What’s it like to work at a company that just won a business excellence award for family harmony?

For starters, the person in charge of managing employee development might go by the informal title of chief people officer. A custom-made sign at the parking lot exit urges caution in courteous and polite language. And employees from the manufacturing line to accounting are cheerful. Really cheerful.

“Cheerful, bright and hard-working,” confirmed Steve Smith, president and CEO of Tec Laboratories, Inc., winner of a 2018 Excellence in Family Business Award for family harmony, presented by Oregon State University College of Business. Those are the characteristics Tec Labs looks for in job applicants. It’s also the secret sauce to running a family business.

The award for family harmony adds to the list of recognition for Tec Laboratories as a top-employer, including 15 years as an Oregon Top 100 Employer, an inductee to Oregon Business Magazine’s Hall of Fame, certification as a Great Place to Work, and being ranked by The Scientist Magazine as a Best Place to Work.

A family-like culture is at the forefront of the business, which manufactures innovative products including Tecnu, which removes the rash-causing oil from poison oak plants, and Licefreee, a non-toxic treatment for head lice.

A lot has changed in the 40 years since Smith's late father, Robert Smith, started the company in the family garage. But family values continue to guide the pharmaceutical company as the third generation enters the family business.

Steve Smith spends a lot of time to recruit the right people to fit the company culture. Tec Laboratories is organized in teams, where clusters of workers contribute in a collaborative way to projects and tasks.

Tonya Smith, company treasurer and wife of the CEO, said that creating the right work culture helps everyone reach their potential.

“The family business culture keeps employees happy and engaged,” she said. “I love the level of commitment we have.”

She enjoys working with her family, including her husband; brother-in-law, Vern, the company’s chief scientist and vice-president; son, Stephen Grantham, a general manager; and her teenage daughter, Callie, who is a high school intern.

“Nothing makes my heart happier than getting to work with people you love and trust and respect,” she said.

Company culture

Family harmony extends beyond Tec Labs’ company headquarters on Allen Lane. It’s spread throughout the community by the owners and employees through volunteer activities and charity.

Courtney Pouliot, a marketing specialist with Tec Laboratories, gets paid time off to participate in Altrusa, while other employees volunteer with the literacy program SMART (Start Making a Reader Today) at Sunrise Elementary School or leave early to coach youth sports.

Pouliot said the owners make her feel valued and appreciated. Employees get to vote for a charitable cause that Tec Laboratories supports each quarter. And teams from Tec Labs are dispatched to respond to lice outbreaks in local schools.

“We call them safaris,” Pouliot said.

In addition to providing free treatment for affected children, Tec employees train school staff and collect samples of lice, which are used by the company for product testing.

The focus on company culture doesn’t seem to detract from innovation. Tec Labs’ nontoxic Licefreee product was created by an employee who didn’t like the idea of putting pesticides on a child’s head.

The company’s signature product line, Tecnu, was first developed as a safe solution capable of removing nuclear fallout during the height of the Cold War. Years later, when the Smith family relocated to Oregon, where poison oak was prevalent, Evelyn Smith, wife of Tec Labs founder Robert Smith, accidentally discovered that Tecnu also worked to prevent itchy rashes.

Under the Tecnu brand, the company continues to develop new potions and lotions for outdoor-active individuals, as well as safe solutions for pediatric problems under the Licefreee brand.

Business with a soul

Executives at giant pharmaceutical companies that offer competing products are concerned with shareholder profits. Tec Labs’ focus extends far beyond quarterly earnings to future generations of the family that could someday lead the business.

“A family business has a soul,” Steve Smith said.

He and his brother, Vern Smith, used to travel with their dad to trade shows in the family station wagon when they were children. Following that example, the Smiths have encouraged the third and fourth generations of the family in the same way, taking children and grandchildren on business trips and providing opportunities for them to learn about and participate in the family business.

Best practices 

Family harmony is more than an awards category for the Excellence in Family Business Awards, said Sherri Noxel, director of the Austin Family Business Program at Oregon State. It’s one of the best practices for successful family businesses recognized in a 2012 report by the Family Office Exchange and the International Family Business Network. Other key measures include generational development and business renewal.

“We reorganized the awards so that they reinforce those business practices,” Noxel said.

Since changing to the new categories in 2015, the business program’s advisory board has revised the award criteria to reflect these best practices, and family businesses have become more engaged in the application process, seeking a benchmark for how they compare to other family businesses.

“It’s something families can work toward,” Noxel said.

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Rebecca Barrett, a mid-valley freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to InBusiness.