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These articles were prepared for the May 30, 2001 edition of U.S.
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The Norlands Retool the Family Business
Robert and Evelyn Norland have five sons. In 1960 when
Robert was 41, he left Johnson & Johnson to start his own business,
Norland Products, on the proverbial shoestring. Evelyn hired some
household help so she could do the paper work from an office in their
Cranbury home, and Robert did the traveling and selling. The business
was an unusual one: Making industrial-use gelatins from codfish skins.
The longevity of the business is also unusual. Reams have been written
about how difficult it is for family businesses to survive into the
next generation. The odds against it are three to one, but the
represent a textbook case of how to manage a business on both a
and personal level. Three of the five sons came into the business,
and after their father retired eight years ago, they are doing what
many families only dream about — taking a mom and pop family
business into the second generation.
Norland Products recently doubled its space in New Brunswick with
a move to 15,000 feet at the Cranbury Corporate Campus. Half of the
28 people here work in production, most in fiber optics, and the
company has 60 employees working seven days a week, 24-hours a day, in
Nova Scotia at the Kenney and Ross plant in Nova Scotia. Of 10
companies worldwide that were making fish gelatin in 1960, Norland
Products is the only survivor. Its success is due to retaining common
values and moving into innovative areas — keeping the
"old" products like the fish gelatin but also going into new
technology areas, like fiber optics devices.
"We are always looking for new markets," says Richard Norland,
the second son and oldest of the three brothers involved. "That’s
the difference between us and the companies that went out of
"We have admiration for each other’s talents. Each of us have
our own areas of expertise," says Eric, the middle brother.
"We don’t have any hidden agendas," says Tim, the youngest
of the three. "We fit well together in terms of work habits and
"We have had a lot of offers to buy the business," says father
Robert, "and we say we are having too much fun. It was a very
wonderful experience, and to have three sons come into it adds so
First, the business story. Robert E. Norland grew up in Seattle, the
son of a Norwegian immigrant who worked as a streetcar conductor,
and he earned a chemical engineering degree from the University of
Washington in Seattle. For the Permacel division of Johnson & Johnson
he helped Canadian manufacturing plants turn codfish skins into
gelatin and glue. When synthetic adhesives were developed, the bottom
out of those markets, but Norland bought the technology and the client
list from J&J and went off on his own.
In 1966 the Norlands bought a manufacturing company, Kenney and Ross,
and built a new efficient plant. It is now the major employer in a
depressed area of Nova Scotia, where the fishing industry has
and the fish fillet processors must get salt water fish from the
coast of the USA and Iceland. Norland buys their waste skins.
Over the years the Norlands turned the industrial quality gelatin
to new uses geared to fish skins’ unusual qualities. In comparison
to gelatin made from cattle skin or bones or pigskin, the skin of
cold water fish is liquid at room temperature and easy to work with.
Fish gelatin has been used by printers (for photo engraving on metal
plates) and electronics manufacturers (for color television tubes).
Now it is used by food and pharmaceutical companies for
vitamins used in such products as breakfast cereals. From fish gelatin
the company segued to synthetic adhesives supplied to lens
and fiber optics companies. Though the printing and television markets
dwindled, the Norlands dominate healthy niche markets in the other
These markets may be worth only $10 or $20 million, but that’s plenty
for a small firm. "There is plenty of business out there for
products if you don’t worry about having hundreds of millions of
says Eric Norland. "Any product that we work on needs to be unique
and needs to be in markets where larger companies will not compete.
It will not be the largest volume product, but we will make it the
best in the industry."
Three products offer significant opportunities that each brother can
be involved in yet work together. There is crossover between the
with help requested and given for each of the areas.
grade of glue, was the original product and is still sold for such
purposes as fine furniture manufacture and leather finishing. A quart
is $10, and it also comes in gallons, five gallon pails, and drums.
In 1988 Norland entered the pharmaceutical market, selling kosher
gelatin to such customers as Hoffman LaRoche for microencapsulating
vitamins. The gel meets both kosher and pharmaceutical specifications
— no odor, no taste, and very high quality. Until recently Norland
had this market to itself, but now animal gel manufacturers are
to work with fish skins also. "While it’s competition, they make
a little bit different gelatin than we do, and it increases the
of fish gelatin," says Richard.
Because cold water fish gelatin remains a liquid at room temperature,
the company developed its own special dryer-oven to dry the gelatin
in a pure form for its pharmaceutical clients.
a line of ultraviolet-curing synthetic adhesives designed for optical
lenses. These adhesives are made in small custom lots and are
for cameras and military optical uses.
In contrast to epoxy glues, which have to be mixed and require the
lenses to be clamped together overnight, these synthetic glues can
bond glass surfaces in a matter of seconds by using an ultraviolet
light source as the catalyst or curing agent. Just apply the adhesive,
work it out to the edges, taking as much time as you need, then cure
it quickly with an ultraviolet light. "Our material is probably
in every optical shop across the country and overseas," says
in telephone lines in the 1970s but in the 1980s came the big push
to replace copper with fiber. A 1980 request for adhesive for a fiber
optic splice turned into a new Norland product, a $1,200 fiber optic
splicing kit for emergency repairs by telephone companies or
But a really good non-emergency splice requires a special microscope
to line up the cleaved (flat end) fiber. That led to a high-end
the Norland CentRoc Model 980, which uses optics and electronics and
a computer to make measurements up to submicron accuracy. Norland
has made and sold 50 of these $20,000 devices.
