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August 8, 2016 / 2016 Women to Watch Honorees

Women to Watch: Lindsay Skilling adds flavor to iconic family brand at Gifford's

File Photo / Tim Greenway Lindsay Skilling, CEO at Gifford's Famous Ice Cream.
Photo / Tim Greenway Lindsay Skilling, CEO of Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream, spearheaded a five-year strategic planning initiative, which included a $1.6 million expansion at the Skowhegan facility.

It's not unusual to hear bad news at a board meeting, and that's exactly what propelled Lindsay Skilling into management at the family business, Gifford's Famous Ice Cream.

During casual chatting among members at a board meeting in 2007, Skilling, who was shadowing her uncle at the time at the family company, overheard someone mention her father's doctor had warned him to back off of running the company for health reasons. It was the first she'd heard of her dad basically being a walking time bomb due to stress on the job.

“They just kept talking normally, but I stopped the meeting and said, 'Wait a minute, we have to do something,'” she says. At that point Skilling stepped up her role in sales to become a buffer between her dad and the sales team. Skilling quickly became vice president of sales and marketing, then became general manager of the company in 2012. She became CEO earlier this year.

“When I heard of my father's health issues I became the 'gatekeeper.' All communication went through me to get to him,” she notes. “I had his emails transferred to me and his phone. I chose when and what to tell him. The rest I handled.”

But the news caused its own stress for her, and that means one thing: country and western music blasting from the car radio. She typically blows off steam by driving the hour-and-twenty minutes from Skowhegan back to her home in Gray singing along with Shania Twain, which she says takes her back to simpler times in high school. By the time she gets home, she's ready to enjoy time with her husband, who is a house builder, and two young children.

“We're surrounded by his family,” says Skilling, who recently turned 33. “That helps me turn it off.” She's referring to the nonstop demands at the company that range from the factory floor to five ice cream stands, managing 40 year-round employees and 120 in the summer and producing upwards of 2 million gallons of ice cream this year.

“There's no day off,” she says. “I work from home a couple days a week. But you need the balance [of being around family].” There's no cable TV at home, just the regular three channels, no Facebook, no personal social media, she says. She sometimes runs after work, and makes sure everyone is home for dinner as a family.

That's a challenge, because it's been a busy year for Gifford's: Skilling spearheaded a five-year strategic planning initiative that led to the approval of a $1.6 million, 3,810-square-foot addition and renovation at the company's headquarters in Skowhegan. The expansion is the largest capital improvement the ice cream maker has made in its history. It improves efficiency and doubles the total production capacity.

Fast growth

As Skilling says, “ice cream makes people happy,” and that, in turn, means growth for the company. With a strong business and family ethic, she had an interest in business early, playing the made-up “Gifford's office” game at home as a child, and spent college summers as a “girl Friday” as she calls it, cleaning toilets and doing anything else that needed to be done at the company, without air conditioning. With one of her first paychecks she bought an electric typewriter at the new Walmart in town.

Today, giving a factory tour with her long, dark hair draping the top of a turquoise-blue sleeveless dress, her face lights up as she asks employees by name how their work is going and talks about the expansion areas, exuding the confidence that comes with success.

Though she won't talk about actual sales numbers, under her leadership the company has grown sales by 30%, expanded into 10 new states, created several new flavors of ice cream each year to produce more than 100 now, including a “birthday cake” flavor that this reporter can attest tastes like the real thing.

Skilling's favorite combination now is a scoop of mint chocolate chip, orange sherbet and black raspberry ice cream in a large waffle cone dipped in chocolate and covered in rainbow sprinkles. “I never get tired of ice cream,” she says, adding that the big trend now is sea salt caramel combinations.

Demure about her achievements, Skilling is quick to credit her father John Gifford and uncle Roger Gifford for learning how to run the business. She learned from them through keen observation and absorption.

“My dad has a unique drive. You either have drive and passion or you don't,” she says. “I look up to my parents for love, dedication and commitment. They're the best role models for my business and professional life.”

Her parents have been married 39 years and she realizes that takes work, the same quality of work and dedication that it takes to run a business, she says. When she grew up, she says, she realized her dad and mom worked all the time just to make ends meet. Her dad would be at the factory until 3 a.m. just so he could come to her track meet at school.

“My siblings and I had no idea there was a struggle,” she says. “My parents just did something right. We are a very close family.” Brother John Chester Gifford Jr. is vice president of sales and sister Samantha Gifford is marketing manager.

Skilling gets up at 4 a.m. to get to Skowhegan by 6 a.m. and start work. She says the company's growth scares her. “But that's how my brain operates. It's what makes me tick. I'm my own worst critic. If a mistake is made, it's ultimately my fault,” she says, no matter where it happens in the business.

“I'm learning from my mistakes and solving them,” she says. “There are a lot of eyes on me. Because of my age and gender I put more pressure on myself.”

'Neither snow nor rain'

The company distributes to hundreds of large and small retail locations, restaurants, colleges and ice cream stands from Maine to North Carolina.

But perhaps what every Mainer remembers best is Gifford's “Opening Day” held each March at its five ice cream stands in Skowhegan, Bangor, Auburn, Waterville and Farmington.

Nor'easter or zero-degree day, long lines form for a free, two-scoop small cone of a customer's favorite flavor. Skilling laughs, “We're Mainers.”

All in the family

Skilling is passionate about family-owned businesses and joined the board for the Institute for Family Owned Businesses in 2010, where she works on marketing and website improvements and helped start two peer advisory groups.

Last year, Skilling supported a significant partnership with the Special Olympics Maine when Gifford's held three Tip-A-Cop events at its family ice cream stands. She also approved the donation of 1,500 servings of ice cream to athletes and their families at the State Summer Games. And she helped raise funds for Maine athletes to attend Dream Ride 2015.

This year, in a new initiative, she developed a program to poll Gifford's employees for causes they care about and then nominate organizations. This year's winners are Camp Sunshine and The Ronald McDonald House.

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