These six business owners work with spouses, siblings, children and even grandma. Several have already laid the groundwork for the next generation.
Anyone who's ever tangled with a sibling can vouch for the sometimes pugilistic nature of family relationships, but it might come as a surprise that family businesses as a whole are veritable heavyweights in the U.S. economy.
Family firms comprise as much as 90 percent of all businesses in America and account for about 35 percent of the country's total employment, bringing in more than half its gross domestic product, according to Central Ohio's Conway Center for Family Business. They pack quite a punch locally, too: The Conway Center estimates--conservatively--that there are more than 5,500 independent family businesses in the nine-county region.
Columbus C.E.O. met with the owners of six local businesses, ranging from Chet's Jewelers, an old-school shop where customers still receive handwritten receipts, to Prime Engineering & Architecture, which recently won a five-year, $25 million project from NASA, to talk about the highs and lows of working with loved ones.
Though the businesses are unique in their family relationships, the industries in which they operate and their plans for the future, all have a shared sensibility that, despite the stresses that occur when work life and personal life commingle, they wouldn't want it any other way.
Walking into Chet's Jewelers on Gay Street in downtown Columbus feels like stepping decades into the past. Edith and Portia Hapney, the mother-daughter owners and partners in the business, still ring up sales on an old-fashioned cash register, write out paper receipts and sell one-of-a-kind items. "For the most part, it's like the way it was back in the late '50s and early '60s," Portia, 57, says.
In 1977, Portia's father, Chester Hapney, purchased Epstein Jewelers and renamed the store Chet's. After a year, Chester moved on to other pursuits, and Edith came on board to help Portia run the business. Today, mother and daughter operate Chet's with just one part-time employee.
Before joining the jewelry business, Edith worked for 15 years as a waitress at several Downtown hotels, including what is now the Renaissance Columbus Downtown Hotel, while Portia worked for three years at Lazarus. Both prefer the autonomy of their own family business. "When you work at another job and someone tells you to do something, even if you don't agree with them, you have to do it. They'll say, ‘Display it this way,' and you have to do it the way they want it done," Portia says.
Even a January 2010 breast cancer diagnosis hasn't slowed down Portia or her mother, says longtime business associate Gloria Schreiner. "Edith and Portia are just very good people. They're just kind, honest people," says Schreiner, one of the owners of family-run Wm. Werkhaven & Son, a jewelry and tool supply business that Chet's buys from. "They've worked hard to keep things going since Portia has been ill," she says.
Both businesses run on old-fashioned values, Schreiner says, harkening back to the days when it was common to give customers time to pay their bills. "There were no computers, you had to trust people," she says. "I think [Chet's] was probably trusting people, too."
Chet's merchandise has changed over the years, shifting toward fewer watches and less gold. Two years ago, the store--like many jewelers--started buying gold from customers. "We've become scrap merchants, that's what I call it," Portia says. "People can use their scrap gold-the money we would pay them-to purchase in the store," Edith says.
Sales have been down in recent years, due to the lackluster economy and increases in online shopping. "When there's a recession, we're the first to know it's happening because jewelry is one of the first things people can do without," Portia says. "You see a lot more repairs. Service is more important."
While the store uses a computer to keep records, the Hapneys have refrained from creating a Web presence. "We don't sell merchandise online. We have this idea that jewelry should be seen, touched and tried on," Portia says. "I can't imagine buying something, especially a diamond, that I haven't looked at."
Portia says she's considered opening up shop on the Internet, but fears she'd have to change the business too much to be successful. "We like to carry unique items. We don't always carry the same thing all the time," she says. "We'll carry some things that are whatever the fad is, and we'll carry some things that are from a different time."
That doesn't mean she eschews the Web altogether. "Portia brings in the new and interesting thing," Edith says. "Even though we don't sell online, she looks online all the time." The Internet is a good place to research trends, Portia says: "I need to see what people are talking about."
The Hapneys work collaboratively, frequently discussing what to sell, which of their longtime customers might like a specific item, and how to display merchandise. Although they might argue, it never takes long for them to make up.
"The thing is that we live together also. We are good friends," Edith, 77, says. "If we have a little heated thing, it's over with. We don't hold grudges. I think we work together with each other better than we do with anyone else."
