When Francis “Nelson” Blount bought the Narragansett Oyster Company in the World War II era, he was continuing what Blounts had done since the late 1800s – harvesting oysters in local waters. However, Nelson’s skill in sales and product development – Campbell’s Soup Company and the U.S. Army became major clients – and the help of his engineer brother Luther (who designed boats and processing equipment before going on to found Blount Marine) turned a family trade into a family enterprise. Today, Blount Fine Foods is known not just for seafood, but for quality soups and prepared foods that are found in popular dining establishments across the country.
Nelson had five children, two of whom entered the family business. Ted is the chairman and retired president of 30 years; Steve is still involved as the vice-president of procurement. Of the current generation, Ted’s son Todd is now the president, and daughter Courtney is a receptionist. Steven’s son Steve Jr. works in business development and daughter Rachel works in retail marketing.
Despite the heavy family presence, positions are not a given. “I was the last guy to get in easy,” Todd says, laughing. “When I started, my father was in charge and he had a plan for succession. I did enter a management program at another company to prepare for this position before officially coming aboard, but I’ve now broken the system on how people are hired.”
Todd explains further: “There are three rules for a family member entering the business. First, you can come into the company any time for an entry-level job and work your way up, but to start out in management you have to work somewhere else first. Second, you have to report to someone that is not family; of course, adhering to this is not always possible as people progress up the ladder. Finally, you must have a strong desire to work at the company - it can’t be your backup option.”
Once a Blount passes those tests, there’s still a rough road ahead. “Although it’s a family business, we don’t make it easy on ourselves. Expectations are high, and advancement is done by merit – nothing purely by name. You always feel like you have to outwork your peers to justify your situation, so that no one questions why you’re there. It’s challenging, tiring and hard for all of us – not always a desirable state to be in. You’re never done proving yourself, even if it’s to impress the previous generation – although they may not still have the authority, they still have the pride.”
A family business with such a long history does pose interesting challenges. Todd recalls: “When I started out, my father and uncle were still very involved and it was great to have two generations really active in the business. However, I would often suggest adding a new policy or system and the old generation would say ‘we tried that already.’ It was hard to come up with new ideas, so you had to tweak or re-think old ones.”
Obstacles aside, Todd notes the unique source of pride that comes with having the family name in the business name: “It’s not only seeing your name on the product... it’s having your name match the business card or the badge around your neck at a sales show and the immediate connection and respect that it brings with people. It’s not just about making money. We’re carrying a legacy and trying to keep this monster alive. It was handed to us and we don’t want to let it fail – we want to make our ancestors proud.”