Seventy-seven years ago, the McKeesport Candy Co. opened in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Three generations later, it's still a traditional wholesaler. But it also operates what it bills as the largest online candy store in the world: CandyFavorites.com. Gold Rocks gum, Ear Wax, edible insects — if it's got dextrose and gum arabic, they probably sell it.
How do you keep a generations-old family company on the leading edge? Jon H. Prince, McKeesport Candy's owner and a grandson of the founder, borrows his business philosophy from painter Jasper Johns, who once instructed: "Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it." Prince explains, "Everyone who starts to build something has a vision. We've had a vision since 1927, but it has to change a little every day."
Prince says McKeesport has clung to its bedrock values, but it has also been unafraid to innovate in moderation. Here's how he balances his company's future with its past.
- Think everlasting (and gobstopping).
While rivals diversified into other foods in the 1980s, McKeesport Candy stuck to sweets. Staying focused ensures longevity in a crowded industry, says Prince — who shares an office with his dad in a building the company has owned since 1927.
- Customers are the real lifesavers.
The one constant: maniacal dedication to customer service. Prince says, "Candy is what we deliver, but service is what we sell." He answers calls from customers himself and once spent half an hour helping a buyer find the perfect shade of M&M's.
- Never Stop Building.
Prince embraces restlessness. He started CandyFavorites .com because he saw a new revenue opportunity — but also because he needed a challenge. He encourages McKeesport employees to apply their energy to creative new efforts.
- Think big.
One day in 2003, Prince woke up and told his wife, "I'm starting the biggest online candy store." Why? It beat being the smallest — and the more products you offer, he reasoned, the more likely you'll trigger impulse buys.
- Keep it simple.
Candy is simple. So Prince wanted his new site to feel as straightforward as his traditional business. He insisted that his mom be able to navigate to her beloved Necco Wafers before CandyFavorites.com went live.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.