Clintonville Auto Repair Service
Ron Stein was 6 years old when he first started working for the company he now leads.
"I had to work one hour a week dusting the shelves" recalls Ron, 56, president of Clintonville Auto Repair Service, or C.A.R.S. By age 10, Ron was pumping gas at what was then Clintonville Sohio.
The business, which was started by Ron's father, Walt Stein, in 1962, has moved and expanded through the years; it's been on Oakland Park Avenue since July 1971. While it no longer sells gasoline, C.A.R.S. offers automotive repairs as well as used car sales. Between Clintonville and its Polaris location, opened in 2005, C.A.R.S. fulfills about 13,000 work orders annually.
Ron joined the company full-time in the parts department after graduating from Defiance College in 1976. Sister Lynette Van Arsdale came on board in 1978, and her husband, high school sweetheart Jim Van Arsdale, joined in 1982. The three worked their way up through the company; in 1994, after 32 years as president, Walt retired and Ron took his place. In 1991, Jim, now 54, became parts manager; Lynette, 53, became office manager (she's also secretary and treasurer) in 1997.
C.A.R.S. is closing in on its 40th anniversary, a milestone that can be chalked up to both Walt's work ethic and to longtime employees, says Ron. Excluding family members, three people have worked at the business more than 30 years, and another three have more than 25 years of service. Lynette says the 29-employee company's success also is due to "the honesty we give our customers. ... We're in the third generation of drivers because people trust us."
Herman Kuhlmann, a retired Lutheran minister who met Walt and his wife, Mary Jane Stein, while in seminary school 53 years ago, is among C.A.R.S.'s loyal customers. "I'm a car nut myself, and when Walt had his Sohio station, I'd take my car in there and use his lift to do repair work myself," he says. Now, Kuhlmann turns to C.A.R.S. when his vehicle is in need of some TLC, and counsels his children and friends to do the same. "They'll always be fair and straightforward with you. They're straight shooters all the way."
That sensibility extends to the relationships among family members. "I don't have to worry about whether someone is going to steal or cheat or lie," Ron says. His sister agrees. "It's comfortable," says Lynette. "I know Ron, I know Jim. I know who they are."
The challenge of running a family business comes when disagreements arise, says Jim: "Sometimes not seeing exactly eye-to-eye when you're family is difficult."
"It's hard when I have to come down on them about something, for fear of damaging our family business. That's how a lot of family businesses get screwed up," Ron says. "As much as I don't want our business to fail, I'd rather the business fail than our relationships fail."
Other family members have come and gone through the years at C.A.R.S. Ron and Lynette's sister, Penney Beccue, worked at the shop part-time while in school, but has since relocated to Illinois with her husband. Mary Jane Stein, now 85, lasted only briefly in the business office. Her 60-year marriage to Walt was a good one, but "she decided she could not work with him," Lynette says. Walt died of cancer in 2009.
C.A.R.S. opened its Polaris location to serve a growing customer base and to provide some independence to Ron's son, David Stein, who joined the business in 2002. Ron had hoped he would someday take over, but David left in 2007. "I was pretty disappointed," says Ron. "But time heals all wounds, and I'm grateful he recognized it then, instead of waiting."
Ron's daughter Kelli Stein served as the Polaris location's office manager for a year before departing to pursue a career as a college swim coach. Another daughter, Allison, is studying to be a nurse. Meanwhile, the Van Arsdales' children, Jeff and Heather, have held part-time jobs at C.A.R.S., but opted against making the family business a career.
What'll become of C.A.R.S. when the second generation retires? "The plan is to turn it over to an internal employee," says Ron. "I want it to continue to be a family business, even though it won't be our family running it."
"The biggest thing that we do is promote a culture. You'll hear that word-culture-a lot from us," says David DeCapua, a partner at search, recruiting and staffing firm Dawson Resources.
Employees are encouraged to wear business casual and take advantage of a coffee bar and a fountain soda machine. David and his brother Chris DeCapua, also a partner, bring in lunch three days a week and freshly baked cookies every day for their staff. "When you're hiring people who are just trying to get a paycheck, just trying to close deals, they're not passionate about what they're doing," Chris, 44, says. "We want people who cannot wait to get to work in the morning."
"Everybody here is very passionate about what we do and you can tell," says Becky Garrett, a five-year employee and manager of the office division. "One of the best things about working here is the environment and the culture. It feels like a family."
