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VernDale Products

8445 Lyndon
Detroit, MI 48238

Dale Johnson on getting everyone in a family business on board with a growth plan

VernDale Products is going through its biggest growth spurt ever. Pulling it off is much more difficult than most outsiders would guess.

The Detroit-based manufacturer makes roller dried milk powder, which is primarily used by premium chocolate manufacturers. It was launched by LaVerne and Marlene Johnson in 1958 and has served as the economic foundation for the family ever since. Today it employs three generations of Johnsons, which compose seven of the company’s 49 employees.

Getting them all on the same page about the future of the company when its founder is no longer at the helm, not easy.

"It wasn't," says Dale Johnson, president of VernDale Products and son of LaVerne and Marlene Johnson. "The first generation is the entrepreneur and has total control. It's not uncommon for there to be a group think of, 'If dad says it's the best way then let's do it.'"

LaVerne Johnson passed away a few years ago. Marlene Johnson is still involved in the company but Dale Johnson took over the reigns. He manages six other family members who are actively involved in the business, including his mother, two siblings, a brother in-law, and two nephews. And he got them all on board with a big expansion of the company.

VernDale Products is working on building out a new facility on the city's west side that will add 60 percent to its production capacity. The new space will allow the company to keep up with its organic growth of 5-7 percent annually. The company is investing $20 million to build out the production facility, which requires all of the family members to come together financially, sacrifice and invest in the company’s future. Dale Johnson boils down the consensus to one sentence.

"I gained their trust," Dale Johnson says.

He did this by running the company and growing it organically for a few years. That made everybody feel the leadership was capable to pulling off an expansion. Dale Johnson also opened up the company’s books to the family members. That enabled everybody to see what he saw.

"Everybody knew where everybody else was at," Johnson says. "Everybody respected that."

And they got onboard. They were glad to make the sacrifices the company needed to grow and stay relevant. The job isn’t done because the new facility isn't fully operational yet, but the initial signs are encouraging.

"We're still running at capacity at our current plant," Johnson says. "We can't keep up with demand."

- Written by Jon Zemke

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