Growing a Family Retail Business with Jos Zamzow (Gems of Idaho)

Reading Time: 19 Minutes

In this episode, we talk with Jos Zamzow of Zamzows. Today’s segment is part of our Gems of Idaho series where we feature an Idaho deliberate leader who inspires us for a brighter, bolder future.

Takeaways We Learned from Jos…

Surround yourself with trusted advisors.

Having a support system of trusted individuals who can provide honest feedback is critical for effective leadership.

Seek diverse perspectives.

Embrace viewpoints from people who are not directly involved in your company to gain valuable insights and unbiased opinions.

Embrace feedback and constructive criticism.

“I think you’re skipping some steps here, or I think you need to do some more homework.” Be open to feedback that challenges your ideas and helps you improve your decision-making process.

Emphasize the importance of authenticity.

Connect with others on a personal level, communicate authentically, and prioritize building genuine relationships.

Learn from organic growth.

 Adapt to the organic growth and changes that naturally occur over time, embracing opportunities that arise along the way.

Maintain a customer-centric approach.

Place the utmost importance on delivering exceptional customer service and providing products that align with their values and needs.

Embrace storytelling as a communication tool.

Utilize storytelling to effectively communicate your brand’s evolution, experiences, and values, allowing customers to connect with your narrative on a deeper level.

Embrace Individual Roles and Dreams.

Having their own portion of the dream or a section of the company to lead allows for personal growth and avoids overwhelming everyone. It’s crucial to recognize that individuals have their own aspirations and support them in achieving those while still contributing to the overall vision.

Succession Planning through Trust and Training.

Trust, open communication, and hands-on experience were key factors in successfully passing on the baton.

Effective communication is key.

Jos highlights the need to engage in dialogue, approach differing opinions with curiosity, and truly understand each other’s perspectives. By fostering open communication, trust and empathy can be built, leading to better outcomes.

Culture that attracts and retains talent.

Prioritize hiring individuals who share their interests and passions, such as gardening or wildlife. By aligning employees’ personal interests with the products they sell, they create an environment where people feel passionate about their work and enjoy helping customers.

Empowering employees through knowledge sharing.

By hiring people who love to learn and sharing their expertise with customers, employees can feel empowered and rewarded. This knowledge-sharing approach not only enhances customer experiences but also allows employees to play a role in a field they are passionate about.

About Jos Zamzow

Jos Zamzow is the co-CEO of Zamzows, a renowned leader in the sustainable gardening and agricultural industry. With a passion for organic practices and a commitment to environmental stewardship, Zamzows is a trusted brand and retailer known for its exceptional customer service, innovative solutions, and unwavering dedication to promoting sustainable living practices. Zamzows founded in 1933 has a rich history as a family-owned business.

Read the Transcript

Allison: Welcome to the Deliberate Leaders podcast. I am Allison Dunn, your host and Executive Business Coach. Today’s segment is part of our Gems of Idaho series where we feature an Idaho deliberate leader who inspires us for a brighter, bolder future. Today’s gem is friend Jos Zamzow. He is the Co-CEO of Zamzows are renowned leader in the sustainable gardening and agricultural industry with a passion for organic practices, and a commitment to environmental stewardship. Zamzows is absolutely a trusted brand and retailer known for exceptional customer service, innovative solutions and unwavering dedication to promoting sustainable living practices. Jos, thank you so much for joining me here today.

Jos: Wow, that was quite an introduction. I’m glad to be here.

Allison: All of it is 100%. True. And that is quite an honor to have you here with me. I love to kick these off with a deliberate conversation. What would be your number one leadership tip for our listeners today?


I think leaders in today’s world have to be sure that they have someone, either a coach or an advisor, a board of directors, or a peer group that they can trust to tell them when they’re off track.

And I mean, I think, especially at the top of companies, it’s our job to have the right answer. And we get accustomed to taking the risk, you know that I’m going to take the company in this particular direction, but it is so valuable to have a group of people and they really can’t be it’s very difficult for them to be in your company.

You have to have a group of people that will tell you…trust that they don’t have a dog in the fight.

Or I think you’re skipping some steps here, or I think you need to do some more homework and trust that they, you know, they don’t stand to gain or lose one way or the other only to help you and I think it’s critical.

Allison: You’re speaking my language. So and that’s, you know, one of the ways that we know each other, so I appreciate it. That’s a fantastic tip that you provided. I am also from a family-owned business that’s done retail and manufacturing. So you know, very similar, like backgrounds. But I didn’t realize today when I was getting prepared for this that Zamzows was founded in 1940 33. Oh, even my research was wrong. LinkedIn profile that’s at 94.