Dawson's leaders do their best to empower the company's 60 employees, Garrett says: "We give them the option to switch a process so it's more efficient, and they have ownership of that and they're proud of it. They want to come into work every day and say, ‘I'm a part of this.' "
Dawson, founded in 1946 to find jobs for returning World War II veterans, was purchased by Chris and David's father, Joseph DeCapua, in 1966. Chris and David's maternal grandfather, Royce Eyerman, helped Joseph with a $3,000 loan.
"He changed some things," Chris says of his father. "The way it used to be is if you came here looking for a job and they found you a job, you would pay them. He thought that was kind of backward, so he set it up where the companies would pay. That's the standard that's out there now." Joseph also added a temporary employment service in the 1970s.
Chris joined the company's sales force in 1987. "When I got into the business, it was very transactional. They liked people who were hungry, just ready to close a deal," Chris says. "My dad would ask, ‘Did you make your 40 calls today?' and I would say, ‘No, but I made 13 really good ones,' and that would send him into orbit. But I felt that my strategy was that I got to know people. I was the only one who was going out to visit customers and take them out to lunch."
With Chris's encouragement, Dawson eventually added a fax machine, then a computer, and finally the Internet. David joined the sales team in 1994, after a four-year career selling pharmaceuticals and medical supplies. In 2000, which saw a record $30 million in revenue, the brothers bought out their father's interest in the company.
"I'll never forget. The year we bought it, the next year was 9/11. The business was off almost 50 percent, and we were terrified. We bought this thing and the business just died," David, 42, says. "It forced us to reinvent ourselves, to create efficiencies and then build on it." In 2010, Dawson's total revenue is up to $70 million.
Dawson ventured into health care and managed vendor services, and now creates video résumés for every candidate through TalentRooster, of which David is president and CEO. "Clients really appreciate the ability to see and hear somebody so you know what you're getting," he says. Brother-in-law Joel Lilly, whose sister Tanya married Chris, is TalentRooster's chief operating officer and chief information officer.
The DeCapuas say evolution is the key to a successful business. "If you're not keeping yourself current, if you don't understand things like social media, you're in trouble because the next person who comes into the workforce will understand it," David says.
Like any siblings, the brothers sometimes clash over what's best for the company. "We agree on 80 percent and we disagree on 20 percent," Chris says.
"We disagree strongly on 10 percent," David adds. "We can disagree passionately about something, to the point that it's almost frightening if you don't know us. But then we say, ‘OK, let's get lunch.' "
It's too soon to say whether a third generation might someday take over Dawson. David has three children: Sam, 10; Joe, 9; and Leah, 6. And Chris has four: Sophia, 10; Claudia, 8; Cole, 6; and Jack, 3. If any are interested, the brothers first want them to go to college and work at another business in the industry so they know what they're getting into.
Brandon and Randy Dupler's decision to go into business together five years ago couldn't have come as much of a shock to those who know them. The pair followed the same course of study at Ohio State University (business marketing, transportation and logistics); they rushed the same fraternity (Phi Kappa Psi); they worked at the same camera shop in college; and, post-graduation, both took jobs at Continental Office Environments, albeit on different teams.
Heck, the Galena natives even share a birthday. The 40-year-old twins were prompted to found Dupler Office after the birth of their eldest children, says Randy. (Brandon has two children with wife Carrie Dupler: Max, 8, and Eliza, 4; Randy and wife Amy Dupler have three kids: Harrison, 8; Claire, 6; and Lucy, 4.) "We decided then that if we were going to do something, ‘Let's figure it out,' " says Randy. It took a few years to nail down the particulars, but in January 2006, the brothers became principals in their own business.
Two years ago, Carrie, who had already worked behind the scenes at Dupler, left her position as a transaction manager at CB Richard Ellis to join the family business full-time as controller. She's no stranger to the office furniture biz: Her family has been in the industry for more than 60 years, and her father is a former exec at Continental.
Carrie, 39, says she didn't feel any trepidation about working with her husband and brother-in-law. "I wanted to help and I knew I could help, and it's a lot of fun," she says. The challenge, says Carrie, is the impact their work lives can have on their home lives. In the past, the couple could take up household slack for each other when work took precedence. Now, both may have the same work obligations. "For me, it's a balancing act," says Carrie. "It's just tricky, because we're working for the same cause."
