“We are taking it to the next level to make our parents and grandparents proud.”
Lindsay Skilling is not quite sure when it all started. She remembers from a young age, her dad would bring home old office supplies and she’d play “Gifford’s” with her friends – pretending to take orders from distributors and filling out paperwork. “I was young,” she says laughing, “but I loved everything about the company.”
At 35, Lindsay is still young by most measures, but her role today has grown to that of mom, wife, and CEO at Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream. She is part of a small legion of women in Maine who are running mid-sized businesses. With a staff of 37 year-round employees and sales of 2 million gallons of ice cream a year, her role includes oversight of operations, staff, five seasonal ice-cream stands, and an ice cream factory in Skowhegan that produces 100 flavors and distributes to hundreds of retail locations from Maine to Virginia to Nevada.
“I am incredibly lucky to have my family at my side helping in the operation of this business,” says Lindsay. “We do this together.” She is quick to add that without the support of her family, the Gifford’s team, and most of all her husband Jay, she would not be able to juggle the demands of being a mom and a company leader.
For Lindsay, the current challenges of managing Gifford’s are minor compared to the company’s hardscrabble beginnings. Lindsay’s dad John and her uncle Roger started Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream on a shoestring. “There were a lot of restless nights in those early years when the company had to struggle to make payroll and pay its debts.” Roger and John, the fourth generation ice-cream makers, risked it all when they purchased the ice cream portion of the dairy business from their parents and went full-steam into ice cream. For Lindsay and her siblings, every detail of these company particulars matter.
Today, as general manager, Lindsay intentionally seeks a healthy work/home balance, and tries to set an example for others. After she gave birth to her daughter Ava and to her son Jacoby, she took 12 weeks of maternity leave, and while she arrives at the factory most days at 6 a.m., she also keeps a home office, so she can be there some days when her children wake up. “There are a lot of young moms in the office, I want to be a role model for them too,” she says.
As a leader, Lindsay doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. “It helps to have a large family around me with deep experience. I can’t say enough about the importance of my family. At the end of the day—I know they will be there to lean on.” Lindsay says she doesn’t dwell on the fact that she’s a female leader of a manufacturing company. “I don’t think about it, I just do it.” Granted, her job requires her to make tough decisions and work long hours. But she’s also learned a few great tricks along the way: “For one, I now recognize that you want to surround yourself with a team of people who are smarter than you and empowered to get the job done.”
Together, the greater Gifford’s family shares in the joys and struggles of success. “In the end, we recognize how fortunate we are to be around a happy business that is successful,” says Lindsay. “We have some incredibly energetic and loyal customers who seem to fall in love with our product. And I feel like we are taking it to the next level to make our parents and grandparents proud.”
John Chester Gifford Jr.
Vice President of Sales
“I think people love the company because it’s a family business and true premium ice cream!”
John Chester Gifford (JC) was born in Waterville, Maine, in 1981, into a long line of ice cream makers. Asked to reflect on what it was like to be born into an ice cream family, JC admits that, as a boy, he didn’t fully grasp what it meant. “It was just fun to travel around on sales calls with my dad in Maine and to ‘The County,’ but it didn’t really sink in what it all meant until I was in high school.”
JC grew up working at the Gifford’s Mini Golf behind the Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream Stand on Route 201 in Skowhegan. This is the location of Gifford’s first Ice Cream stand, and the beginning of what would become Maine’s largest and most successful ice cream company.
From a young age, JC worked for his parents, taking care of the mini golf course. “I knew it was special, but I didn’t know how meaningful it was until later in life,” he admits. Today, at age 36, JC is the Vice President of Sales for Gifford’s Ice Cream, a position that oversees a territory of 17 states from Maine to North Carolina to Nevada, with annual sales of 2 million gallons of ice cream. “We are growing at a steady clip,” says JC with pride, and while he swears that Gifford’s does track dollar sales, he and his team of six sales representatives prefer to measure growth by gallons sold. “Money has never been the focus at Gifford’s. It’s all about the ice cream,” he says with a smile.
JC, his two sisters Lindsay and Samantha, and their cousin Ryan Porter are the emerging young leaders in this 5th generation ice cream family. Each of them brings an enormous amount of passion, intelligence, and hard work to the table, and each has uncommon reverence for their heritage and the sweat equity that brought them here.
For JC, the sacrifice made by four generations of relatives before him is a deep source of pride and motivation. “Growing up in this family, you would hear the stories about the troubling times when the family was just getting started and how people worked together, stuck through it, and did what they needed to do,” says JC. “It would have been easy to give up but they didn’t allow that to happen. They put all their time and effort and all they had into this company.”
JC notes that the most rewarding part of his job is witnessing success in the members of his sales team. “I like seeing us working together – sharing the growth with the family members and plant employees so we can grow as a team.” Of the 14 factory employees at Gifford’s, some have been with the company since day one, when Gifford’s switched from milk to ice cream. “Some guys started here in high school and are still with the company,” says JC with a smile. “That means a lot.”
During the summer months, the temperature at the small yellow clapboard factory rises, and so does the pressure. “Summer is such a short window – and at Gifford’s in the summer, everything is urgent,” he says. But JC is fortunate to have reinforcements nearby. “Lindsay, Samantha, Ryan and I are so lucky to be able to speak with our father and uncle and get reassurance when we need it. Almost every issue we face is something they have dealt with before. We can talk it through and know that we are on the same team.”
