At family-owned A.W. Chesterton Co., they start ’em young; “Some of my earliest memories are my father really talking to me about the business when I was a boy. I think he probably even talked to me when I was in my crib,” jokes CEO and President Andrew Chesterton.
Chesterton credits his father’s stories with sparking his interest in the family’s sealing solutions and industrial equipment business. “My father was really very passionate about the business, and he would always talk to me about what was going on, and how we were growing a business,” he said. “That was probably the thing that got me really interested in the company, just seeing how passionate my father was about the business.”
His recent appointment – he took over the reins from Brian O’Donnell, a longtime Chesterton executive, in June – marks a return to family leadership for the company, which was founded in 1884.
“Sometimes people think that a family business is less serious than a regular business, but it’s definitely not at Chesterton. … We’re very serious [and] we want to perform at a very high level.”
The Groveland-based A.W. Chesterton has over 1,250 employees, sales in over 113 countries and locations spanning five of the seven continents, but what it stresses most is the uncompromising importance of customer care. In a statement regarding his appointment, Chesterton emphasized his company’s commitment to family values and individualized customer service. In his statement, he noted that his immediate plans for the company focus primarily on “exceptional customer care, unparalleled product quality, and technical innovation.”
These are values that the company has held close since Chesterton’s great-grandfather, Arthur Wellington Chesterton, founded it as a small steamship supplies shop on the Boston waterfront. The engineering supplies side of the business followed soon after and the company – which has remained under family control for over 132 years – has gradually expanded its services and offerings ever since.
‘A Winning Business Model’
With A.W. Chesterton in a state of regular growth since its inception, Chesterton points to a rather straightforward business model as the key to the company’s success. The model, he explains, is twofold: equal parts professional management and hands-on customer service.
When Chesterton first joined the company 29 years ago, the then-recent Duke University graduate took an entry-level job in the company’s customer service department. “It really taught me a lot about who our customers were and what they needed, and how we had to really be customer-focused to be a successful company, which is why one of my emphases as CEO now is that we’ve really got to become a truly customer-focused company again,” he explained.
Chesterton also notes that one of his fondest memories from his time at the company was from his tenure as the strategic business leader for the company’s hydraulic pneumatic business line, an assignment that involved calling on customers and developing corporate accounts. “That was a really exciting time for me. I really enjoyed that and it took my experience in the business to a whole other level to have that role,” he said.
Now, he and his wife – Darina Chesterton, who leads the corporate quality organization – are the only two family members currently working at the company, though ownership of the private company is divided among Arthur Chesterton’s descendants.
But despite the strong emphasis on family values, Chesterton is careful to note, the management team’s professionalism and determination are what help keep the gears in constant motion. Although the company puts heavy focus on its customer service department, “We have a very strong management team, and I think that’s important too,” Chesterton said. “Sometimes people think that a family business is less serious than a regular business, but it’s definitely not at Chesterton. … We’re very serious, we want to perform at a very high level and the Chesterton Company has always been about high quality and it’s always been about high performance, and that’s very much a part of our business model.”
Still, he said the company would not be as successful as it is today if not for its dedication to its customers – part of the reason why he has stressed the importance of renewing the company’s commitment to those values. “I think as we’ve gotten bigger over the years … we’ve developed more administration and more bureaucracy and things like that, which is a pitfall for all companies as they grow,” Chesterton said. “And I think what we really need to do now is really think about how we can be a truly customer-focused company again.”
“We really want to be driven by our sales force and what they tell us about the market and what they’re seeing out there so we know what we do internally will really be of value to the customer,” he added.
Abby Patkin is the editorial intern at The Warren Group, publisher of Massachusetts Family Business, the magazine of the Massachusetts Family Business Association. This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of that magazine.