Jos: So 1933, which was bizarre. This is 90th year.

Allison: That’s crazy. Cool. Wow. My family’s was 1952. And I thought that that was such longevity, but 1933. That’s one for the books for and you have like an incredibly rich family history as a family-owned business. So how was it originally founded, just so our listeners kind of get the baseline of who you are in the family business.

Jos: I will my great grandparents sold their farm in 1933. and bought a little feed mill in Boise where they were mixing feed on the floor on a concrete floor with a shovel with formulas they had from the University of Idaho and, and my great grandmother would you know, hand mix that feed put it in 100 pound bags, sew the bags up and carry them out. And then walk all the way back home milk the cows, feed the kids and do it all over again the next day. It was truly an amazing thing. And the that they started that in the worst year of the Depression.

Allison: Wow. So in in the sequence of things they ran and grew that until still today.

Jos: Well, they ran the company for about 25 years or so. And then my grandfather took over in the early 50s. Okay, and then my dad and his brother took over the company in the early 70s. And then really just in the last few years, my sister and I have taken over from my father. So it’s kind of passed on across the kitchen counter through multiple generations.

Allison: Do you think that your great grandfather established the values that that is represented in terms of still today or has it evolved?

Jos: Well, you know, this is kind of a funny story. We don’t talk about this a whole lot but it was grandma Z. Oh, it was grandma. That really, it’s not that that my grandpa, my great grandfather didn’t have a twinkle in his eye and a wonderful sense of humor, and a work ethic and of course all the rest of that but the true driver of our company was my great grandmother Carmelita and, and she’s the one that that set the tone.

And I, you know, I think as startups, a lot of my friends have startups and they, they design a company around what they think they want the company to be.

And then the reality is that, when you fast forward 90 years, some of the things you are were the things that you intended to be. And some of them are things that you became, over time, that proved to be your niche and a market or proved to be your style.

And I don’t know that you always know, I mean, you have your dream of what you want it to be as a startup, but sometimes you to look back 90 years and think about what Zamzows was, is today, I don’t think Grandma, you know, would have lined a lot of those things up as things that she thought we were just turned out that that’s how we turned out.

Allison: You evolved to be do you guys have a set of core values that you can list off?

Jos: For me? We do.

We want to provide the highest quality, environmentally sound products at a customer service level beyond our customers expectations.

I think those that’s the answer from 1995. You know, that you so typically get but, but I think the subtle things that that grandma maybe not mentioned is that we are storytellers.

We communicate with people with real life stories about how that products evolved, and, and how, you know, our experiences with things.

And it’s very conversational. It’s very personal.

Even on the radio, we’re that way. And we’re very authentic. You know, we try not to be fancy. And I think that those are just kind of the tenants of will be real. Take care of people share a story.

You know, when people have time to hear it, you know, that type of thing?

Allison: Absolutely. I know this is probably I’m sure I’ve said this to over and over. But like, you know, family-owned businesses, privately held businesses are incredibly near and dear elements, to my heart because that was kind of what I was raised up in. But family-owned businesses can be hard. Yeah. I mean, you face some unique challenges and definitely like the history, the longevity, the institutional knowledge of that opportunity of knowing it was Grandma Z and Carmelita and like you have great stories that are yours. Right? Yeah. So like coming at it. How has being a family business shaped the culture and the decision making process at Zamzows in between you and the current Co-CEOs, you and your sister?

Jos: Yeah, well, I think I think the key for us in we’re still evolving, we’re still learning how to do it. I don’t think that Callie and I have yet figured out the perfectly smooth way for us to lead together the advantages, I think we’re way farther ahead than when my grandfather and his brother were or that my dad and his brother were at this stage.

And so there’s hope that that will ultimately be it’ll be easier for us. But I think the older I get, the more I think that everybody in the family needs to have their own role. Their own portion of a dream or a section of the company that really is theirs to lead because it’s hard for everybody especially when everybody’s active and in a growth period in their careers and wants to get you know better and, and grow in their influence.

You kind of you got to have your lane. And that’s the hard part.

Allison: It’s interesting that you are bringing up the fact that you’re staying in your own lane and then I know that you both kind of share a little bit of a lane but bring very vastly amazing strengths, not to that same lane. And I guess with that in mind, obviously transitioning leadership from one generation to the next can be a super complex process. I mean your dad is still in the business, correct? Yeah, yeah. And so and then bringing up leadership, so similar transition that my family business has made as well, can you shed any light on how the succession planning has taken place at Zamzows, and how the families vision and legacy is being fulfilled and continues to drive the company forward?