Brandon spends most of his time on the job in business development mode, while Randy splits his time between sales, business operations, finances and human resources. "What that means is that our strengths really do complement each other," Randy says.
That sentiment is backed up by project manager Wendy Schutt, an independent consultant who has worked with Dupler Office for almost four years. Schutt says furniture dealers generally tend to be either good with numbers and logistics, or good at creative design elements. Dupler, she says, merges both skill sets--and does so in a budget-conscious way.
"Randy is a detail guy, Brandon is a big picture guy," Schutt says. Together, the brothers "are very passionate about customer satisfaction and really putting their best foot forward as a business," she says. She says Dupler provides services above and beyond filling furniture orders, from advice about paint or carpeting to help connecting with other vendors and service providers. That's an asset to Schutt, who is self-employed. "That can be a really lonely thing, but their help makes you feel like you have some resources on your side," she says.
Dupler Office clients run the gamut from small businesses to heavy hitters such as OSU's new Ohio Union, Nationwide Children's Hospital and IGS Energy. "We're helping customers all over the country create high-performing work environments for their folks to get inspired to work every day," says Brandon.
Because an appropriate office environment can help foster productive, profitable workers, Randy says, Dupler applied that principle to its own environs. The company's Arena District HQ serves as both its office and showroom. Eleven employees work in the bright and modern space. "We really have a good time here; it's a great place to work," Brandon says.
All three family members agree that trust is the foundation on which the business succeeds. "The high level of trust, the openness and the transparency-that's why it works," says Randy.
Prime Engineering & Architecture
Prime Engineering & Architecture started out with two employees focused on small, local transportation contracts. Today, the Columbus-based firm has three offices, 140 employees (60 locally) and last year was awarded a five-year, $25 million project for NASA's Glenn Research & Plumbrook Station. What a difference two decades makes.
"We don't want to be a small business. We want to grow into a strong regional business," says CEO Susheela Suguness, who owns Prime with her husband and firm president, Sugu Suguness.
Sri Lankan natives Susheela and Sugu met while studying at the Indian Institute of Technology, where they earned bachelor's degrees in civil engineering. "From then on, we did everything together," Susheela, 56, says. "We studied together, we exercised together. ... We work together well, even though we have a separate way of doing things."
They moved to the United States to pursue master's degrees in structural engineering, Sugu from Ohio State and Susheela from the University of Florida. Sugu, 56, also has an MBA from Capital University.
After settling in Columbus, both found jobs as engineers--Sugu at Moody•Nolan and Susheela at Burgess & Niple. They formed Prime Engineering in 1992 when Susheela was laid off. They cut their teeth on smaller-scale contracts, then began working on federal government projects.
Prime, which also has offices in Baltimore and San Antonio, has worked on federal projects in 22 states, including Arizona, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New York and Texas, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The company also has done work for the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the Air National Guard, the Air Force Material Command, the Army Contracting Agency, the city of Columbus and the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
General Mills, Johnson & Johnson and Honda of America Manufacturing are among the firm's private-sector clients. Prime's services include transportation, structural and civil engineering; architecture; construction management and inspection; and materials testing.
"What I'm proud of in working for Prime is that they actually bring money into Central Ohio because of the contracts they do," says Jack Marchbanks, director of business development. "How many times do we get to take something from Texas? Texas usually beats us Buckeyes up, but we actually bring revenues back to the state."
Marchbanks joined Prime in March 2007; he worked with the firm in his previous job as deputy director of the Ohio Department of Transportation's District 6. "I was very impressed with them. Some companies come in and they oversell, they threaten you or they wail and moan. But Sugu and Susheela were dignified and very sure of themselves," Marchbanks says.
The $25 million NASA contract is the firm's largest to date and a testament to the company's growth, the Sugunesses say. In the past 15 years, Prime has only laid off two employees due to lack of work, and has not let anyone go during the recent economic downturn, Sugu says.
"We have to credit our employees," Susheela says. "Without a good staff, you can never be successful. We have a very good core group."
"Working with the government, they want a very good product," Sugu adds. "There are thousands of companies waiting to replace you, so we have to be on task all the time."
