On horseback and carriage a young man named F.L. Vernon would travel from Newton through Central Iowa selling record books for the Boone Blank Book Company. The books were simple — blank pages on the inside, a blank leather cover on the outside. Vernon would sell the books to farmers to help them keep track of business on their farms. But for the then 20-something year old man the books were more than just blank pages — they were an opportunity and would become the key to his future
Chris Vernon, CEO and President of The Vernon Company located in Newton, said his great-grandfather had an idea to use the books to help advertise for businesses and generate more money from sales.
“His idea was to put an imprint on the book with the business name of like the local feed store or savings and loan, and they could use them as a gift with purchase or as a thank you present,” Vernon said. “But Blank Book Company didn’t want to deal with it, they just wanted to sell blank merchandise.”
Despite the rejection of his idea, F.L. Vernon was not deterred. He bought the blanks books and began imprinting and decorating them himself, first in an office above what is now Aleya Salon Suites & Day Spa, and then in the old Jasper County Savings & Loan building, at the corner of First Avenue West and West Second Street South. Realizing the potential the business had, Vernon said his great-grandfather sought a business loan to expand.
“We found the record book upstairs and found out how we believe the company was founded,” Vernon said. “My great-grandfather was looking for funding and went to the bank, and we think he was probably turned down.”
Vernon said F.L. Maytag, the community’s most successful businessman at the time, was the chairman of the bank and on the loan committee, and when the bank refused to loan F.L. Vernon funds he opted to loan the money himself.
“My great-grandfather got a $3,000 note from Mr. Maytag and gave him shares of the company for collateral. He repaid $30 a month for 15 years,” Vernon said. “At the very end around 1918, there is a formal letter we found from Mr. Maytag with the shares of stock signed back to my great-grandfather that says ‘you have fully paid your debts.’ It was really neat to find that.”
With the loan the company expanded from record books to other agricultural items like feed scoops. Eventually moving onto things like manufacturing ballpoint pens and pencils, signs, calendars and items made of vinyl. Vernon said one of the most interesting items the company produced was jigsaw puzzles.
“Over many years we were a small company and we made it through the Depression thanks to jigsaw puzzles,” he said. “In the mid-20s there was a major national craze. Radio was just coming on and there was no television so for entertainment people used to do jigsaw puzzles. For 10 to 12 years we would make jigsaw puzzles. We would take artwork that we would get of farm scenes and things rural Americans would like and we would print on the front of the jigsaw puzzle an ad that it was from the local funeral home or the bank. We sold literally hundreds of thousands of these jigsaw puzzles to businesses and they would give them out. We ended up selling the rights to our artwork to Milton Bradley and up until a just few years ago Milton Bradley was still sending us royalty payments for artwork from 60, 70 years ago.”
As the products manufactured and offered by the company expanded so did the family tree and the reins were handed down from F.L. Vernon, who passed away in 1964, to Bill Vernon Sr. In 1969, Bill Vernon Jr. became president of Vernon Company and transitioned to chairman and CEO when his father, Bill Vernon Sr., died in 1974. In fall of 2016, Bill Vernon Jr., celebrated 60 years, and is one of five Vernon family members who work at the company. He works with his children Chris Vernon — who was named President in 1999 and CEO in 2016, Rick Vernon — Vice President, Cameron Vernon — Senior Account Executive and Stephanie Critchfield — Western Region Manager.
“We’ve had a slow transition from third generation to fourth generation over the last 20 years which was by design. Between my father and me we even had an interim president, a non-family member executive serve for 10 years to allow for fourth generation to prepare to assume senior level positions in the company,” Vernon said.
The Vernon family has worked hard to ensure the company continues best practices including an independent board of directors, annual financial audits, a board compensation committee, ensuring family members who want to work in the company have prior outside experience and even adhering to a family constitution.
“One thing my grandfather and father have always said is that the business is critical and you have to make sure you take great care of the business. And yes, you have to take care of the family but you can’t let the family pollute the business,” he said. “You have to be diligent that you meet the family needs but we also have 500 other employees, so we have 500 other families who are impacted directly by this business so it is really important and I have to be very cognizant of that. It isn’t just about the Vernon family and their needs but to make sure everyone who is part of the company is successful.”
And the company has been successful and that success has benefited thousands of people through employment at The Vernon Company and to countless individuals who have been impacted through the company’s charitable giving.
“Since I was a child, my parents have always believed in the importance of giving back. Obviously we are in business to make a living and further our own interests but a critical importance is also the community at large,” Vernon said. “The company, for generations, has a formal policy that we donate a minimum of 5 percent of our gross profits to charity. Many years we exceed this threshold. There are over 30 charities that we support annually at the state and local level and we just believe that is the right thing to do.”
Vernon said being a responsible community partner, having sound business practices, hiring great talent and a willingness to try to new things during the past 115 years has all helped The Vernon Company prosper when competitors have shuttered their doors.
“I think we are willing to try things and see if it works. If it doesn’t work the first time you alter the plan a little bit and try again if it is a good concept. If it isn’t a good concept then get out,” Vernon said. “We also try to stay very closely to what we understand. We’ve been a manufacturer, a distributer, an importer, a design firm and we do a lot of different things and we still do. And throughout our history some of these things become more important than others. We have adapted and are slowly evolving all the time.”