Jos: Well, in so many ways, we’re bootstrappers. You know, what I mean by that is, we just kind of figure it out as we go. And I think there are some really smart people that create, you know, succession plans that that are all lined out. And, and I could learn a lesson from them, I think, but, but I think our reality is, we all have the same desire to grow the company and continue in the company, those of us that are involved, it would be so different if I had another sibling that wanted to sell out or, or some other thing, but for us, where we want to stay engaged, and we want to be involved, it really is, is about you know, how do we see it in the next 10 years? And is there going to be a straight path forward for me 10 years from now on a straight path for my sister 10 years from now and, and, you know, really, what, what dad, his big hold off from  like, official, I don’t think he won’t ever fully retire. But he really wanted to see that, that we would make the day to day decisions the way that he would make them.

And then as soon as he felt confident about that, he was willing to step back. And then he doesn’t play a role in day to day decisions he does, if we’re make if we’re buying property, or if we were going to open a new store, you know, he’s involved in those types of things, and real high level, you know, legal stuff, you know, he plays a role, but, but he trusts us to make those day to day choices.

Those are things that were those were conversations that Callie and I were being trained on, on the Zamzow way to handle things, you know, at the kitchen counter, you know, listening to dad talk about how he was negotiating or, or dealing with an employee that was given him trouble or, or, you know, mean that it’s just ingrained in us.

Allison: I love that. You know, takeaway is that our children are listening, regardless of whether they’re in our business or not, or in our jobs, right? How many generations do you have in in the organization today,

Jos: So there are three right now, because my son, August, and sister’s daughter, Raphael, she’s still in high school, but she is working, you know, part time over at one of the stores and then my son is assistant manager in the store. He’s graduated from college and, and he’s kind of feeling his way through if this is something that he wants to do long term. But so three as we speak, if you count dad and Callie and I and August and Raphael.

Allison: That’s fantastic. Yeah. I’d like to take a few minutes to like really hone in and focus on your specific leadership journey, because I think it offers so many valuable lessons to aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs and other retailers and people in ag and, you know, business in general, as a Co-CEO, what are the key leadership qualities or characteristics that you believe are essential for success in this in the business world, and maybe even specifically in your industry?

Jos: Well, I think it’s really important to, at least in the CEO role, to have a vision for where you want the company to go. And, and then be willing to hold fast to that vision and guide the company that direction because if you just come in as a CEO and manage and we have had you know before my sister and I took over and we’ve had other leaders in our company that came in to take what we have the existing culture, the existing product mix, and really just try to ride it out. And the reality is that you can hold the line for a little bit and then you begin to study you know, decline. And so if you’re not out there, trying new things, trying new products stretching, you begin to die. That’s just the reality of the product cycle and, and your place in the community.

And I think CEOs have to be willing to stand up and lead the company in a direction.

And I, the so much of what is talked about now is talked about a leadership team, and a group of employees who get together and talk about the vision of the company. And the reality is that only the people that own the company, only the people that are the leaders of the company. They’re the ones that are best equipped to push in a particular direction. And it’s dangerous to rely on. It’s not dangerous. It’s just I feel like regular your key, even your key leadership, their job is to not screw it up. Right. Their job is to hold the line, take whatever you give them and deliver on that promise. And it’s really not their job to shake it up to dump the applecart and look at what could we be. And it’s critical to have that it’s critical to take those risks.

Allison: I love that. And I love the fact that I know that you have people around you in your organization who I’m sure can show you where the applecart in which one should be dumped over and right. Yeah, yeah, sure, absolutely. But that it is your responsibility. That’s your that’s what that’s the part you own. You can’t blame that on someone else and someone else to take that initiative. So that’s cool. Can you share an example of a challenging leadership situation that you’ve encountered, it seems those and how you navigated through it, and I’m sure there’s a bazillion stories, but I’m thinking just even in our market in, you know, dealing with COVID, and growth and sales and supply chain, so pick something and helped me help.

Jos: I think COVID was, it still stings. Because especially in Idaho, where you, we did not have a common alignment, about the vaccine, about masks, or any of that stuff. And so even amongst our leadership team, we had very smart people who were very passionate on totally opposing sides of the same issue. And I remember talking with some of my other friends who are leaders, and, and them sharing about how the entire office was all in alignment. You know, they were all either pro vaccine or whatever. And I just remember thinking, man, we had a lot of, you know, that it felt like life and death. Conflict about this is what we’re supposed to do, or this is what we’re not going to do from a moral principled approach. And people were so passionate and trying to navigate, you know, where do we go from here?

