While most "next generation" BE 100s CEOs only have to contend with one family business legend, Charles H. James III has to face a legacy of entrepreneurship that spans three generations. Reflecting on the challenge of managing C.H. James & Co., a 109-year-old Charleston, W.Va.-based food wholesale and trucking company, James explains: "Every day when I walk into my office, I have to face my great-grandfather, [C.H. James II], and my grandfather, [Edward L. James], and my father [C.H. James II] is just a phone call away. Over the years I've come to realize that I'm not just managing a family business. What I'm really overseeing is a family trust."
Despite the pressure to continue his family's legact, the 33-year-old Wharton MBA is certainly not overwhelmed by the watchful eyes of the elder James. For C.J. James III, who is called Chuck by those who know him, the pressure of growing his $18 million family business has been a source of inspiration more than anything else. One might think that guiding a regional distributor of fruits, vegetables, chickens and eggs nestled in the mountains of West Virginia into the 21st century might not appeal to a hotshot Ivy Leaguer. But James says: "I've never viewed this company as a local business selling food in Charleston. I always saw it as a base from which to build an international food distribution empire."
But propelling a century-old company into the major leagues is not easy in an industry that is constantly evolving. "Food distribution has gone the same way a lot of other industries have. The big companies get bigger and the small companies go out of business," says Darryl Breed, a C. H. James client and chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) fruit and vegetable commodity procurement branch.
In fact, through the mid-1980s, C. H. James & Co. found itself losing market share and profits to fiercely competitive, large supermarket chains, food cooperatives and discount food warehouses. As a local business serving schools, hospitals and restaurants throughout a 10-county region in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, sales leveled off to about $4.3 million per year.
By shifting the company's emphasis to higher volume sales with federal government agencies, C. H. James & Co. has established a foothold in the more lucrative national and international food distribution markets. The result: The company has averaged a 38% annual increase in sales over the past five years, while winning prestigious national small business awards for outstanding service along the way.
And that's only the beginning. If you give him a few minutes, James will enthusiastically talk about his 18-month timetable to further expand his company through acquisitions and to bring in new partners.
In January, he took the first step. James consolidated the company's local business accounts and their assets into a separate operating division. He then sold 49% of the assets for an...