Working with spouses, siblings and children has its ups and downs. Still, these business owners persist, hoping to leave a legacy for the next generation.
If you’re working, chances are good that you’re working for a family-owned business. Family firms represent the lion’s share—80 percent to 90 percent—of North American business enterprises and employ about 62 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to the Boston-based Family Firm Institute.
Family businesses are indeed everywhere, including Central Ohio, which boasts an estimated 5,500 of them in a nine-county region, according to the Conway Center for Family Business.
For this annual feature, Columbus C.E.O. talked shop with the owners of six local family-owned businesses, including one entering its fourth generation. (Conway estimates that only 3 percent of family businesses reach this level or beyond.) The diverse group includes a $50 million power and equipment business, the city’s oldest African-American family-owned mortuary and a restaurant that serves everyone from blue-collar workers to Columbus’s top business titans.
Here, the men and women behind these family-owned firms talk about the hows and whys, the challenges and benefits, of going into business with their loved ones. It’s not always easy, but it’s the only career they can imagine.
It’s lunchtime on a December day, and Beechwold Hardware is humming with activity. A group of elderly women walks in, chatting as they mill around the store. A contractor grabs her just-warmed lunch out of the store’s microwave as she waits for her order. Then a man in a Santa suit strolls in, shopping list in hand.
Still, it’s just another day at the High Street hardware store, which was founded in 1944 by Forrest and Lois Smith. The neighborhood institution, named Business of the Year by the Clintonville Chamber of Commerce in 2010, is managed by Malcolm Moore, whose wife, Kathie, is the Smiths’ granddaughter.
Malcolm, who met Kathie at the University of Utah, arrived in Columbus in 1978 with a job interview and plans to be an investment banker. “I was staying at her parents’ house prior to the interview … when Kathie’s father asked me to do inventory at one of the locations. I said, ‘Sure.’ ” The next day, when a cousin left the Upper Arlington store (it and a Hilliard location were later sold), Malcolm was asked to fill in for the day. “I just basically never left. It fits as well as a nut and bolt.”
Kathie’s father, Jack Smith, was active in the business until shortly before his death in May. Other family members have worked there, too, including Kathie’s brother-in-law Tom Brock, who later became a golf pro, and two nephews who worked at the store during high school.
The hardware store recently entered its fourth generation when one of the Moores’ 26-year-old twin sons, Patrick, joined the business full time on the sales floor. Both boys held part-time jobs at Beechwold in high school and college; Kevin now works for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and will graduate from Capital University Law School in May.
Kathie, 57, who works in Beechwold’s back office, says she prefers family ownership to working for a big company. (She was an assistant manager at National City Bank’s Gahanna branch before her sons were born.) “It’s much better to be your own boss. I’d never go back,” she says.
Though they take pride in helping their customers, the Moores understand it takes more than a friendly smile to compete with big-box rivals. “You don’t want to hide behind customer service. You want to have the product as well, and at the right price point,” Patrick says.
For the Moores, the business’s family ties go beyond blood and marriage. It’s not unusual for a worker’s tenure to be counted in decades. They often hire siblings of former employees. And many of their customers are second-generation shoppers, having accompanied their parents to the store years ago.
Longtime customer Tim Liggett first visited Beechwold Hardware in the 1950s as a child accompanying his father, Robert Liggett, who worked in the construction business. Now, as a landlord with nearly 200 properties, the younger Liggett finds himself at Beechwold almost every day. “It’s the selection of stuff they have; the location is great. I grew up in the neighborhood, and I’ve become accustomed to going in there. And their prices are competitive with the big-box stores,” he says.
Beechwold has “always been a friendly place,” Liggett says. A fan of Malcolm and Jack, he says he was glad to see Patrick sign on.
Since arriving at Beechwold a little more than a year ago, Patrick has encouraged his parents to embrace computers, rather than doing work by hand. “I think not only do I bring a new look on something, but shoot, I’m learning from him, because he’s been here for 30 years,” Patrick says, gesturing toward Malcolm.
Now, customers come into the store asking for Patrick. “It’s quite a new chapter for me,” say Malcolm, 57. “We do have other employees that have that fan base, but it’s been interesting to watch that develop in such a short period of time.”
Kathie says they were fortunate to inherit from her father and grandfather “an established, already successful business.” It’s not easy to run a hardware store, she says. “But we didn’t have to worry about making it a success. We just have to take it further and make it last.”