And I think our path through that was to just talk more, you know we just got on a zoom call every single day. And we talked it through, you know, we came up with an even where there were Dysart district agreeing, you know, completely opposed physicians, we were able to say, Okay, well, here’s how I see it, and here’s how I see it. And where’s the middle ground? And where can we where’s the solid ground for the business? And I think we would have really struggled if we wouldn’t have had that every single day conversation. Everybody knew where everyone else stood and, and we respected each other’s positions, the best that we could. And, and but man, we just had to talk it out and talk it out a lot. Yeah.

Allison: Anna, who’s on my team, and I just recorded a quick little snippet on understanding how to navigate negotiate your position versus the interests of the greater good, or the company or the team and whatnot. And I love the fact that you’ve just used those exact terms in in outlining that, and you weren’t alone in that. I mean, obviously you know, we’re in the same community in Idaho, and even the smallest of smallest teams, nevermind hundreds of employees trying to make decisions was like it felt like life or death or making that decision. So, right? I’m sure that’s not going to be their last most difficult leadership challenge to navigate. But you’re learning from that was you can’t communicate enough. Right?

Jos: Right. If we’re we had problems. We had stores, for example, where there were members of a team at a particular store, who were mortified of the Coronavirus and insisted that no one get too close to them, that everybody was masked up. And they wanted you know, they didn’t even want these people taking the masks off when they went in the bathroom. Because if they went in after them, then, you know, what if, and then you had this group of people that were absolutely morally opposed to the mask, and didn’t want to wear it and felt like it was an invasion of their privacy.

And so they were taking them off. Other people were, I mean, and we were, here we were, and wherever those situations were, it was always that those two people never talked. They didn’t sit down and say, hey, look, I know where you’re at, I get where you’re coming from, what if, you know, we do this, or this or this, and they just didn’t talk. And so it just created this, this, you know, wall that didn’t allow any progress and then higher level? You know, we avoided that, because we did just engage. And I think that was the key.

Allison: Effective communication is the challenge of humanity. Honestly. That’s such a great scenario to try to, to actually like, how do you how do you open up that open transparency at every level, so that you can continue the communication? Like, what tools do you go to?

Jos: Well, what I think I try to lean into a differing opinion.

Allison: And I do know that about you.

Jos: Yes. And I and I, you know, if you’re if you lean in with curiosity, genuine curiosity, what I find is that people start off with a really hard line. And, you know, and they’re just waiting for you to push back. Right? And, and when you don’t push when you lean in, they, they back up a little bit. They don’t you know, they’re prepared to push and you come in, you know, curious, then the natural approach is to, is to back off of your heart a hard line, right?

It’s just human nature. And then once, once that process starts that then it seems to work, but it sometimes takes a leader, someone in the group to lean into a differing opinion and just say, Hold on, hold on, you know, tell me more about why you think this or what might be true, and genuinely not listening, so that you can attack their position, but listening to truly understand, like, what is it in your brain that makes this so clear for you, and I want to understand, and there’s something about that process that just everybody comes together? They trust you? You know, you have more empathy? It just softens everything.

Allison: Yeah, yeah. Curiosity is an amazing cure to so many things. Yeah, I want to talk about culture in, I know that you have, you know, a corporate office culture that I don’t necessarily have ever experienced. But the culture that I experienced when I walk into my neighborhood store, any one of my neighborhood stores, building and maintaining talented, motivated workforce is a challenge of every business, but I feel like your organization has done it so well, at least from the outside walking in to the location. So what cultural strategies or practices do you employ to attract and retain that top talent give us the magic jazz?

Jos: Well, I, you know, I feel like we’re getting better at it all the time. I definitely don’t feel like we’ve arrived. But I think in some ways, that’s part of it. You know, that if we’re asking employees, how are we doing? You know, we want to be better. You know, when they respond and you lean in and really listen to what they have to say and talk it through. I think people like that portion of, you know, this is not they don’t get this is how it’s how it is and this is how it’s always going to be it’s it. You know, this culture is evolving and we’re getting better but I think we hire people who like, the things that we do that like, aside from work, you know, we hire people who are into gardening and people who are into wildbirds, and people who like lizards, and snakes and fish, and ponds and like having a beautiful lawn and, and when we do those kinds of things, and then we give them information that they can share.

And I think we, I know I, at training it, to me, this is about sharing, and this isn’t about selling, it’s about helping people, and giving them the solutions that they need. And I think you don’t get that a lot of places, you know, it’s hard to, it’s hard to feel you can still do it. But if you’re selling TVs, it’s harder to feel really passionate about that. And some people I’m sure can you know, their past that theater experience or the sound or whatever, but, but what if you are a gardener, and you love beautiful flowers, and someone comes in looking for you know, this is their first yard and they you can’t hardly wait to tell them about hot lip salvia or, or what you know, wait till you see this gara that you’re gonna plant it, it blooms all summer long. And it’ll allow you like, the people that love those plants love to talk about and share. And then it gets rewarded, because then the customers can feel that passion.

