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J. R. Watkins Medical Company Complex
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
Location: 150 Liberty St.
Winona, Minnesota
Added to NRHP: December 4, 2004
NRHP Reference#: 84003940

Watkins Incorporated is a manufacturer of health remedies, baking products, and other household items. The entire catalog includes 400 products. It is based in Winona, Minnesota, and largely relies on an independent sales force of 25,000 people to distribute its products. This sales force sells the products using various methods, including the Internet, person to person, trade shows, party planning, and fund-raising. In order to increase overall awareness for the brand, the company has begun offering a select number of products in national retail outlets.

The company was founded by J. R. Watkins in Plainview, Minnesota, who began selling liniment in 1868 by traveling to homes in the southeastern part of the state. 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. J. R. Watkins died in 1911.

The "finest private administration building in the world" printed on postcard mailed in 1915

By the 1940s, Watkins was the largest direct-sales company in the world, but it soon began to decline. The demographics and buying habits of the United States went through major shifts in the following decades, and the company was unable to 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 also an aspiring actor, having appeared in minor roles in films like Biloxi Blues and Goodfellas, but he realized that his acting career wasn't going very far. Since taking over the reins, he has carefully controlled spending, introduced an enhanced compensation plan for sales associates, along with doing an extensive brand study that led to the introduction of products onto store shelves for the first time.

Wal-Mart has carried about 20 Watkins products since 2003, and other nationwide stores including Cub Foods, Hannaford, Whole Foods, Rainbow Foods, Pick 'N Save, Schnucks, Hy-Vee Food stores, Walgreens, Ultas and others are carrying select items particularly spices and extracts as well as some personal care items from the catalog as well. The reception from the retail community has been strong to date. A new all-natural line of personal care products were introduced to the retail community in the spring of 2008 and has quickly gained market share against Burt's Bees and others. A new home cleaning line that is also all-natural has debuted at Target and will roll out nationally in the 2nd half of 2008. The sizes of the spice and extract line offered to the retail community are different than that offered to the consumer via the independent representative which allows the independent representative to maintain an advantage in their marketplace. At this time both channels are performing well with this approach.

The Watkins headquarters in Winona, designed by Prairie School architect George Washington Maher and built between 1911 and 1913, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The front entrance includes a window designed by stained-glass artist Louis J. Millet, depicting Sugar Loaf Mountain, a landmark of the city.

In 2002, the story of an extraordinary Watkins salesman, Bill Porter, was told in the TNT movie Door to Door. He worked a route despite suffering from cerebral palsy.

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References

Coordinates: 44°2′56″N 91°37′48″W / 44.04889°N 91.63°W / 44.04889; -91.63

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