JC doesn’t hesitate when asked why people go crazy for Gifford’s. “I think people love the company because it’s all about family — from those with the last name to our team, to our loyal family of customers. We haven’t changed much about the way we make ice cream. We never look to compromise the quality of our product, rather we always look to enhance it.” Bottom line: “It’s good ice cream. If it wasn’t good ice cream people wouldn’t go crazy about it.”
“It is my job to make sure our customers understand how important they are to our family and our team.”
When you meet Samantha Gifford you can see right away why she wanted to go into the fashion industry. Long, dark hair, a radiant smile, and a sense of style, color and texture exude from this young Gifford’s family member. After high school, Samantha left Skowhegan for Providence, RI, to pursue a career in fashion, but something happened.
“I remember being in college in a sales and marketing class, and somewhere during the class, I realized how much I already knew,” explains Samantha. After class, Samantha rushed to a phone, called her dad and told him she was interested in coming back to Maine to work for the family business. “When you’re growing up, you just don’t realize how much you are learning – over dinner table conversations and every day – everything we discussed was always about the business.” Samantha says something just clicked. “I decided to go to school for business.” So she went to Husson University and graduated with a B.A. in Business and returned to Skowhegan to start work.
Samantha is the youngest of the four emerging Gifford family leaders. “I was a surprise!” she says with a laugh. At only 27, she does not lack in clarity about her role or the importance of her place in the business. As the Marketing Manager for Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream, Samantha’s responsibilities include sharing the Gifford’s story and introducing the brand and ice cream to new customers. Samantha uses her creativity to come up with fun ways to help fans share their love of Gifford’s and to bring them a “vacation from the everyday” with their ice cream. Her favorite part of the job is being a part of creating and naming new flavors.
“It is my job to make our customers understand how important they are to our family and our team,” she says emphatically. “If it weren’t for our customers and retailers, we would not be where we are today.”
Samantha admits that growing up in an ice cream family had its idiosyncrasies. “If we went shopping at the grocery store, we always stopped at the freezer section to make sure the product was well-stocked,” she recounts. “And now, I always find my way there too. It’s our family name and I take pride in that,” she says with a smile.
Samantha feels incredibly fortunate to have grown up a Gifford. “It has been awesome. Even when I was little I remember everything about the company. I used to help my mom at the mini golf course—picking up leaves, organizing clubs. Like any kid, you liked to help out and be involved,” she recalls.
But she confesses that it wasn’t until Middle School when she realized the enormity of it all. “Today I work with team members who have spent their careers with us, who have known me since I was in diapers, and I have really come to appreciate how much this matters to all of us.”
Another transformation took place in New York City following 9/11. “After the tragedy, we released an ice cream called “Stars and Stripes” and we brought it to Ground Zero, to fire stations, and to the Pentagon, and we scooped for the workers.” Samantha was only in the 6th grade, but she made the trip with her family and says it was a pivotal experience. “Our family wanted to give something back and we wanted the rescue workers to know how much we – and everyone – appreciated their hard work.”
As she looks back on her childhood, Samantha can count dozens of reasons to be proud. “Starting with my grandparents—I am so proud of their hard work. And then my dad, he worked so hard and still managed to coach and attend all of our sporting and academic events while growing up. In my family, we learned that nothing is going to be handed to you. If you want to be a success you have to work for everything. My father and Uncle Roger did. My family means the world to me. I can’t stress that enough.”
Samantha, a self-proclaimed small-town girl, admits that the most rewarding aspect of her job is being part of a family-owned company. “Working day in and day out with family members—nothing is more meaningful than that. I want to keep the company alive and keep my family proud.”
“Just try our ice cream, and you can taste the love.”
Ryan Porter was born into the Gifford’s Ice Cream Family and his love for the ice cream business started at a young age. At 14, he started working summers in the Skowhegan plant, filling orders, and loading the truck from the freezer. He continued right through college, eventually managing the Skowhegan Ice Cream Stand. Today, Ryan is QA Manager, and his mind is never far from ice cream. Ryan’s mom, Donna Gifford, is the daughter of third-generation ice cream makers Audrey and Randall Gifford. Along with his first cousins Lindsay, JC, and Samantha, Ryan is part of the newest generation of Giffords who are running the family business.
Ryan’s childhood shaped the man he is today—a father, an outdoorsman, and a stickler for perfection. As a young boy, Ryan spent a lot of time with his grandfather Randall and he learned early about his family’s passion for excellence.
“My grandfather had a work ethic that I would refer to as ‘old-school,’ recalls Ryan. “No matter what needed to be done, you did it. I lived a half-mile from his house, so I was up there a lot. He was very demanding, very stern and strict.”
But on days off, Ryan and grandfather Randall would fish together and bask in the unspoiled beauty of Maine’s woods and waters. “After fishing, my grandfather and I would always find a stand that was selling our ice cream; we would get an orange sherbet. That is one of my first big ice-cream memories.”
Today, Ryan’s job is to ensure that the quality of the ice cream being made every day remains unsurpassed. Every batch is tested for excellence, and for Ryan, this is more than a professional responsibility, it’s his entire family’s reputation on the line with every quart.
“To be honest, being part of a family business instills a bit of a fear of failure,” he laughs. “It’s definitely a motivator.”
Like his cousins, Ryan is deeply aware of the risks and rewards of running a family business. He is simultaneously looking to the past for inspiration and to the future for opportunity. “I take a lot of pride in what my family has built. My grandfather Randall created something truly special. My uncles took it to the next level by selling off the milk portion of the business and going strictly into ice cream. So many hard decisions got made along the way and the stakes were high.”
It seems that everyone in the Gifford family is always thinking about the next generation of family members and employees who will make Gifford’s their future. And that’s what Ryan plans to do as well.