Jelmar finds its success story "As seen on TV"
Alison Gutterman fondly recalls her fourth birthday party, when she and her friends were treated to appearances by Cookie the Clown and Wizzo the Wizard from the WGN-TV classic kids' show "Bozo's Circus."
She also remembers her father, Arthur Gutterman, occasionally coming home with professional magician Marshall Brodien, who would perform magic shows for the family.
Her father's hobnobbing with Boomer kids' TV royalty was a perk of the business he and his brother Steven ran that was started by Alison's grandfather, Manny. The company, Jelmar LLC, had brought a cleaning product from a bankrupt company during the late 60s. They reformulated the brand and sold it under the name Tarn-X Tarnish Remover. Tarn-X's ubiquitous commercials covered Chicago television in the 60s and 70s, being one of the first products to advertise itself "As Seen on TV." As a result, Tarn-X became the top-selling metal cleaner in the U.S.
In the 80s, the company developed another cleaning product, CLR Calcium, Lime and Rust Remover. Again, a heavy investment by her father and uncle in TV and radio marketing helped push CLR to the No. 2 recognized brand in America.
As a result, the company Manny Gutterman started in 1949 selling products and "close out" merchandise -- ranging from the Hair Wiz home haircutting device to Brodien's TV Magic Cards -- to chain stores is today a major manufacturer of cleaning products in North America, putting family-owned Jelmar in the same league with global giants including Proctor & Gamble and S.C. Johnson.
Alison followed her father's footsteps into the business. With her guidance, the CLR and Tarn-X names were expanded into a diverse line of products. Jelmar currently sells 14 different products under the CLR name, from the original rust cleaner to cleaners for baths, ovens, barbecue grills, sewer and septic cleaners and grease and stain removers. The company also started a Pro-line of CLR products for industrial use.
"We wanted CLR to not be just an individual product," she said. "We had to evolve the product into a brand."
The company -- which manufactures all its liquid products at a single plant in Skokie about three miles from the company headquarters -- produced about 12 million bottles last year, which were sold in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, Mexico and the Caribbean, according to Gutterman.
While CLR and Tarn-X remain strong, well-recognized brands, Gutterman said the company continues to evolve as they face the same challenges shared by many other industries: Gaining new customers in the millennial and Gen Z generations.
"The younger generation is saddled with enormous college debt, many are living at home and have no need for cleaning products the same way we do," she said. "The challenge for us is how do we find that next wave of population?
"We need to be innovative and come up with environmentally safe products that meet needs of all consumers and are still effective."
And that's where the old-school marketing comes in. Jelmar's marketing has expanded from TV and radio ads to cable, online streaming services and social media. Products are advertised on streaming services like Hulu and OnDemand, and on many shopping apps. They have a presence on Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube, as well as a Facebook page that Gutterman says has 450,000 followers.
"It's not just about having the followers. It's about engagement from the consumers that are following us, which is phenomenal for a company that has so few employees as we do," she said of the 15-person company.
Being a small, family owned company allows Jelmar to be more flexible in trying new things in order to draw in and grow new customers. Gutterman notes "innovation is key" as the company moves ahead, looking down the road at possibly moving into different product categories, new territories and develop new products to sell.
"It doesn't do me any good to advertise to the same people who buy CLR all the time, because those people are my consumers," Gutterman said. "I need to figure out who's going to be the next person who will carry the torch and be the next brand ambassador."
Jelmar LLCAddress: 5550 W. Touhy Ave. No. 200, Skokie, IL 6007
Phone: (847) 675-8400
Web Address: clrbrands.com
Well known product: CLR brand cleaners, Tarn-X polishing products
Top official: Alison Gutterman, president and CEO
Number of employees: 15
Annual revenue: $50 million-$70 million