Buckeye Power Sales
Don Bohls, president of Buckeye Power Sales, spent several months in 2011 relaxing in South Carolina with his wife, Jane, the company’s secretary and treasurer. Consider it part of his effort to practice a more hands-off approach, letting sons Tom and Greg take the reins of the third-generation business.
Still, he can’t stay away completely. “I think as long as I’m still functional, I’ll be very interested in what’s going on,” Don, 66, says. “Most of my mornings when we’re away are spent with business things. … With communications the way they are, I can still attend weekly meetings with Tom and Greg and our leadership team. It keeps me in touch, but allows me to be away from the business.”
Buckeye Power Sales (BPS) was founded in 1947 by Jane’s father, Edward Sebastian, who had worked for a similar business in Cleveland. BPS primarily sold generators, lighting, magnets and small engines to customers including scrap yards, strip mines and oil fields around power systems and generation facilities. “Ed was the consummate salesman and very aggressive. He was very much his own person. He was able to get the business going really pretty solid,” Don says.
In the beginning, BPS was just Ed and his wife, Nancy, who helped with paperwork. When Don joined in the mid-1970s, the business employed about six people and generated $3 million in annual revenue.
Since Jane is an only child, Ed gave Don the option of coming to work for the business. Don came on board and took over as president when Ed died in 1985. “While Ed was very strong at developing the business and selling, his strength was not delegation. He was probably pretty satisfied with the size of the business at that time. I’m probably much better at delegation, so we … grew the business substantially,” Don says.
BPS had sales territory in Cincinnati, which Don developed more aggressively. He also bought distributors in Cleveland and Indianapolis. The business evolved, focusing on the standby power market for schools, hospitals, nursing homes and similar customers and venturing into equipment sales. Today, the equipment business, which primarily serves landscapers, makes up 20 percent of sales volume in dollars. Annual revenue is up to $50 million and the company employs 115 people.
“After Ed’s sudden passing, I knew all the front office stuff—all the sales and the equipment—but all the back office stuff I was not privy to,” Don says. “I sort of had a lot of trial and error there. It’s been very important for me to let Tom and Greg be very much in charge of those things.”
BPS recently changed its organizational structure. “We’ve begun to operate much more like a business and less like a mom and pop shop,” Don says. Bob Bohls, Don’s brother, was named a sales manager in the Cleveland office. (BPS also has offices in Cincinnati and Indianapolis.) Tom and Greg were named vice presidents and head the generator distribution business and lawn and garden division, respectively.
“Everybody works pretty well together. We really don’t have too many conflicts,” Greg says.
Tom and Greg credit their father for imparting a focus on customer service and a “by Friday” mentality. “If something comes up, you have to get it done by Friday. Sometimes there has to be some urgency to things, otherwise they just don’t happen,” Tom says.
Jack Reynolds, a sales manager in the generator division and a 33-year employee, learned about the mechanical side of the business from Ed and then developed his sales skills under Don’s tutelage. “The way business is handled internally has changed. We still maintain our core values to our customers, but internally we’re a lot more accountable for what we do and it’s something that’s been needed. It’s a neat experience to see a new generation taking over,” he says.
Don has learned the importance of stepping back into an advisory role and letting the next generation take their shot at running the business. “On the flip side, we need to step up and be the boss. It’s easy to get back into the routine of letting Dad be the boss because that’s sometimes an uncomfortable place to be,” Greg says.
“For me, it’s just a lot of fun,” Don says. “When I took over the business, I felt that my obligation was to continue the business so that the boys would have the opportunity to join it if they were interested.”
Diehl-Whittaker Funeral Service
Opened in 1905, Diehl-Whittaker Funeral Service is the oldest African-American family-owned mortuary in Columbus. The business was founded by the Whittaker family and sold to Andrew Diehl in 1969. Andrew had also owned and operated Diehl Funeral Home in Youngstown since 1947. The Youngstown business was closed after Andrew’s death in 1973 and his son Richard took over the Columbus operation.
“It was pretty decrepit when I came here. I knew we needed a new facility,” says Richard, who serves as both president of the third-generation business and a funeral director. In 1977, Richard tore down the building on the corner of East Long Street and Hamilton Avenue and built a new one.
Richard’s daughter, Ingrid Diehl, joined as a funeral director and vice president in 1995, and the facility went through another renovation—adding more viewing rooms, office space and a second garage—in the late 1990s. In 1973, the business did 55 funerals. In 2011, Diehl-Whittaker serviced 450.
