More Than 80 Years Later, A Company Finds Its 'Why'

Nicole Mouskondis, Nicholas and Company

May 18, 2021

Our broadline food distribution company, Nicholas and Company is a third-generation family-owned and operated business headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. Founded by my husband’s grandfather, Nicholas Mouskondis, in 1939, the story of our company in many ways reflects a classic immigrant success story. Nicholas came to the U.S. from Crete, Greece with nothing but the clothes on his back. He didn’t speak a word of English. Today, the company he founded is the single largest independent food distribution service in the Intermountain West.

We’re incredibly proud of our founding story and of our current success. But about eight years ago, we were prompted to re-evaluate our mission statement, and we realized that the mission we were sharing, the words we were using to tell our story publicly, no longer reflected who we were. 

The catalyst for our revision of the mission was a conversation with a woman we had come to know well as a representative of Best Companies to Work For. We had been honored by the organization repeatedly, and the same representative from the organization would visit us year-after-year to interview our employees and validate survey responses. After about 10 years of these annual visits, she pulled me aside and said, "Look, I've been watching your company grow. I've been personally interviewing you and your employees for the last decade. I've watched the way that you operate. And I just might offer a suggestion: You don't market yourself well. Your mission statement doesn’t say anything about who you are and what you do.” 

At the time, our mission, created by my father-in-law, was the acronym P-R-I-D-E: Providing Responsive Innovative Distribution Excellence. “Yeah, it has a nice ring,” she said, “and it’s easy to remember, but it doesn't say who you are. Any distribution company in the world distributing any kind of product could have the same mission. You’re missing the boat because you're pretty special."

At the time, though my father-in-law was no longer running the business, he was still very involved as Chairman of the Board. As I absorbed the feedback, my first thought was, “I'm not touching this with a 10-foot pole. My father-in-law created the mission. It’s his baby; changing it would be sacrilege.”

But the conversation kept gnawing at me. I started researching established, long-lived successful companies, and I found many examples of mission statements that had been revised over the years. When you look at companies that have longevity, a significant factor in their enduring success is their ability to evolve and innovate to continue to grow. In many cases, it’s just good business to revise a mission to accurately reflect the change.

In the case of Nicholas ad Company, I realized, "We're no longer the little family company underneath the viaduct just scraping by. We're a force to be reckoned with, and we need to tell the world that. We need to be proud of that.” 

Armed with my research, I took a deep breath and approached my father-in-law. I told him that I didn't want to do anything to disrespect him or his previous work, but that, due to the efforts of now three generations, the business had expanded and evolved, and our mission should reflect that. To my relief, he was incredibly excited. He understood the success that this step signified. By revising the mission, we were putting a stake in the ground to say, "We want this company to go forward. We want to continue to innovate. We are thinking about this long-term."

With my father-in-law’s blessing, we launched an initiative to develop a new, purpose-driven mission statement. We wanted to uncover our “why” and to share it with the world. We sought feedback from stakeholders—team members, customers, suppliers, and community members. We asked: "Tell us what sets us apart. What is it you feel when you do business with or interact with our company?”

We hung huge, five-foot sticky notes all over the break room and common areas in the company, and we asked people to jot down words that they felt described who we are. We asked for input from spouses and kids—we went wide and deep. And what we got, repeatedly, were words like “safety,” “security,” “family,” “caring,” “integrity,” and “honesty.” And what we felt behind those words from our team was a tremendous pride in the organization. 

From our customers, we heard many of the same words, and other positive feedback, but often when we asked the question, there would be a pause, and the customer would say something along the lines of, “It’s just different doing business with you. I can’t describe it—it just feels right.” 

Over the course of about a year, my husband, Peter, and I, who are co-CEOs, would come home at night and talk about the responses we had received. We were trying to find the through line in what we were hearing and reading, to create a coherent statement that would reflect the words but also the feeling that people told us they experienced when they engaged with our company. It was like trying to name a baby.

Ironically, what we kept coming back to in trying to create a shiny, new statement, was ancient history—a Greek word that took us right back to our founding story. Philotimo, loosely translated to English, basically means “the love of honor”—a sense of nobility and joyful hospitality; the obligation to make things better and to right the wrongs. It’s really an all-encompassing feeling, a way of being. 

Peter and I realized that philotimo was the one word that really tells our story. It’s who we are and it's what makes us different—it’s our unique DNA. It captures the “it” that so many people told us was our differentiator but that they couldn’t articulate. With that as our inspiration, we drafted a mission: “Preserving our family recipe for success by securing the dreams of all future generations.” We say that philotimo is the secret ingredient in our recipe. The mission honors our heritage—the family and our story—and it articulates our purpose to steward the company so that we can help others fulfill their dreams, just as Nicholas saw his come true. 

Today, our mission statement allows us to articulate who we are as a company, not just what we do. It communicates our “why.” And, it helps us share our Purpose with a new generation of prospective employees who are increasingly seeking out purpose-driven work. As a leader in the company, launching the initiative and seeing it through to the end reaffirmed my personal “why” and gave me a lot of confidence in our ability to continue to move the company forward for generations to come. 

Nicole Mouskondis is Co-CEO of Nicholas and Company.

If you enjoyed this article or talk, please share with your friends, colleagues and family.