Bigelow CEO discusses balancing family and business

By Phil Hall

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The challenges of balancing family and business — coupled with the thorny personnel issues that can arise in a family business — were addressed by Cindi Bigelow, third-generation president and CEO of Fairfield-based Bigelow Tea during the Oct. 27 edition of the “Women Can Have It All” series at Sacred Heart University.

But Bigelow admitted that she was baffled about the series’ name. “I am not sure what ‘have it all’ means,” she said. “I believe you should set your priorities for what you want and then have what you want. So, if your priorities are having a business and having a good family life and giving back to your community — and if you are able to schedule things to make it happen — then I think you can definitely have it all.”

In taking questions from the series’ host, Linda McMahon, founder and CEO of Women’s Leadership LIVE, Bigelow outlined that she was able to prioritize her family and professional needs without having one diminish the other.

“I recognized that I wanted a family and that I always wanted to run a company,” she said. “I really worked on my schedule — and I don’t know how anal that is, but I had days marked out where I could do both of those things well. Also, my phone is always on me and it is always on. And the reason why it is always on (is because) at any point in my kids’ life, at any point of the day — I don’t care if it is a board of directors meeting — I will always answer my phone. I would always have that phone so I was always available for my kids. And I remember one summer when my son worked as an intern at Bigelow and he said, ‘Now I see what is going on. It would seem that whenever I called you, somehow you were miraculously free.’ I would pick up that phone and walk out of the meeting.”

However, Bigelow admitted that sometimes this balancing act could leave her more than a little exhausted. “I tried to raise my kids the way I was raised — by having dinner together,” she said. “I remember one time I had to do California there and back in a day — it was a 25-hour day. But that is the kind of jamming that I try to do to keep it a priority. If having it all is having a great family and being happy in your career, then yes I feel that I achieved that.”

But Bigelow had an extra consideration: her company was created by her grandmother Ruth in 1945, and she knew from an early age that she was destined for a place within the corporate hierarchy.

“For me, it was never a question,” she said. “It was a family organization, it was a family business, it was a family jewel. It never entered my mind not to cherish and not feel grateful that I had a family jewel to run. Not a lot of people get an opportunity like this. I recognized that at the age of 16 that this was a great opportunity and I was not letting go.”

However, after graduating from Boston College in 1982, she initially took a job at Seagram’s; she only arrived as a full-time employee at the family business following her MBA from Northwestern University in 1986. In her initial duties as a cost accountant, Bigelow was satisfied with her responsibilities, but she was uncertain whether her surname would be a handicap in dealing with her colleagues.

“It was difficult at times,” she recalled. “I was just trying to do my job and do the best that I could. Many people were looking at me as a Bigelow. They were either being nice to me because I was a Bigelow or they weren’t being nice to me because I was a Bigelow. I didn’t get to start on some sort of equal footing. For me, it was really important for me not to let that influence my daily work and to make sure that I always stayed motivated to be what I felt I had been before I went to work there, which is the hardest worker possible. I am still a Bigelow, but I hoped that over time my relationships were based on my skill set.”

But ascending to a position of leadership created new problems when a lack of executive vacancies seemed to stymie her career path. She was eventually settled into a position with the title of “vice president,” which created confusion because she did not appear to be in charge of anything specific — a point that was sarcastically driven home by radio host Don Imus, who once commented on the air about Bigelow’s corporate ranking by dubbing her “vice president of nothing.” She eventually took over the leadership role from her father, David, in 2005, with the elder Bigelow continuing as co-chairman of the board with his wife, Eunice.

For her part, Bigelow said she is not pressuring her son and daughter to follow in her business footsteps, and neither of her children are employed by the company. “You have to be patient with your passion,” she said. “You need time to know what you want to do.”

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