Any business owner needs to be prepared to adapt to adversity, and that’s never been truer than now. With the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic uncertainty, businesses must be more flexible than ever.
Fortunately for Jenny Faris and Ali Helleberg, the sisters who help run two Fond du Lac-based family businesses, the shifting landscape presents an opportunity for growth and change.
Faris and Helleberg’s dad, Jeffrey Faris, started the family’s first business, United Manufacturers, in 1984. Today, it’s an industrial contract sewing company focused on heavy-duty vinyl safety skirts for scissor lift tables and other hydraulic equipment. But, as the pandemic continued, the family knew it needed to switch gears and pitch in.
“We spent an entire day prototyping and testing out different face masks,” Helleberg says. “Over the weekend, we converted all of our manufacturing to focus solely on face masks. We saw the need was there and, as a family, we decided that producing masks was more important than anything else.”
As if investing the elbow grease to suddenly switch their production processes wasn’t generous enough, United Manufacturers is also donating a portion of each mask sale to the Salvation Army. So far, it’s raised more than $10,000.
It’s safe to say an entrepreneurial spirit runs deep in the Faris family. And, while the sisters still pitch in regularly with United Manufacturers, they’ve switched focus to their newer business: Faris Gourmet Popcorn & Treats.
They’ll be the first to admit that popcorn is a departure from an industrial sewing operation, but the inspiration for the business came from homegrown roots. “The idea started in 2009 as my high school project for a mock business plan,” Faris says. “Our dad would always come home from work and make a big bowl of popcorn. When I had to come up with a project, he looked down at the bowl and said, ‘Why don’t you try popcorn?’”
Faris Gourmet Popcorn & Treats grew rapidly from there. Today, it offers more than 100 popcorn flavors and an assortment of other treats. That business also adjusted to deal with the pandemic and now focuses more on individual retail sales than wholesale accounts.
Surprisingly, United Manufacturers and the popcorn business share one facility. One side is the food-safe area where the popcorn is made and the other side houses the sewing operations — separated by an employee break area. Even more surprising, the same employees work in both businesses.
“We’ve always made it a point to cross-train our employees out of precaution, in case something were to happen with either company,” Faris says. “Plus, it typically happens that one part of the year will be busier with sewing and we transition employees to work in sewing. Then the other part of the year, we’ll be busy with popcorn and people can switch over and help there.”
It’s a different approach, but it’s also an effective one. “We did it this way so our employees can feel comfortable and taken care of. We wanted to be able to provide them with job opportunities,” Faris says.
As they look at what’s next for them, both Faris and Helleberg admit they’re staying focused on the near-term. The future feels more uncertain than ever before, but the sisters are grateful the structure of their family business allows them to stay nimble.
“We’re trying to adjust to the economy and to people’s needs,” Helleberg says. “It’s changing quickly, and that’s one big benefit of being a family business: We can make changes as we feel they’re necessary.”