At the 1893 World’s Fair, a Ferris wheel pierced the sky. Tosty Rosty, a small mechanical clown, peered from a steam-powered popcorn machine.
Charles Cretors invented that machine, which debuted alongside the lofty Ferris wheel. C. Cretors & Company, the concession equipment manufacturing business he founded in 1885, is still owned by his family and based in Chicago.
Equipment produced by Cretors includes corn poppers, ice shavers, cotton candy makers, topping dispensers and hot dog makers. Among its customers are Frito-Lay and Malt-O-Meal. Annual revenues range from $15 million to $20 million.
The company created the first large horse-drawn popcorn wagon, the first electric popcorn maker and the first popping machine with an automatic oil pump. C.J. Cretors and his son Charlie, now the CEO, developed the first continuous hot air popcorn machine featuring a hot air fluidized bed oven.
“People say, ‘You’re a great entrepreneur.’ And I say, ‘I’m not. I’m fourth-generation. I build great stuff and people buy it,’” says Charlie Cretors, 71, who joined the business in 1967 and holds about 15 patents.
Fifth-generation siblings Andrew, Bud and Beth Cretors joined the family business after working at other companies. “When my kids came to work here, they did so because they wanted to,” Charlie Cretors says.
Andrew Cretors, 40, the company president, has an MBA and a B.S. in business from Michigan Tech University. He joined Cretors as IT manager in 1997, then held positions in sales, marketing, manufacturing and operations.
Customers drive the market for new products, family members say. The Diplomat, a corn popper for movie theaters, was Cretors’ main machine through 2008, Andrew says. The Mach 5, unveiled in 2009, features internal heat lamps and a one-piece kettle design. Customers placed orders at a 2008 trade show before even seeing the product. “That is a testament to the design and quality of the Mach, and our reputation in the industry,” Andrew says. Cretors has 78 employees working at plants in Bismark, Mo., and Chicago.
Bud Cretors, 42, the quality control engineer, joined the company in 2004. He has a B.S. in industrial technology and worked for auto industry suppliers. Bud took over Andrew’s “lean initiative” to cut waste from Cretors’ manufacturing process.
Beth Cretors, 45, has a graduate degree in journalism and worked in advertising before becoming her father’s assistant. Today, she is the marketing manager and has taken on other assignments. “Just recently, I was involved in working with Andrew, creating and launching a new product to diversify our supply line,” she says.
Each sibling has found a niche that plays to his or her strengths. “I think Andrew, Bud and I all have our own places in the company and we are well-suited where we are,” Beth says. “We don’t step on each other’s toes.”
“I am the youngest, and it is not unusual for people to think of the younger brother as being picked on, but that is not the case,” Andrew says. “There is mutual respect.”
Andrew solves problems with input from his siblings. At weekly lunches, the family discusses pressing issues and formulates solutions.
“Ideas surface and everything comes together and we go with it. Many times working drawings come from hand sketches on napkins,” says Bud, who designed the company’s 125th anniversary limited-edition popcorn machine.
Charlie began gifting stock to Andrew, Bud and Beth when they were in college. “The kids now own 50%,” he says. “If you are managing it, then you’ll have control over it.”
The fifth generation plans to keep things popping smoothly.
Sarah Louise Klose is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
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