Entrepreneur invests in time with kids

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 21, 2011 - 9:41 AM

On Father's Day, a former workaholic reflects on changes he made to have time to bond with his sons.

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Like his father, Jay Asplin discovered that he had entrepreneurial instincts. And, like his dad, he learned that building the family business meant putting the rest of his life on the back burner.

"My main objective in life was to sell a certain number of product units," he said of his days running the seed company Heartland Hybrids. "That is what my life revolved around."

The business was growing, but his kids were growing, too, and he was missing it. And, unlike his father, Asplin discovered that he wasn't willing to devote his life to the workaholic pace required to keep the business on point in a highly competitive market. So he walked away from a company that was serving 3,000 farmers in 35 states -- the second-largest direct marketer of seed corn in the country -- to spend more time with his kids.

In October, he and his wife, Maria, opened JM Cremp's Adventure Store in their hometown of Dassel, about 50 miles west of Minneapolis.

The store's shelves are stocked with outdoor gear, back-yard zip-line kits, geocaching sets and other things that can be shared by kids and their fathers. Even the company name incorporates the family by using the first initial of everyone's first name.

"I wanted to find ways to connect with my boys," he said of his five sons, who range in age from 14 to 2. "A big part of what I do comes from that."

Nearly every parent struggles to strike the right balance between work and family. As Asplin enjoys Father's Day, he has no doubts that he made the right decision. "The business was my life," he said. "It took up all my time."

His regrets about that come strictly from the way it hindered his chance to enjoy being a father. Having grown up as the son of a workaholic, he realizes that kids see things from a different perspective.

"Never once did I feel that he didn't love his children," he said of his father. "It's just that his business took him away from his family."

He didn't want his kids to remember him the same way.

Playing unplugged

Walking into the JM Cremp store is like stepping into a time warp. There's nothing that needs to be plugged in or requires a joy stick.

"Our motto is, 'Unplug and play,'" said Asplin, 36, who described himself as "an Atari kid" because of his focus on video games when he was a youngster. "We want to recapture the Norman Rockwellian boyhood experience, before TV and video games, when kids went outside and played and wore holes in their jeans building treehouses."

Despite all of his good intentions, he initially still struggled with some of the most basic father-son outings, like fishing. His father had been so busy working that he hadn't had time to teach him how to fish. Not surprisingly, among the JM Cremp products Asplin is most proud of is a tackle box that comes with instructions for neophyte anglers.

"It tells you when to fish, where to fish, which lures to use," he said, adding that the information was provided by a veteran fisherman. "I didn't know the difference between a walleye and a bass. I had to learn. And I figured that I could share that with other dads -- and moms -- who didn't grow up fishing, either."

Most of the merchandise involves physical activity, but there also is a large room devoted to books.

"Reading is becoming a lost art -- and I do believe that it's an art," Asplin said. "I'm a big believer in father-son reading, although I might be fighting an uphill battle there."

Even though the store's marketing focuses on boys, the Asplins insist that they are not anti-girl.

"A lot of girls like adventure, too," Maria Asplin said. "We just figured that there already are a lot of stores aimed at girls -- like the American Girl doll stores -- but not that many aimed at boys. Plus, with five boys of our own, that's what we know."

Looking back

In 2001, with his father's health fading, Asplin started managing Heartland Hybrids. Using the Internet, he revamped the company as a direct-marketing outlet, "which was a fairly new idea for seed companies. We hit a niche, and it caught on. We had several great growth years."

But his intense attention to his business was creating the opposite situation with his family.

"Maria pointed out that I wasn't around," he said. "I think many entrepreneurs can relate to that."

Nonetheless, his wife's comment hit him hard, and he decided that it was time for a major reorganization of his priorities. He sold the seed company in 2005, and the family moved to Colorado, where he bought a cleaning business and served as church worship leader. They liked it there, but they eventually conceded that things weren't working out as well as they had hoped, in part because Asplin's talents lean toward sales marketing.

"I discovered that I'm not very good at running a service business," he admitted.

Several forces converged to bring them back to Minnesota: A buyer approached them about the cleaning company, their house in Dassel was still unsold and the firm that bought the seed company decided to consolidate its management operations, meaning that it no longer needed offices in Dassel.

The Asplins, who had been leasing the one-story office building to the new owners, realized that it easily could be converted to retail space. Thus, JM Cremp was born -- literally.

"He's a fictitious character who has traveled all over the world on fascinating adventures," Asplin said. He writes vignettes about his adventures for the store's catalog. "He's a nice guy who writes a lot like me," he added.

JM Cremp was created out of necessity. "Every other name we came up with [for the company] already had been claimed," Asplin said. "One day, Maria suggested that we try to do something with the first letters of our names: Jay, Marie and our sons, Michael, Peter, Collin, Erik and Ryan. I started playing around with that and came up with JM Cremp. Fortunately, we had a vowel."

His life is markedly different than when he ran the seed company. It used to be rare when he made it home for dinner; now it's unusual when he doesn't. Most days he even goes home for lunch. And the boys often hang around the store "testing" the new merchandise, meaning that there's even more time for them to bond with their dad.

As with most new businesses, the store is operating in the red and, Asplin estimates, likely will for at least two years. But for now, he's focused on a different kind of profit.

"I found the family life I was longing for," he said.

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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  • Jay Asplin with sons Ryan, 2; Collin, 8, and Erik, 6.

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