Richard, 65, attributes the growth to several factors. “I think it was a combination of hard work, improvement in our facilities, highly trained staff and that we try to be fair with people and try to have competitive pricing,” he says.
Nationally, corporate firms have begun to pop up, but the funeral service industry is still mostly dominated by family-owned operations in Columbus, Richard says. While son Aaron isn’t involved in the business, Richard’s wife, Estelle, decided to come on board and will soon start an apprenticeship. “One advantage is that you have someone you can trust and confide in. You can pass things on to the next generation. A disadvantage is that it’s hard to discipline your own kids sometimes. I put up with stuff from [Ingrid] that I wouldn’t put up with from somebody else,” Richard says.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering from North Carolina A&T State University, Ingrid decided against a career in that field. Her father offered her a place in the family business and she began a two-year apprenticeship. “I actually ended up liking it,” Ingrid, 37, says. “One advantage is having someone, once you go home from work, who can relate to what you’re dealing with at work. At the same time, the disadvantage is that you’re always at work.”
Richard appreciates the insights his daughter provides into younger generations who are more comfortable using computers and sending emails. Despite the advantages of working with Ingrid, Richard tries to be realistic about her skills for the good of the business.
“I’ve tried to build a foundation and tried to be objective about what her strengths and weaknesses are, keeping in mind that most family businesses—most small businesses, really—don’t make it beyond the first generation,” Richard says, citing a few competing funeral homes that were successful until the owner died. Once the next generation took over, things quickly fell apart, he says. “I would say probably the majority of funeral homes in business today in Franklin County … are just living from week to week trying to pay their bills.”
“I look at her strengths and try to play on those and prepare her with that. Where I think she’s weak, I’ve tried to bring other parties in to show her, so that when I’m not here the place can continue to be successful,” Richard says.
Arlene Lawrence, a funeral director of six years with Diehl-Whittaker, says the Diehls lead by example, citing their professionalism, trustworthiness and sincerity when dealing with families. “I’ve worked for corporate conglomerations and it’s strictly business, it doesn’t allow you to get personable,” she says. “[The Diehls] treat me like I’m family. I’m included on a lot of the decisions. I’m invited to family gatherings.”
The smartphone has become an indispensable part of doing business—until a new model comes around and the old one is relegated to a dusty storage closet or the garbage can.
E-Cycle creators Chris and Tonia Irion hope to change that. In 2005, after five years of kicking around business ideas, the couple happened upon a winner: mobile phone recycling. “It was really one day when we were doing some spring cleaning in the house, and we said, ‘What are we going to do with all of these electronic devices?’ ” says Tonia, the company’s vice president of marketing. With Hilliard-based e-Cycle, the tech industry vets (Chris once worked for Oracle; Tonia, Hewlett-Packard) aim to do good business while doing good.
To date, e-Cycle has partnered with 356 of the Fortune 500 to recycle cell- and smartphones and accessories. If their condition and demand merit reuse, phones are wiped of data and resold on the secondary market to users in places such as China or Brazil. Otherwise, they are shredded and their raw materials—toxic metals such as lead as well as precious ones including gold—are recycled. The Irions say e-Cycle has recycled or reused more than 10 million mobile devices and accessories, paying more than $12 million through its buyback services, keeping more than 250,000 pounds of e-waste out of landfills and reducing carbon emissions and energy waste through device reuse. E-Cycle pays customers cash for used phones or, upon request, donates the funds to charity; the company has donated more than $1 million since its founding.
The Irions, who have been married 17 years, grew their business to 75 workers at the end of 2011; they expect to boost that to 150 this year. Revenue has increased, too, from $700,000 in 2006 to $12 million in 2011. Last year, the Inc. 500|5000 ranked e-Cycle as the No. 5 fastest-growing environmental services company in the United States. By 2013, e-Cycle aims to be the largest cellphone recycling company in the country by volume.
Theirs is an industry with plenty of room for expansion. In the United States, less than 10 percent of phones are recycled (globally, it’s less than 3 percent), says Chris, e-Cycle’s president and CEO. “Our biggest competitor is a closet, drawer or inventory room,” he says. A smartphone’s life averages less than two years, creating “a huge e-waste problem,” he says, since there are 327 million cellphones in the United States and 4.6 billion worldwide. “Two years from now, 4.7 billion smartphones and cellphones are going to be retired, and what’s going to happen to them? … That is where we have the opportunity.”
