Father and son

Bayonne business is a family affair

Robert and Jason Tillis of Imperial Bag and Paper, a father-and-son team, don’t step on each other’s toes, even though they rely on each other as partners of the Bayonne-based company.
Robert said he and his son have separate duties, and Jason after years of working at the company has left his own mark.
Robert bought the Imperial Bag and Paper Company in 2007, although the company has roots going back more than 30 years.
His son, Jason, ran his own business for a few years after his graduation from Boston University in 2005.
“I had a small distribution company for stuffed toys,” he said, but he eventually sold his business to come in with his father.
Robert frequently took his son along on meetings, and with a degree in business finance, Jason was a good fit “We were always into food services,” he said.
This included items such as shopping bags, and for this reason, Robert was familiar with the company.
“We were into distribution,” Jason said. “I grew up in the business. My father purchased it in 2007, and I came in around the same time.”

Grew up learning the business

From Long Island, Robert became familiar with the business and its potential while working as a distributor and made an offer to purchase the Bayonne-based business.
Jason was not originally planning on coming into the business, but had come to help his father on a specific project. As time went on, opportunities became available, and he got more involved.
Jason, 30, said the business began to grow the minute they took ownership.
Though a father-and-son team can sometimes be difficult, that was not the case with this team.
“My father and I always got along,” Jason said, adding that he is still learning. “Customer service is very important.”
Imperial Bag and Paper distributes products from Boston to Washington D.C. with a fleet of trucks serving more than 5,000 customers. They also do business nationwide through other carriers.
“He gave me an incredible opportunity,” Jason said. “I had to work hard, and it was not always easy. I had a lot of responsibility.”
The facility since 2007 has tripled its output. Business is going so well that the company is building a new 530,000-square-foot building on Route 1&9 in Jersey City near the Pulaski Skyway. They will likely move there next year.
“We love Bayonne, but this is a good site for us in Jersey City,” Jason said. “We’re currently working out of three buildings on one block, and we will be moving to one state-of-the-art building.”
“My father and I made a great impact in increasing revenue and the number of employees,” Jason said.
Jason said one thing he has in common with his father is an obsession with the business.
“We both want to provide value and service to our customers,” he said. “We have similar ideas when it comes to customer operations. We’re both committed to doing good.”
“We heard a lot of nightmare stories about sons and fathers in business together,” Jason said. “But my father made sure that I didn’t report directly to him, but to others. He let me sink or swim on my own and earn my own way through the system.”

Imperial was one of Robert’s customers

Robert said he came from a manufacturing background and ran a company that provided paper shopping bags for businesses such as Macy’s and The Gap. Subsequently, he added plastic bags to his product line.
“Imperial was a customer of mine,” he said.
Imports had an impact on his business. He eventually sold it and began to look around for another business opportunity, making a list of companies he was familiar with that he thought showed promise.
“I had traveled around a lot in my previous business,” he said. “I wanted something where I could stay home and enjoy time with my wife and kids.”
As a vendor, he knew Imperial was a good business, he said.
“Imperial was first on my list,” Robert said. “When I approached the owner, he was in his mid- 60s with no children and no apparent succession plan. It was a nice business and I asked him if we could talk about a transition. He said the business was ready to go to the next level, but he didn’t want to take it there.”
He took over the business on Dec. 31, 2006, and since then the business as tripled in size.
“From the day I bought the business I was in the recruiting mode,” he said.

Not just Bob’s son

Robert said he wanted his son, Jason, to be part of this, but didn’t want him to be seen as the kid who worked for his father.
“I didn’t want him to be known as Bob’s son,” he said. “I told him he would have to start as my son. There was nothing I could do about that. But as he went along and he earned people’s respect, he would become Jason if he worked hard and did the right thing. Now, I’m known as Jason’s father.”
Both seem to have a strong work ethic.
“He got the same philosophy from me from when he was born—work hard and you get something,” Robert said.
He said in taking over Imperial, he wanted the company to give customers value and a reason to deal with Imperial. This meant frequent sales visit to each customer and examining what they were using.
“Then we would offer to provide them with a better product,” Robert said. “We pointed out if it cost more it was more likely to last longer. If they used a chemical that cost them $5, we might have a chemical that cost $6 but lasts twice as long. We did the same for mops and other products we offered.”
One of the things Robert and Jason did was focus on delivery schedules.
“We investigated the customer to know when the best time for us to be there,” Robert said.
“This could be at night or at lunch or some other point during the day. That’s made a big difference.”
He said his son picked up a lot on the job.
“He’s very nice, very fair, but he also has a lot of backbone,” Robert said. “I’m not as nice as he is.”
It is typical that fathers and sons bring business home with them.
“We try to limit it,” Robert said. “My wife is the boss. She likes our home to be about family. If we have something to discuss, we try to take it away from the family table.”
In a father-son business, Robert said, it is up to the father to make it work.
“He has the experience, stability, and needs to be reasonable,” Robert said. “The father should be the stabilizing factor. When I see an issue, I give my son a lot of rope. He needs to deal with it, and if there is a negative impact we speak about it after the fact rather than my cutting his knees out from under him while he’s doing it.”
Robert said the two differ but in a good way.
“I’m the visionary,” Robert said. “Jason kind of back-fills me. Jason is president, I’m CEO, and we allow each other to do our own jobs. We only cross over when the other asks. I won’t go into his world.”
Robert said he is going to a meeting and has asked Jason to come along because of his son’s personality. “He may be able to accomplish something I can’t do by myself,” Robert said.
Jason is a new father as well, and perhaps the cycle will continue in the future. You never know.

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com.

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