Steven Silk – The Smith Brothers Co.: The Power of Assets



Dan Abbate is a Contributor on the Price of Business on Business Talk 1110 AM KTEK on Bloomberg’s home in Houston (learn more about Dan at

Dan recently interviewed Steven Silk, CEO of The Smith Brothers Co. A former winner of Adweek’s Marketer of the Year, Steven Silk is leading the renaissance behind Smith Brothers cough drops and its new line of wellness products.  He is responsible for developing and implementing the motivating vision and strategy that is building the Company’s short- and long-term direction.   Silk is leading the charge for all management functions, including cultivating a seasoned leadership team, developing a vision for quantum growth and overseeing facility operations for branded and private label products.

Prior to joining Smith Brothers, Silk was Chief Executive Officer for Chef Solutions, Inc., a Wheeling, IL-based food manufacturing company. While there, he created three operating units and restructured, staffed and developed each company to the point where each unit was sold to three different strategic buyers.  He also served as President of ConAgra Refrigerated Foods and Hebrew National Hot Dogs, where he led a $1.5 billion portfolio of branded refrigerated food products, including Butterball, Armour, Eckrich and Healthy Choice.   Among his accomplishments, he doubled Hebrew National’s brand sales twice in seven years to make it the fastest growing hot dog brand.  He has also held leadership roles at Estee Corporation, Lea & Perrins and General Foods (now a part of Kraft).

DAN: Hi Steven! Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. Can you tell me a little bit about your firm?

STEVEN: The Smith Brothers Co. has nearly 250 employees.  It is based in Chicago, Illinois in the city’s Brighton Park neighborhood.  Its customer base includes some of the nation’s top retailers, including Walgreens, Meijer and Duane Reade.

DAN:  Today’s interview is all about companies in active growth phases and how they manage that. Can you tell me about your current growth. What’s your strategy? What will your company look like at the end of this phase? How are you managing this?

STEVEN: The Smith Brothers Co. has evolved from a “traditional” cough drop company.  The company has extremely strong brand equity amongst consumers, and has leveraged that equity in as many marketing opportunities as possible.  You may be familiar with Smith Brothers and their trademarked beards; here in Chicago, we connected the dots between the beards and the Chicago Blackhawks’ (NHL) playoff beards of their players.  In Boston, we connected with the Boston Red Sox (MLB) to showcase the brand. Certainly, beards don’t sell cough drops, but the brand has stood the test of time to stand for helping consumers soothe sore throats.

What’s more, the Company has an extensive R&D portfolio which has led it to create a new line of wellness products that incorporate the entire spectrum of being sick—from the point of feeling sick, to preventing it from happening and recovering once sickness overcomes you.  Starting this year, Smith Brothers will be phasing its new wellness products in stores across the country.

DAN: In your experience, what was/is the most important thing for you to consider in developing your growth strategy?

STEVEN: The one thing that stands out about developing a growth plan is recognizing the power of all of the assets the company has in play.  Sometimes, it is not just about the product being sold.  A company is full of intangible assets—systems, processes, people, R&D—that don’t always show up on financial statements but mean the world to creating a strong brand.  We have taken great strides to extrapolate the power of our assets to create something really special in our category—and retail buyers have noticed that we are different from our peers.

DAN: What is one thing that a company seeking to enter a growth phase should keep in mind? What pitfalls are there to avoid?

STEVEN: Don’t always travel the path least traveled, for it might not be the best route to grow your products.  Be bold.  Be patient.  Remember that true innovation encourages failure along the path.

DAN: What does a high growth rate demand of your organization and staff? How are you addressing this?

STEVEN: We have to worry as much about seasonality as we do about high growth rate demand.  As a result, we are constantly monitoring what our retail partners are saying about our products—and what their customers are telling them they are needing to deliver upon our brand promise.

People need to be excellent at what they do because staffing is thin.  People need to be passionate about our goals as they will spend much of their time seeking to achieve them.

DAN: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today, Steven. I appreciate you sharing your experience and knowledge and I love hearing about interesting people and companies doing interesting things.  Check out Steven’s website at for more information.

Do you have advice on growing your business? Tell me about it! Email me at dan (at) robotaton (dot) com.