Watkins Incorporated is a manufacturer of health remedies, baking products, and other household items. It is based in Winona, Minnesota, United States, which utilizes an omni-channel marketing strategy which includes a national retail sales force which focuses on selling to the retail channel as well as an independent sales force of 25,000 people to distribute its products.
J. R. Watkins Medical Company Complex
|Location||150 Liberty Street, Winona, Minnesota|
|Area||2.5 acres (1.0 ha)|
|Architect||George W. Maher|
|Architectural style||Prairie School (1911 Administration Building)|
|NRHP reference No.||84003940|
|Added to NRHP||December 4, 2004|
The company was founded by J. R. Watkins in Plainview, Minnesota, who began selling liniment in 1868 door-to-door in the southeastern part of the state. A year after J.R. Watkins began selling liniment, he introduced the trial-mark bottle. Molded into the glass bottle, about one-third of the way down, was a mark which showed how much of the product a customer could use and still get a refund. A label with the statement, “If not fully satisfied, your money cheerfully refunded,” also appeared on the bottle. The Watkins trial-mark is believed to be the first money-back guarantee in America.
The company moved to Winona in 1885 and added a number of products to its lineup. Baking materials including pepper and vanilla extract were added in 1895 along with cinnamon, ginger, cloves, peppermint extract and lemon extract. Between 1889 and 1914, Watkins constructed six manufacturing buildings behind the Winona Administration Building. J.R. Watkins died in 1911. In 1914, a prominent ten-story building completed the look of the Administration Building. Maher’s Administration Building included a 70-foot high rotunda dome coated in 24-carat gold leaf, a blue Bedford stone façade, 224 stained glass skylights and three custom-made Tiffany stained glass windows.
During World War II, Watkins devoted 90 percent of its production capacity to support the Allied war effort. To fill government contracts, Watkins produced dried eggs, powdered juice packets, vitamin tablets, hospital germicide, DDT and insecticide powder in support of the war effort.
During the 1940s, Watkins was the largest direct-sales company in the world but soon began to decline. The demographics and buying habits of the United States had major shifts in the following decades, and the company did not keep pace. Watkins filed for bankruptcy protection in the 1970s, and was purchased by Minneapolis investor Irwin L. Jacobs in 1978.
In 1996, Jacobs' son, Mark Evan Jacobs, began to take over day-to-day operations of the company. He was 14 at the time his father purchased the company, and had worked as a Watkins salesman for many years. The younger Jacobs was an aspiring actor, appearing in minor roles in films like Biloxi Blues and Goodfellas, but he realized that his acting career wasn't advancing. Since taking over the reins, he has controlled spending, introducing an enhanced compensation plan for sales associates, along with an extensive brand study that led to the introduction of products onto store shelves for the first time.
The seven-building Watkins headquarters in Winona is on the National Register of Historic Places as the J.R. Watkins Medical Company Complex. It was listed in 2004 for having national significance in the themes of architecture, commerce, and industry. It was nominated for being the longtime headquarters of the nation's largest direct sales company in the early 20th century, and for the Prairie School design of its 1911 Administration Building by architect George W. Maher. The front entrance includes a window designed by stained-glass artist Louis J. Millet depicting Sugar Loaf, a local landmark.
In 2002, the story of a Watkins salesman, Bill Porter, was dramatized in the 2002 Emmy award-winning TNT movie Door to Door. Porter had a 50-year career with Watkins in Portland, Oregon, and he worked a route despite having cerebral palsy. Porter was also featured in news stories.
In 2017, The Watkins Company sold the home care, personal care and over-the-counter remedies product lines to Swander Pace Capital. The newly formed sister company, J.R. Watkins Brands, focuses solely on home care, personal care and over-the-counter remedies.
In September 2018, Watkins set a Guinness World Record for “Greatest number of layers in a layer cake.” The cake that achieved the record was a Lady Baltimore cake totaling 260 layers and broke the previous record by 30 layers. It stood 6 feet and 1 inch tall. Ingredients included 900 eggs, 480 pounds of sugar, 150 pounds of flour, 102 pounds of shortening, 45 pounds of butter, 32 pounds of oil, 45 pounds of milk, 30 pounds water, 2.5 pounds salt, and 7 pounds of Watkins All Natural Baking Vanilla Extract. Watkins commissioned Wuollet Bakery in Minneapolis to bake the cake, and the record breaking event took place at the Watkins headquarters during the company's 150th anniversary celebration.
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- Chris Serres (December 18, 2005). Winona's Watkins takes leap from door to store. Star Tribune.
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- Hughlett, Mike (15 December 2013). "Watkins extracts and spices make headway into grocery stores". Star Tribune. Retrieved 2 February 2015.