And so I think we try to hire the right the people that are interested in what we sell. And then we spend a lot of time trying to teach them how, how to help people and what are the products do and how do they work.

And so I think people that like learning, enjoy working for us, and they get a play in the world that they love.

Allison: It definitely shows through in the in store experience. So that’s spot on, you’re doing a great job there. Thank you. You’re welcome. When I think of, you know, leadership in, you know, one of the most important things that I think leaders do is making deliberate decisions, right. And sometimes that involves making tough decisions. Yeah. So can you talk us through how you approach difficult choices and dilemmas and how you work through them to align even just two CEOs, nevermind, just You’re out? Right, like you have two people to make that decision?

Jos: Well right back to this to this leaning in, you know, I think about the hardest decisions that we have to make as a team, they often involve risk, you know, they often they involve, even with COVID, you know, it was it was about risk. I mean, what are we, if we relaxed the mask mandate, and somebody comes in and gets COVID, and it wipes out the store, I mean, you’re talking about hundreds of 1000s of dollars that a company of our size could lose in a week, if everybody at the store got it and, and  you know, all this passion, but ultimately someone in the group, and I think Callie and I try to be that person most of the time, that steps forward and says here’s what we believe to be the best course of action, shoot holes in it, you know, get we get buy in, we talk through the process.

And then once we make a call, everybody aligns and we go that direction. And if, for me, the way I look at it is you kind of have three choices, you can make a choice pretty quickly, and have it be the right choice, right? That’s the very best scenario. The next best option is to make a choice relatively quickly and have it be the wrong choice. Right and then you just make another choice. As soon as you recognize that you made an error, then you make another choice.

But and then the third one being you just sit and do nothing and just hope the problem goes away. And that to me, that’s the very worst one. So we I tried to I like the back of the napkin analysis of key things, evaluating the risks that are most important. What’s the potential upside what’s the potential downside and we pitch it we shoot holes in it and then we try to move and not perfectly aware. We’ll reevaluate it in four months. And if it’s not, if it’s not what we think it is, then then we’ll kill it and move on. And I think taking the pressure off, we 100% have to be right. Makes it easier. No, we accept that, that we may be wrong.

Allison: Well, that is why you’re a Gem of Idaho, because you’re bold, you’re making bold decisions and then adjusting from there. Yeah. Jos, final question, what are you firm from standpoint of, you know, just looking going forward from this point? What are you most excited about, that you’re working on that your company’s thinking about that you’re shifting to or enhancing?

Jos: I’m really excited about new stores, you know, there’s a lot this, this little valley is growing so fast, and there’s so much interest, you know, in Mountain Home and Twin Falls and Payette, even in Caldwell. And of course, we have a piece of property at the corner of Star and Chinden hat could be a new store. And, and so I think we’ve been in this holding pattern with COVID. And then with building costs, and all the rest of that, and I just think we’ve been focused on staff and training and, and building our bench, our leadership bench a little bit. And I really think we’re poised for a pretty good growth in the number of stores that we have, and in the near future. And so that’s kind of fun, that kind of exciting, you know, thought to, you know, a way of reimagining what we do and, and, and chasing it it’s to me is a wonderful challenge.

Allison: I didn’t realize how spoiled I am having, you know, four or five stores within kind of, you know, depending on what pivot I take from where it is. And in thinking through that. Is there not one in Star? They’re not wanting one in Caldwell? Like those committees? How wonderful would that be?

Jos: Yeah, well, I mean, I think the reality is they, they do go to some other stores. But at some point, you just go to a competitor because there’s not a Zamzows close and, and so yeah, it’s fun. I think those will be really cool opportunities for us.

Allison: Well, that’s exciting, and I can’t wait to see that come to fruition and flourish. Yeah. Just thank you so much for your time today. I have loved our conversation. And I just want to make sure if anyone wanted to connect or follow you what is the best way to do that? Or where can they find you what store?

Jos: Well, I typically am all around. I do spend an awful lot of time in stores, but usually the very best way to catch me is up at the home office in Nampa and they can connect me but you know we do radio shows and those are all archived and, and so there’s a lot of ways to connect, but people feel free to reach out if they want to.

Allison: Fantastic. Thank you so much.

Jos: You bet. Thank you

I'm Allison Dunn,

Your Business Executive Coach

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