E-Cycle director Fred Vorys says Chris and Tonia’s relationship as spouses isn’t immediately apparent in the business operations, but the two bring complementary strengths. The Irions are disciplined in their work and, while flexible in adapting their initial business model, have hewed closely to the values they’ve had from the start: to run a profitable business that benefits both charitable causes and the environment. “To me, I don’t relate that to the fact that they’re husband and wife. I see them as a very good business partnership,” Vorys says.
Parents to Olivia, 13, and Isabelle, 10, the Irions would love to have their children join e-Cycle “as long as their passions line up with that of the company, and that’s love of technology, charity and the environment,” says Chris, 43.
Meanwhile, e-Cycle continues to make strides. In June, Chris was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in the South Central Ohio and Kentucky region; in November, the Columbus Chamber gave Chris a Small Business Leader Award in the EcoBusiness category. In December, e-Cycle received e-Stewards certification for its responsible recycling, reuse and worker safety practices.
When you work for a big company, you’re not as vested as you are in your own business, says Chris. “An analogy everyone uses is when you found a company, it’s—in our case it’s our third child—and you do everything you can to grow the company and educate and improve upon it. … It’s hard to go home and not talk about business.”
“Our youngest daughter keeps us in line, though,” says Tonia, 41. “She won’t let us talk about it too much.”
The name on the sign may say Plank’s, but visit Plank’s Café for any length of time and it soon becomes clear that the casual bar-and-pizza joint on Parsons Avenue belongs to the community as much as it does to the family whose name it bears.
Plank’s is one of those rare institutions, a family-friendly restaurant where the well-heeled sit side-by-side with middle-class and working poor patrons. Bill Anthony, director of the Franklin County Board of Elections, drops by to greet Tom and John Plank and Mary Plank Underwood, siblings and the third generation of Planks to run the business. So does Teresa Federer, a thirtysomething woman and Caribou Coffee manager who grew up in the neighborhood and, she recalls, was thrilled when John, on his way to work, would stop and shoot marbles on the sidewalk with her and her friends.
Former Nationwide CEO Jerry Jurgensen famously ordered takeout pizza from Plank’s following his unexpected ouster in February 2009; on this early Thursday evening, he’s there with a group that includes Columbus College of Art & Design President Denny Griffith and Griffith’s wife, Beth Fisher, vice president of donor services and development at the Columbus Foundation.
“I think what’s unique about this place is you can get a guy like Jerry Jurgensen and then you can get a character off of Parsons Avenue, and they mesh here,” says John. “There’s not many places that could have that diverse clientele.”
Jurgensen agrees. “This is the ‘Cheers’ of Columbus, Ohio. They treat everybody the same, which is great. They treat you like you’re a part of the family.” His favorite pie? One topped with hamburger, black olive and mushroom. “It’s fabulous,” says Jurgensen.
The Plank family has operated the restaurant since 1939, when Walter Plank bought the business, then called Manns’s Café, from his brother-in-law, Ed Manns. In 1960, Walter, who was dying of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, urged his sons to buy what was then Grundy’s Bier Garten in German Village. Walter Jr. stayed on at Plank’s Café, while William opened Plank’s Bier Garten, their sister Nancy Plank Kelley told sociologist and writer Ray Oldenburg for his book, “Celebrating the Third Place.” (She also detailed the café’s history in “The Corner,” a book she worked on with Walt Jr. until his 1993 death; it was published in 1995.) Today, cousins own Plank’s Bier Garten as well as Plank’s on Broadway in Grove City.
Walt Jr.’s influence still looms large. Posted on one wall is a Columbus Dispatch story that notes that upon his death, Michigan State University and the Cleveland Indians sent flowers, and visitors included John Cooper, Earle Bruce, Randy Ayers and Greg Lashutka. Elsewhere on the rough-hewn walls, which Walt Jr.’s son Tom salvaged from barns between Columbus and a family property at Indian Lake, are sports pennants and countless Ohio State University memorabilia.
Both Tom, 62, and John, 47, work at Plank’s full time. Mary, 55, a full-time teacher at St. Catherine School, works Saturday mornings during the school year and full time during the summer. Tom and John are managers; Tom works at night and handles cleaning and maintenance, while John works during the day and keeps the books. (Three other Plank siblings, Carol Jackson, Janie Varga and Julie Plank, worked at the business when they were young, but no longer do.)
