does your sister, Rachel, now play at the company?

Longaberger: We've never been pressured by results for the next quarter. We're here for the long term, not just short-term profits. Having a family-operated business has allowed us to make quick decisions and communicate effectively. We've never experienced some of the difficulties other family-run businesses may have experienced because we trust each other and work together effectively. My sister is president of The Longaberger Foundation, which was created to make a difference in the lives of others, to share The Longaberger Company's success, and to help make the world a better place.

Entrepreneur.com: The Longaberger Company has had its share of ups and downs. In 1986, the company had to lay off 500 workers (50 percent of the workforce), and the product line was drastically reduced. How did you bounce back? What was the lesson learned here?

Longaberger: Everyone believed in my father's vision and stuck with us, everyone from the basket makers to the vendors. My father had great leadership skills, and he created a strong work culture. He taught me if you treat people right and everyone feels valued in their job, then they will stick with you through the hard times. Dad believed that a business is built with people. Our business has a core set of values and a core culture that can't be replicated. It's built around the idea that if you genuinely care about people, they will care about your company.

Entrepreneur.com: What did your father teach you about business?

Longaberger: He taught me what to value-honesty, quality and trust. And he taught me to believe in people. He wanted to create an environment where people feel valued and appreciated. We have more than 70,000 sales associates and 8,500 employees, including 3,000 basket weavers. They create more than 40,000 baskets every day. He also taught me to listen, to take risks, to always learn from my mistakes and to encourage people to exceed their expectations.