People joke about nosy dinner guests snooping through bathroom medicine cabinets. Not Skip Rosskam, 67, chief operating officer at David Michael & Co., the Northeast Philadelphia food flavors and product development company. If he's a dinner guest, he has an entirely different goal.
Question: What is it?
Answer: I'd be sneaking in the kitchen, and I'd be looking in your refrigerator, and I'd be looking in the spice cabinet.
Q: What are you actually looking for?
A: I'm looking for brands, trends. For us, we need to anticipate what's happening before it happens.
Q: Your company creates and manufactures flavors - all types of vanilla, fruit flavors, even the flavor of a roasted chicken, and then, in the end, your work shows up on the ingredient list as "natural flavors." What type of person creates these flavors?
A: Flavor chemists.
Q: Are they hard to find?
A: Yes. They don't teach flavor chemistry, per se, in college. We train our own flavor chemists. Give us somebody with a basic chemistry background - people that are interested in food, people that are creative. It takes seven years of training at our company for someone to be . . . a flavor chemist.
Q: You told me that your company ranks about 25th in revenue among 300 flavor companies worldwide. Other than competition, what worries you in the flavor business?
A: There's not a lot that keeps me up at night. I don't think we're going to run out of consumers. In fact, it's the other way. We're birthing lots of new consumers.
Q: What about raw materials?
A: That's cyclical. There are some issues going on in vanilla beans. The crops are going to be slightly smaller. The issue over the years has been a low price for the raw material. When you have prices that are too low, farmers go to other crops.
Q: So what will happen?
A: For the next few years, there are going to be higher prices for vanilla beans, which means there are going to be higher prices for things made with vanilla beans, like vanilla extract.
Q: And then?
A: So someone who makes vanilla ice cream is going to pay a higher price for the raw materials. How they handle it, I can't tell you, whether the consumer is going to pay more or the people are going to make less margin.
Q: Your grandfather and two Penn classmates, brothers Eli and Robert Rosenbaum, formed a company with David Michael, a partner in an Atlantic City business selling ingredients. Michael died, leaving no heirs, but three generations later, the Rosskam and Rosenbaum families are still in business together. How do you stay on an even keel?
A: I think one of the secrets of the business over the generations is that none of the partners in their generation have wanted to do the same job.
Q: What happens when you host a dinner party?
A: We play a little game called "The Nose Knows." I bring about 10 different flavors, and I use those perfumer strips [little strips of paper, each dipped into a different bottle of flavoring]. Before dessert, I give everybody a sheet [of paper labeled] flavor one, flavor two. The person who gets the most right gets a bottle of wine as a prize.
Q: Favorite flavor?
A: Bittersweet chocolate
Q: Really yucky?
A: Eggs and mustard.
Q: Annoying habit?
A: My wife doesn't like me to go grocery shopping with her because I take too long. I read labels. I'm looking for ideas.
Q: In your library?
A: I made a library, which I have at home, of about 70 different [bottles of] flavors.
Real name: William Benjamin Rosskam 3d.
Title: President, chief operating officer.
Diploma: Southern Illinois University, communications.
Homes: Huntingdon Valley and Stowe, Vt.
Family: Wife, Marilyn; children, Andrew, 38, Jules, 34.
Connection: Grandfather Walter Rosskam, a chemist, was a co-founder.
Resumé: Joined the company in 1978 after sales and marketing jobs with Gillette, Lincoln Mint, and Insilco.
Products: 40,000 food flavor, stabilizer, and color formulations.
Headquarters: Northeast Philadelphia.
Locations: San Bernardino, Calif., Mexico, France, China.
History: Founded in 1896 in an Atlantic City tavern.
First product: Oldtime Special Body & Age, used to make raw corn whiskey taste like aged bourbon.
In the family: Skip Rosskam's brother, Stephen, and his cousins George Rosskam and Stuart Rosenbaum are all DM executives.
Skip Rosskam on business in China inquirer.com/jobbing