Tom, John and Mary met their spouses—Carol, Heidi and Jim, respectively—while working at Plank’s. Although none work at the restaurant, “They support us and they’re understanding, so they’re part of the business,” John says.
Since its founding, Plank’s has extended its hours, opened an upstairs space, and, in 1950, tore down the wall that separated the bar from the restaurant (and had banned women from the bar section). In 1989, an addition doubled the bar’s capacity. Upon Walt Jr.’s suggestion, in the 1970s, Plank’s started serving the sweet pizza for which it’s known. John says he initially thought his father was crazy for wanting to add pizza to the menu, which featured German and comfort foods. “But it was obviously one of the best moves we ever made.”
A new generation of Plank restaurateurs may be right around the corner. John is a father of three: Matthew, 14; Tim, 10; and Jenna, 5. “I think they all kind of talk about it,” he says. Indeed, says Mary, relating a recent conversation with Tim. “I said, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ and he said, ‘Work at Plank’s and be an author.’ ”
Uniglobe Travel Designers
“The customer is always right” might be an overly used phrase in the sales business, but it’s a strategy that works for Uniglobe Travel Designers. Elsie Blount, who bought the local franchise in 1996, has passed down that customer-first mantra to her daughters, Elizabeth and Jacqueline. No matter the issue, the customer’s complaint must be fixed. “That might cost us $500, so we lose that battle. But if you lose the customer, you lose the war,” Elsie, 71, says.
Elsie, the company’s president, worked several years as office manager for her husband Wilber’s ophthalmologist practice. The practice grew, an office manager was hired and Elsie decided to do something for herself. “I love to travel, so I bought into the travel business,” she says. The franchise’s annual revenue was $800,000 then. Today, it’s up to $16 million and includes big-name clients such as Ohio State University and Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Jacqueline and Elizabeth, co-owners and vice presidents of Uniglobe, joined the business in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Jacqueline had worked as a paralegal in the U.S. Department of Justice, then as an account coordinator for a small marketing company in Washington, D.C. Elizabeth worked for Gap in San Francisco and Miami, then moved to New Jersey to work as production manager for Edun, the clothing line of U2 frontman Bono. When Elsie began contemplating retirement, her daughters decided it was time to come home.
“We saw it as an opportunity. We didn’t want her to sell it. We wanted her to keep it in the family,” Jacqueline, 31, says. “We started learning the business. Coming from a situation where our employees had seen us grow up and now we’re the boss, but we really don’t know much about the business, it was a struggle. … But now, I think we’ve got a handle on it and we’re figuring out what we want to do and where we want to take the business.”
Uniglobe’s primary focus to date has been on corporate clients, which account for 80 percent of the business. While leisure travel makes up only 20 percent of business, it represents 35 percent of the profit, so the Blounts would like to shift the business to a 50-50 split between corporate and personal.
“The best referral for us is someone who had has a great experience. We want people to become lifelong clients of our agency and think of us for weddings, family trips, anniversary trips and girlfriend getaways. We want to be the one-stop place that people come to,” Elizabeth, 33, says.
Jacqueline made giving back to the community a priority through the Vitamin D Vacation Giveback program, which donates $25 for each vacation booked to either Nationwide Children’s Hospital, the Cancer Support Community or—more recently—the Junior League of Columbus. Since October 2010, the program has raised $5,000 for Nationwide Children’s and $1,500 for Cancer Support.
“Another component of the program is to promote health and wellness through vacation. A lot of people don’t realize that there are a lot of benefits to taking a vacation. A lot of people view it as a luxury, but we’ve come to realize they’re a necessity. You need that time to just decompress and relax and reconnect with your loved ones,” Jacqueline says.
Elizabeth and Jacqueline have come into their own as co-owners of Uniglobe, says marketing manager Peggy Rennick. Rennick joined the office 12 years ago after working as the franchise’s corporate office consultant. “When I started, I was more of a mentor to them. Over the years, they are learning more of those skills on the marketing and sales side,” she says. “They were not as comfortable sitting down and talking to the customer. Now, many times they don’t even take me anymore because they’ve become so competent.”
Elsie also is proud of the strides her daughters have made with the business: “I’m very fortunate that I have two wonderful young women. They’re decent people. They work hard. They’re kind. They’re smart. I mean, what more could a mother want?”
“I’ve got to write that down,” Elizabeth says. “I’m going to frame it.”
“And they drive me crazy,” Elsie says.
Michelle Davey is an editorial assistant and Jennifer Wray is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.
Reprinted from the February 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.