Also brand new are the NC 3005 interferometers, $40,000 microscopes
used for quality control and are sold to manufacturers of fiber optic
grew up expecting to join the business. Tom Kaplan, faculty advisor
to the Family Business Forum at Fairleigh Dickinson, points out that
successor generations work well when everyone is there because they
want to be there.
"My wife and I always told the boys, don’t think we made this
business for you. Go to work for somebody else first, and then
says father Robert. "But I can get very excited about traveling
around and talking to people, and I get the feeling that I conveyed
the excitement to my sons." The oldest son, Robert E. Jr., works
for AT&T, and David, the youngest, for a chemical processing plant
Richard, 54, is a graduate of the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
He worked as an engineer for the telephone company and had a sales
job before joining the family firm in 1974. He is vice president in
charge of sales and is also president of the processing company in
Nova Scotia. Following in his father’s footsteps, he spends one week
of every month in Canada.
"Richard always seemed to be the friendly, outgoing one. We
for sure he would make a fantastic salesman. He is very empathetic,
likes people, and looks for ways to make them comfortable," says
Eric. "The way he manages people is the same way."
Eric was a chemical engineer at the Illinois Institute
of Technology, Class of 1971. He intended to go into the business
eventually, but ended up joining the company right away because in
1971 the job market for engineers was in a slump. He held the job
of vice president for two decades and took over as president when
his father retired eight years ago. He is "kind of quiet, the
thinker, very creative."
Tim, the general manager, went to Central College in Iowa, Class of
1976 and has an MBA from the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
He had been a manager for the Christian Science Monitor and joined
the firm in 1993, when his father retired. In addition to being in
charge of operations, he is also works with the ultraviolet adhesives.
Eric describes him as "an action kind of guy, he gets things done,
makes sure that everything happens day to day."
"Until Tim joined us, we were operating by the seat of the pants
on budgeting and money," says Eric. "Neither Richard nor I
had a great deal of business experience. As we were growing we needed
some help in this area."
Anybody with more than one child knows that sibling rivalry is not
an abstract concept. Yet the Norlands seem to be in harmony with
and their work.
are not looking to make a quick profit and leave but plan on taking
this for the long term," says Tim, who points out that the five
brothers have seven children between them.
Aside from necessary promotion of current products, the brothers give
priority to R&D funds for future products. Such strategic planning
is one of the main factors in family business success, according to
Craig Aronoff of the Cox Family Enterprise Center in Georgia. The
Norlands were able to plan for older products providing cash income
while R&D continued in new areas. "We’re very fortunate that we
do have ongoing business that allows us to sell present products and
as we see new and important requirements out there we can do those
as well," says Eric.
the fly. This counters most consulting advice, which leans heavily
to formal mission statements and regular meetings. But these men have
been operating on the same set of values for decades and they can
depend on each other. Only family members — no spouses — are
on the board. "It’s hard enough as it is to run the business as
it is," says Tim.
"With brothers," says Richard, "you trust them and
their motivation. You don’t have a question mark in the back of your
mind as to whether their interests are the same or not. You are not
and lots of effort. They also all take home about the same amount
in salary. "We are all working hard," says Richard. "Even
though Tim has been here only eight years, and Eric and I have been
here almost 30 years, we think he is making a great contribution."
He declines to provide profit figures but notes that the business
is successful enough that none of the brothers is worried about paying
their children’s college tuition.
look for products that are not going to be used in an industry at
that point in time, but we know down the road they will be," says
Eric. "It gives us time to perfect them, but time to get into
the industry." For instance, the company is now firmly ensconced
in certain kinds of fiber optic devices, but it has been working on
this instrumentation since the late 1980s and early ’90s.
independence was valued and cooperation required, where Fresh Air
Fund children enlivened the home in the summers and the Norland yard
hosted neighborhood children year round.
The family moved out of New Brunswick when the older boys started
to aggravate neighbors by climbing on the roofs of garages. Their
mother decided that they needed a yard with trees to climb. "It
took us three years to find this house in Cranbury, but we had trees
with branches that were in steps," says Evelyn Norland. "When
a new child was in the neighborhood, I went out and stayed with them
so they saw how they could climb, so I never worried that they were
safe. We had a pony, that first summer, and Bob took every kid that
came into the back yard for a ride, so the children got to know that
the Norlands’ house was a nice place to go. As the children grew,
baseball games were in our back yard. I fixed up many a split lip
and hit head."
A self-described "permissive mother," she tells of how she
once found the boys and their friends smoking in the hay-filled barn.
"Instead of sending everybody home, I told them to come into the
house with me and gave them some matches, and told them to go ahead
and smoke because it isn’t dangerous in here. Within five minutes,
they all left. It wasn’t any fun any more."
The Norland boys had to work out their own differences. Richard
his mother telling them, when they got into fist fights, "Go
kill yourselves, see if I care."
Though that threat might seem harsh, to consultant Kaplan, it fostered
responsibility. "It shows how much she cared about her
says Kaplan. "In family businesses, we see a lot of problems with
triangles. But she taught the boys not to come to a third `power’
person with their problems, to treat each other with respect and learn
how to interact productively. When you force kids to solve their own
problems, it helps them solve bigger problems later in life."
"Isn’t it wonderful," Evelyn says to her husband, "that
you could start a business that could support three families."
— Barbara Figge Fox
Cranbury 08512. Timothy C. Norland, general manager. 609-395-1966;
fax, 609-395-9006. Home page: www.norlandproducts.com.
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