Watkins, Inc.

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Winning Nomination

I nominate Watkins, Inc., as a company that has changed the face of commerce in Minnesota and throughout the world. It was originally founded as the J. R. Watkins Medical Company in 1868 in Plainview, Minnesota, by a 28-year-old entrepreneur named Joseph Ray Watkins. Joseph Ray, or J. R., was an honest yet savvy businessman who began by manufacturing and bottling liniment in his kitchen, and then traveled across the prairies of Minnesota selling his product. J. R. had very innovative and progressive ideas on how to market his product, and was the first to put "Trial Marks" on his bottles and to offer a money-back guarantee if not completely satisfied.

By 1885 his business had salesmen throughout the upper Midwest and had outgrown the little town of Plainview. J. R. relocated his business to the booming lumber town of Winona, Minnesota, situated alongside the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota. J. R. then began to expand the number of products manufactured and sold, from his liniment and petro-carbo salve to a line of more than 150 different products including medicines, extracts, spices, soaps, and stock minerals and tonics. From Winona, the company grew into the largest direct-selling company in the world, with manufacturing plants and distribution centers all across the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and Europe.

The J. R. Watkins Company was recognized as the finest manufacturer of vanilla, cinnamon, and black pepper in the world when the company received the gold medal for these products at the 1928 Paris International Exposition. By the 1940s Watkins had sales totaling more than $40,000, and the "Watkins Man" had become an American icon. Watkins was owned and run by descendants of J. R. Watkins until 1978, when the company was sold to another young Minnesota entrepreneur named Irwin Jacobs. Watkins, Inc., is still a privately held family-run business that manufactures more than 350 products, all available for purchase through Watkins associates, over the Internet, mail order, and at select retail stores. Today, Watkins, Inc., is still headquartered in the same administration building that J. R. had built back in 1911 to showcase the empire he had built.
~John Goplen, Winona, MN

Runner-up Nominations

J.R. Watkins pioneered direct sales and built an empire that continues today.
~Mark F. Peterson, winona, MN

Watkins Company was the first to incorporate the use of trial mark bottles, which in essence is the money back guarantee that customers still receive today. There is a trial mark on the bottle indicating how much of the product can be used and still be returned for a full refund.
~Amy Czaplewski, Stewartville, MN

Spiced Minnesota up!
~Erica, Plymouth, MN

Door to door selling nectar and spices, etc.
~Helen Grooms, St. Paul, MN

Wonderful products. Has an awesome museum in Winona. Products sold here at the fair.

The embodiment of the J.R. Watkins Co. of Winona for many yers who, before Amway, Shaklee and such like, delivered first quality merchandise consumers needed. In particular, spices, health/beauty and cleaning products at a fair price directly to the consumer. In other words, bringing the store to the home, saving consumers time while affording them with quality products. Wait for Watkins -
~Larry Ellis Reed, Winona, MN

A company created in 1868 by J.R. Watkins in Plainview. The Company grew into the quintessential home-sales business. Watkins set the standard for people going into business for themselves using the Watkins products as a source of their sales. The Company, still in existence in Winona, has spawned many progeny, including the successful Avon and Ebay on-line auctions. I find the story very compelling.
~Peter Flick, Winona, MN

Began selling cleaning supplies and early cosmetics to rural farmwives in the late 19th century. The company grew to an international firm selling products all over the world.
~Bettie Reuther, New Brighton, MN



A new standard for customer satisfaction

"If not fully satisfied, your money cheerfully refunded." We take statements like this for granted today, but when twenty-eight-year-old entrepreneur Joseph Ray Watkins of Plainview, Minnesota, put that message on a bottle of his Red Liniment, he was a trailblazer. In 1869, a year after Watkins first sold his patented combination of Asian camphor and red pepper extract, he bottled it in patented Trial Mark bottles, which showed how much of a product could be used before returned for a refund.

The secret to Watkins's success lay not only in his money-back guarantee but also in his sales force, a well-trained, highly motivated bunch that sold his products door-to-door. In 1885, the rapidly expanding company moved its headquarters to Winona, Minnesota. Ten years later, the company expanded its line of natural remedies to include gourmet cooking items: vanilla extract, black pepper, and cinnamon. In 1913, Watkins went international by opening a branch office in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and within two years, it had become the world's largest direct-sales company.

By 1940, Watkins's 10,000 sales associates--more than those employed by the better-known Fuller Brush Company--were offering 200 products, including vitamins, herbal remedies, and a range of baking goods. In 1978, multimillionaire businessman Irwin Jacobs bought the company from the Watkins family. Jacobs's son Mark is now president of Watkins, Inc., and sales are good. And what of J. R. Watkins's Red Liniment? It's still available, now through the company's website as well as from sales representatives. And it's still sold in a Trial Mark bottle.

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