To get to know Nashville's oldest family-owned biz, just follow the paper trail

American Paper & Twine has a nearly century-long history in Nashville, having opened for business in 1926. The company is the oldest one ranked on The List of family-owned businesses. Nathan Doochin and Milton Lockenbach started the company with $500, one truck, a few products and a focus on customer service. As office needs have expanded, so has the company. In fact, many of the product lines offered today were not even conceived of when the company began. Today, Nathan’s son, Bob Doochin, leads the company as president and CEO, and Bob’s daughter, Karen Doochin Vingelen, serves as vice president. We asked them a few questions about where their family’s company has been and where it is going.

What are the top reasons you credit for your company’s longevity?

Doochin: Keeping up with the needs of our customers and making sure our product offerings evolve to meet those needs has been vital to our success. When my dad and his friend Milton Lockenbach started the business in 1926, they figured if there was a product that people needed at a low price, they would try to add it to their inventory. In fact, one of their initial business cards read, “Just ask for it, we have it.” … Continuously bringing innovative, new products to our customers … solidifies our relationships with existing customers and makes us an attractive partner to new businesses as they enter the marketplace.

Vingelen: That is simple. It is our employees. My grandfather and father always promoted a culture of winning, being successful, working hard and giving the customer the best possible experience. Without the long-term employees we have and all of the institutional knowledge they hold, that would be a lot more difficult in today’s world.

Statistics suggest that 12% of family-owned businesses make it to the third generation and 3% make it to the fourth. What’s your plan to defy those odds?

Vingelen: On the surface, I would love to say grit, determination and the will to succeed that I think is in our family DNA, but I know it is probably more than just that. My father and I spend a great deal of time on succession planning, and over the last decade, we have very intentionally built a group of dedicated
leaders and executives for each area of the business. I recognize that my leadership style is going to be different than my father’s. I need a team I trust, and I plan for them to be with me for the long haul. Together, we will defy the odds.

Doochin: My earliest memories of the family business are from when I was 6 or 7 years old and I would visit my dad’s company. I started working there when I was about 10 years old. Similarly, I made a conscious decision to expose my children to the family business, whether it was having them visit the office, answer the switchboard at the age of 12 or just discussing business affairs over the dinner table. That helps give them an understanding of what it takes to run a business, the challenges and the rewards of being involved in something that helps people. So whether they choose to join the business or not, they are prepared to handle success, and failure, and to make a positive contribution in their community.

How have your product offerings evolved over the years beyond paper and twine?

Doochin: When American Paper & Twine opened its doors in 1926, many of the household and business items that we take for granted today did not exist. As soon as new products arrived on the market, we would introduce them to Nashville. We introduced the paper towel, as well as the first paper (or “Dixie”) cups.

Vingelen: We are constantly evolving, introducing new products and adding new niches. If we focused on selling twine in today’s market, I don’t think we would still be in business. It is not exactly a hot seller in 2019. We actually get asked “Why twine?” a lot. The answer is that before there was tape; there was twine.

In the 1920s and 1930s, if you needed to deliver a package, you tied it up in brown Kraft paper and twine. Today, we use corrugated [cardboard] and carton-sealing tape. In fact, we were one of the first distributors to introduce carton-sealing tape to the Nashville market many decades ago. Most recently, we have seen a huge shift in demand for shipping and mailing supplies, carry-out containers for restaurants and, of course, housekeeping supplies for the booming hospitality market in Nashville.

Tell us about a challenging time in the company’s history.

Doochin: The Great Depression hit wholesalers very hard, but American Paper & Twine didn’t have much inventory, which actually benefitted us. The variety of products, constant churn and low overhead helped us weather it better than the big wholesalers. I can also think of times when family dynamics were a complicating factor in major business decisions, particularly when a family member would leave the business.

Vingelen: During my tenure, the recession of 2008-10 forced us to make some tough decisions. We could have just muddled through or even retreated, but rather, we used that time to build out the model of what our future was going to look like. 

What are the different roles that family members currently play in the company?

Vingelen: My father is the president and CEO. Thankfully, he is still very active in the business and loves coming to work every day. My husband, Brian Vingelen, works as a sales development manager. I am the vice president of operations, overseeing technology, inside account support, marketing, training and development, warehousing and logistics and purchasing. As long as it isn’t sales or finance, I get involved. In addition, my sister, Julie Doochin, is involved with our charitable foundation. I believe we all work well together because we each have our own silos so to speak — my father loves to work in the business, while I prefer working on the business. Did I mention our two office dogs, Teddy and Stanley? Their job is to keep office morale high and provide some love on the difficult days.

Doochin: When Karen started working with me, she brought [a] fresh perspective and has been a real driving force behind the investments we have made in our technology. She is very forward thinking and committed to building an infrastructure that not just keeps American Paper & Twine up-to-date but that will carry us into the future. So while we are both active in various aspects of the business, we bring different skill sets and viewpoints to the table which helps us make better decisions on behalf of the company and our customers.

How do you seek counsel outside the family?

Doochin: We have built longstanding relationships with an incredible group of firms we work with for legal, accounting and banking services. These partners provide guidance and counsel in their areas of expertise. I also maintain connections within the industry and various business leadership groups as a way to stay on top of business trends, changes in the market and to cultivate a wide network of contacts that I can call upon for advice or to bounce ideas off of.

Vingelen: Through our association with a national consortium of family-owned businesses in our industry (Network Services Co.), I have the opportunity to participate in an executive-level peer group, and these people have become my trusted advisers. We meet regularly to discuss issues relevant to our industry and our family businesses. Because we’ve developed a high level of trust, I’m able to see the business from a different perspective, get real feedback, have my ideas challenged, and that ultimately makes me a better leader. To say we speak each other’s language is an understatement. It’s kind of like business advisory board meets support group.

What’s next for your company?

Doochin: We are always looking for expansion opportunities to increase the territory we cover and to achieve even greater economies of scale. We want to continue to grow within the markets we already serve, as well as new Southern markets. We never want to lose who we are at the core, though: a family-owned business that is big enough to compete and serve the customer, but small enough to consult directly with the end user and care about their experience.

Vingelen: Expansion is always on the agenda, but a major focus right now is on creating a highly engaging and modern workplace where we can continue to attract and retain top talent. It seems like what employees look for and want in a workplace is evolving faster than ever, and it is a challenge to keep up. We are spending a good bit of 2019 understanding what employees really want from us. We know that competitive pay and good benefits are a key factor, but what are those other perks that become almost as important as the paycheck? If we want to be able to compete for employees with Amazon, Alliance- Bernstein, EY and the Fortune 500 companies coming to our state, we need to find our sweet spot.

Do you have any advice for other family-owned businesses?

Doochin: My advice would be the same for both family-owned and non-family-owned companies, and that is to watch your business. By that I don’t mean get bogged down in the details to the point you can’t be productive, but be hands-on and involved in the business. … Specifically for family-owned businesses, I would also say to keep your ego in check. Remember where you came from and how hard the generations before you worked to get the business to where it is today. Then focus on how you can be a good steward of that legacy.

Vingelen: Don’t force it. Working with family isn’t for everyone, and if they aren’t interested or their passion lies elsewhere, let them follow that. It will make for a happier family life and business life. And if you do have a child or family member that really wants to join the business, make sure you all find separate areas of the business to work in so you can both be leaders in your own way.

Carol Smith
Research Director
Nashville Business Journal