Deadline anxiety is common at Prime. "Working with the federal government, if you submit one bad project, you're done. So you have to be good all the time," Marchbanks says.
"This is a critical time for us," he says. "We're blessed and thankful for our success. But now we're going from that sheltered market of small businesses, when you're only competing with other small businesses, to competing against big businesses. That means we have to get better every day because we are competing with companies 10 and 20 times our size."
Susheela and Sugu haven't developed a succession plan for their homegrown firm. Their son, Arvind, is in medical school at Wright State University, while daughter Aarthi is studying culinary management at the Art Institute of Portland. For now, the couple seems content to see where the next decade takes them.
Pure Imagination Chocolatier
Her name is Olga Philiopoulos, but to the customers of Pure Imagination Chocolatier, the 90-year-old woman behind the counter of the North Market sweets shop is "Yia Yia"--Greek for "grandmother."
Yia Yia is indeed the grandma of Pure Imagination's founder, Daniel Cooper, but she counts the business's loyal customers as family, too. "I've got so many grandchildren," she says.
Cooper, 37, founded Pure Imagination in October 2001, after spending almost a decade perfecting his chocolate recipes. The Columbus native, who dropped out in his senior year of high school, developed a sweet tooth for the candy business after making chocolates for a family holiday gathering. "I used to fail at everything I did. This gave me the passion to do everything the right way," he says.
"I still use the same chocolate as I did way back in the beginning," says Cooper. "Once you capture an audience using quality ingredients, you don't want to change that. It's expensive, but it's good."
Cooper chose an imported Swiss chocolate for its top-quality cocoa beans and lengthy conching process. (Conching refines and mixes the ingredients, and ultimately determines a chocolate's creaminess, texture and flavor.) Typically, chocolate is conched for eight to 12 hours, says Cooper. The variety he uses is conched for 72 hours.
Pure Imagination crafts truffles in nearly 90 different flavors, including crème brûlée, Aztec caramel and blood orange mimosa, that retail for $1.25 apiece. Sweets such as chocolate-covered nut clusters and chocolate-enrobed potato chips sell for $26.95 a pound. Offerings even include sugar-free treats. "We try and do our best to meet everyone's needs," says Cooper, whose titles include CEO, owner, operator and master chocolatier.
Tina Korting is a pastry chef and food service consultant for Albert Uster Imports, a Maryland-based company that provides Pure Imagination with candy-making supplies. Yia Yia is "sweet," she says, pun intended. And Cooper's skills are living up to his ambitions, Korting says. "Daniel has tried to be the Willy Wonka of Columbus, and I think he's done a great job of it," she says. "It's amazing what he can do ... and he's doing it with a very, very limited crew." (Cooper and Yia Yia run the operation with just one other employee.)
Pure Imagination nabbed high-profile exposure as chocolatier for the Academy Awards for four years, and its sweets appeared on the television show "Ugly Betty." They also have been sold in Whole Foods stores, and even onboard United Airlines flights until its spring 2010 merger with Continental Airlines. At its busiest, the candy company's Hilliard kitchen employed 16 family and friends and cranked out 80,000 to 100,000 pieces of chocolate a month. Now, Pure Imagination limits sales to its shop in the North Market and its online marketplace. "We want to focus strictly on our store, on our customers," Cooper says.
Pure Imagination takes its name from a song in the 1971 movie "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," and Cooper hopes to someday open a shop that would be as much about the experience as about the confection itself. "I want to put something in Columbus that has never been done before," he says.
For now, Cooper, who spends most of his time in the kitchen, has gotten used to being supplanted at the counter by his grandmother. "Some of the customers don't even recognize me. They just ask, ‘Where's Yia Yia?' " he says.
And how does Yia Yia feel about having her grandson as her boss? "He's not my boss," she says. "I work for him, but he's not my boss." Says Cooper, "She pretty much raised me, and we respect each other."
Someday, another family member might be persuaded to join the business. Cooper's son, Skyler, 6, "has started making chocolates, like molded Easter bunnies," says Cooper.
The candy maker says the recipe for a successful family business comes from one ingredient: "It's the love that we all have," says Cooper. "If you have a loving family and a loving family business, then you have everything you could want."
Michelle Davey is an editorial assistant and Jennifer Wray is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.
Reprinted from the February 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.