This week my dad Jim Bronner would have been 74. My dad was not officially at the helm of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps very long, but although his official time heading Dr. Bronner’s was short, the role he played was crucial to the survival of the company. His presidency of the company only lasted 4 years, connecting the 45+ years my grandfather ran it to the ongoing 14+ years of my brothers’ leadership. He also stepped in during two times of crisis in the 80’s and again in the early 90’s to guide the company back on to a sure financial footing.
The rest of what I share below I wrote for the dedication of a new branch of the San Diego Boys and Girls Club, the James A. Bronner Family Branch. I shared this with the children of the B&G Club, so that they would know about the man after whom their building was named. This is not so much a bio of his life, but rather insight into who he was as a man. I hope it also contributes to your understanding of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and the people who made it what it is.
Many of my dad’s accomplishments are closely intertwined with the support and strength he drew from his wife, my mom, Trudy Bronner. Very little of what he did would have been possible without the partnership he had with my mom. In many ways, my dad was the visionary, my mom is the implementer. My dad had the ideas, my mom makes them happen.
The facts on paper about my dad will tell you that he was an enthusiastic volunteer for the Boys and Girls Club. He coached soccer through the Escondido (CA) branch, even though his own kids were grown. He served on the Board of Directors, where my mom still serves today. He made sizeable donations to the organization. He brought his ever-fun Snofoam (inspiration for the Magic Foam Experience) to many a children’s Christmas party. He was also a chemist, an inventor, a soap-maker, an adventurer and a story teller. He was creativity and intelligence bound together with hard work, loyalty and perseverance. And he was my dad. But this doesn’t even begin to tell you who he was.
My dad had the biggest heart you’d ever meet. He always stopped to help anyone in trouble. My brother Mike tells the story of one hot summer day, the two of them were driving home through the Mojave Desert. The temperatures outside were nauseatingly high. They came upon a stranded motorist by the roadside, and our dad stopped for half an hour to assist. Happy to be back underway again and feeling pretty smug about his good deed for the day, my brother was astounded when our dad pulled over about 45 minutes later to help yet another stranded motorist. “Why couldn’t they just leave this motorist to be someone else’s good deed?” he thought. My dad’s answer, “I just couldn’t live with myself if I simply drove on by.”
Jim Bronner emphasized the positive and saw the potential in everyone. As a soccer coach for over 20 years, he would often have the team that lost most regular season games. They’d end the season dead last. But in the playoffs, they would climb the ranks, defeating team after team, as my dad found the potential in each player and pulled out skills they didn’t know they had. Time after time, he saw his team in the championship game. And most importantly, every child had a good time.
Jim Bronner would find the perfect encouragement for every situation. I remember many a soccer half time, when my team would be down 4 goals to 0, and my dad would gather us around him, not to talk strategy, but to talk history. He’d tell us about John Paul Jones, American naval captain in the Revolutionary War, who was severely outmanned by the opposing English ship. After sustaining heavy losses, he heard the English captain call out, “Are you ready to surrender?” John Paul Jones answered back, “Sir, we have not yet begun to fight!” And the next thing you knew, we were all John Paul Joneses out there on the soccer field. Or maybe that was the day he told us about Winston Churchill, prime minister of Britain during World War II, who memorably said, “Never, never, never, never give up!” And suddenly we were not a downtrodden team. We were determined and energized and optimistic, and much of the time, the game turned out a whole lot better. We learned a lot of history, too.
Jim Bronner was not afraid to start at the bottom, but he was never content to stay there. My dad did not grow up with his parents, but in a variety of indifferent foster homes. However, he didn’t let any of that be an excuse for his behavior or his achievements as an adult. He entered the United States Navy as a Seaman Recruit, the lowest level of sailor. He left the Navy as a Master Chief Petty Officer, the highest rank an enlisted man could achieve. In his career as a chemist, he began working, in my mom’s words, as “chief bottle washer”. He rose to Vice President and Technical Director. Later he became president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. He started coaching soccer as a spur of the moment parent volunteer, and he became Commissioner of the region. He didn’t shrink from hard work or difficult circumstances.
Jim Bronner also was not afraid of mistakes. One day when I was in high school, he took me with him to his lab. I don’t remember what we were making, but I recall I poured in too much of one ingredient. Instead of lambasting me for my mistake, he said, “Let’s see what happens. Sometimes a great invention starts from a mistake.” There were no mistakes with my dad, just unexpected outcomes. Where some people saw failure, my dad saw new beginnings.
Jim Bronner made things happen. Where some might say “That can’t be done,” Jim Bronner would say “Just watch.” At Dr. Bronner’s, he and my mom began an unprecedented profit sharing plan and no-deductible health care. Where some would have said, “You can’t give away that much money!”, he shared the profits with the people who helped earn them. He also guided the company into donating 1/3 of its profits to charitable causes.
This “anything is possible” philosophy is also responsible for the very building in which we’re standing. This facility exists today because one week before my dad passed away, he and my mom signed the documents donating a $1.4 million piece of land to the San Diego Boys and Girls Club. The Boys and Girls Club were able to sell that land and with the proceeds renovate this building to establish a permanent Valley Center Boys and Girls Club.
