Jenny Fulton had been a stockbroker at Morgan Keegan for 16 years when in January of 2010 she finally succumbed to a round of layoffs in the latest recession. Despite her confidence that she could probably land another job at a different firm in a few months, she was burned out, and before rushing into the same old thing again, she decided to try to figure out something different. “I was 39 and I was tired. Tired of doing the same thing for so long. I wanted something new.”
She thought about her friend Susan Cameron, CEO of RJ Reynolds. Susan had started out her career in the office equipment industry, going door to door selling goods, but one day she had an epiphany. Jenny remembers hearing Cameron say, “I wanted to work doing something I loved, and I knew I loved brown liquor, makeup, and cigarettes!” So with that realization, Cameron went and applied for a job with Brown & Williamson, which was eventually bought out by RJ Reynolds, and worked her way up to the CEO position.
Applying the same approach to her own job search, Fulton said to her husband, “I want to do something I love. What do I love? I know I love softball and pickles. My husband said, ‘Well, you do make good pickles.’”
So with that encouragement, and with another friend from the firm, Ashlee Furr, who had also been let go six months prior, they started making pickles and Miss Jenny’s Pickles was born.
Using the acre of land next to the house she grew up in in Belews, North Carolina, she planted a crop of cucumbers and started seasoning them the way her grandmother had taught her. “There was always a plate of fresh cucumbers and a dish of vinegar water next to it at meals in our house. So I did know how to make good pickles,” Fulton recalls.
But she wasn’t sure she knew how to produce good pickles for the masses, so she enrolled at the North Carolina Pickle School. (Yes, there is such a thing as pickle school and North Carolina doesn’t have the only one.)
“Family won’t tell you whether something is good or bad, they’ll just tell you everything is wonderful, so I went to strangers to see if they liked my pickles, and, if they didn’t, I knew I had to tweak the recipe.”
Fulton and Furr carried their pickles to restaurant parking lots, farmers markets, and anywhere they could find where people might be willing to test and then sell their pickles.
Soon, they were in local grocery stores and restaurants, but the big break came a couple years later, when retailer Harris Teeter gave them a shot at seven stores. That didn’t happen by accident however. The former stockbroker was used to leveraging client lists and – be it stocks or preserves – knew how to sell, and she applied that same enthusiasm to her pickle empire expansion. Jenny secured an initial connection at Harris Teeter through her husband, and eventually worked her way up to the CEO’s office.
It wasn’t just the taste of the pickles that sold the grocers, although they do taste good, but the entrepreneur’s commitment to customer service. The jar of pickles, which bears Jenny’s name, also has another personal touch – her personal cell phone number.
“I told all my customers when I was starting out – ‘if you have a problem with these pickles, you call me,’ and I meant it,” says Fulton. “One day, I got a call from an elderly woman at a nursing home, and she said, ‘is this Jenny?’ I said, it sure is, and she said, ‘I have this jar of pickles I just bought but I can’t open it.’”
So Jenny’s partner Furr drove to the customer, who was fortunately just across town, to open the jar.
But those trips might be more difficult to accomplish in the near future.
The initial pilot at Harris Teeter was so successful that Jenny’s Pickles is now in all the grocery giant’s more than 200 locations. And that’s not all. Fulton and Furr actively pursued state-sponsored programs aimed at helping North Carolina small businesses export their product overseas. When Furr heard about a meeting that the Export-Import Bank was holding in Charlotte for potential exporters, she packed Fulton’s car with pickles and sent her on her way. Fulton didn’t get to meet the head of the bank, but she did hand a jar of pickles to his driver in the parking lot with the message, “He’s got to try these before he gets on the plane back to Washington.”
Apparently he did. Miss Jenny’s Pickles is now exporting to three countries – China, England, Canada – and they have their sites set on more. But it’s not just the taste of the pickles and the team’s down home approachability that has secured their success. The two worked tirelessly with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, the Small Business Association, Score, and the Export-Import Bank. They also are still plowing their money back into the business to ensure its growth.
When asked if she’s now making more money than she did as a stock broker, Fulton’s reply? “Not yet!” But that’s coming soon. She’s heading to shows in Germany and Hong Kong this year to pursue their goal of satisfying the world’s craving for pickles.
“In Germany, they eat 15 lbs of pickles a year and in Russia they eat 22 lbs,” explains Fulton. “There’s a lot of the world left that needs North Carolina goodness in a jar.”
So be Pickle STRONG and Pickle UP!!!
- Do plenty of research before you start. You need to know who your competitors are and basic market research on your product.
- Timing is everything. Just because someone says “No” to your product…that no is not a no forever. It may just be that the timing was not right. If you come back around that no will be a yes if the timing is right.
- Always give your customer a WOW! People may not remember exactly what your pitch was, but they will remember a company that goes above and beyond the typical call of duty.