This building bears the name of Jim Bronner because my dad wanted the best for children. He wanted children to begin life with advantages he never had, so that they could stand on his shoulders and achieve greater things. So what would Jim Bronner say to you here today, to you who give purpose to this building? Three things: “Never, never, never, never give up!” “There are no mistakes!” and “This meeting’s gone on long enough! Let’s go play some soccer!”
Happy Birthday, Pop!
Lovely! I love how you’ve found ways to know, understand, and honor your father and grandfather. They both made HUGE contributions to humanity….and you’re carrying on with it all.
Such a Beautiful tribute to your Father! I came to visit your website for the first time…interested in your products. I truly enjoyed reading about your Dad and family and the love and hard work that has been at the heart of your Family business. Best wishes and Blessings!
I came here to find out how much Dr. Bronner’s to use for laundry and now I’m all teared up! Lovely tribute to your dad – I am so glad to have a picture into the family behind these wonderful soaps.
I am so glad that you all have found my reminiscences inspiring!
All the best,
What a beautiful account of your father’s life. In my younger years, I had the good fortune of knowing your grandfather Emanuel and his wife Gladys. I was in grad school and had a World Religions class. We were asked to bring in a guest speaker. I brought in your grandfather with his “All One God Faith” philosophy. I will never forget his passionate call for everyone to realize the profound importance of Interconnection and Oneness. Anyway, I am on the Big Island of Hawai`i living my dream. Providing you ever come to the islands please let me know.
What an inspiring article, filled with love and respect for your dad.
Just want to say how much I appreciate Dr. Bronner’s Soap, and also your company’s philosophy, which seems to me to exemplify how corporations can serve the public good. Using your soap makes me feel great — I add different essential oils to the Baby Castille soap, and use it for shampoo, for kitchen soap, for bath soap. It’s such a win-win: I feel as if I’m supporting the good work of your company while pampering myself. 😀
I have been a long time user of the Dr. Bronners’ product. It is great to know the family behind such a wonderful product. Such a wonderful family.. I have used this product since my Hippy Days in the early 70’s when I was needing a bath. It was one of my greatest memories.. It made me feel so clean.. Now I am older, and more settled but it still takes me back to those days of being poor, and down on my luck with a little Bronner’s I was able to feel like I could do anything no obstacle was to big, and I got back on track. Thanks again.. Happy Birthday to your father, and may the memories continue for future generations. 🙂
An inspiring story. Thanks for posting it and linking to it from the newsletter. It’s especially nice to see, now, stories about personal and business success that aren’t driven by themes of self-interest and short-term gain. Selflessness, cooperation, and results that can extend into a long-term future, really are important human strengths. Thanks, to you and your family, for showing those strengths in your lives.
Loved the story Lisa, what a great tribute to your father. Thsnks for sharing it with us.
Happy birthday, Jim! I would like to express my gratitude for the service you gave with your life here. I am inspired to read Lisa’s tribute to you.I am sure you and your father continue to guide the family and this wonderful company from a higher and expanded perspective. The world has benefitted so much from the love and mission of your family.
Thank you all!
That’s very interesting. I remember hearing (probably on your blog) about the food recipes and how they were lost. Did Dr Bronner (“the man”) have lists of ingredients for his soap? That estate tax is ridiculous… Thank god that your father was successful in having it reversed. His time with the company was obviously an integral part of the success!
Hi Tom – Since Dr. Bronner was blind, he had nothing written down. Everything was in his head. (He didn’t welcome any assisting devices or techniques to cope with his blindness.) However, my dad, who was a chemist by trade, had learned the art of soapmaking from him, and had assisted him even way back when Dr. Bronner was making batches in his tenement apartment in Los Angeles. And, yes, the estate tax was insane. But it wasn’t reversed. They had to pay it all or lose the company. It was amazing that my parents were able to handle that financial obligation while still keeping the company in the black. Since my dad passed away in 1998, only 15 months after my grandfather, the task continued under my mom’s direction as well as my brother David’s. Steps have now been taken so that such an estate tax couldn’t be levied again.
Quite a saga!
All the best,
Thank you, everyone, for the kind words!
Hi Tom – That’s a big question. To sum it all up, my dad had the daunting task of translating the company of Dr. Bronner’s from an extension of the man himself to a business. Practically speaking, my dad resolved some financial issues that had arisen from a debate between my grandfather and the IRS. Also, the 1990’s was when nutritional labeling came to the forefront. My grandfather’s health was failing due to Parkinsons, and so my dad and family had to analyze the many food products my grandfather made to figure out what was in them. It turned out that a lot of my grandfather’s knowledge in the food realm wasn’t transmitted to the rest of the family, so with 10% of the company’s sales (the food sales) causing 90% of the company’s problems, they made the decision to end the food production, and focus instead on the soaps alone. Back to the basics, so to speak.
Furthermore, when my grandfather did pass away, the company was nearly swamped by a crushing estate tax of 50% of the company’s value.
Hope that fills in some details!
All the best,
Loved the story. What was going on at Dr Bronners while he was president?
This is an awesome tribute. Makes me proud to wash and use Dr. B’s every day!
This is such a wonderful tribute to your father. Thank you for sharing your heartfelt feelings with us…and for sharing your father’s philosophy and generosity.
Blessings to you and your family…Tina
Lisa, this is so eloquent. I feel as if Jim’s personality is alive in my minds eye. The tremendous love you have for him and the entire family pours from this piece. Thank you for sharing this deeply personal and heartfelt affirmation of his life.