Family Legacies

Whether they work with spouses, siblings or grandparents, leaders of these six businesses hope their success carries to another generation of ownership.

By
From the February 2013 issue of Columbus CEO
  • Tim Johnson
  • Tim Johnson
  • Tim Johnson
  • Tim Johnson
  • Tim Johnson
  • Tim Johnson

There’s a simple secret to running a successful family business through multiple generations: Turn problems into opportunities. Though simply stated, this skill is less easily executed. The ability to turn the challenges of shared business and family life into commercial success is as precious as the power to transmute base metals into gold.

“More than 90 percent of family businesses say they want to get to the next generation,” says Dick Emens, executive director of the nonprofit Conway Center for Family Business.

To get there, Emens says, they must overcome three primary obstacles. First is lack of planning. Every family-owned business needs a business plan as well as a succession plan, the latter developed well before leaders reach retirement age. “The family members who are going to be involved need to have a real passion for whatever that business is,” Emens says.

Family dynamics is the second challenge that proprietors must turn to their advantage. Sibling rivalry, parent-child or spousal conflicts can derail the best-laid business plans. “Once those feelings are channeled toward productivity, we see the key to why so many family businesses are successful. [It’s] because they have that extra juice … of wanting the family to succeed,” Emens says.

The final challenge lies in implementing a governance structure that includes outsiders, says Emens. “When family businesses develop nonfamily advisors, whether with family counsel, with individual outsiders or an advisory board, then we have seen the growth of many family businesses leap ahead.”

The six family businesses profiled in this annual feature of Columbus C.E.O. have each alchemized such challenges into opportunity, through multiple generations and across various industries. From a 32-year-old father-and-son home building enterprise, to a fourth-generation metal fabrication company, to a husband-and-wife-led marketing firm, all shared the secrets of their success and tips to overcome the trials and tribulations along the way.

 

DaNite Sign Co. 

The DaNite logo is visible to commuters passing the company’s headquarters along Interstate 71 south of Downtown, but its signs stand tall across Central Ohio, from the Hilltop to Easton, from Huntington Park to the corner of High and Broad streets.

“We do signage for anyone from a guy starting a new business to Nationwide, Grange, OhioHealth or any number of clients,” says Tim McCord, 53, president and owner of DaNite Sign Co. (pronounced day-night). The company has been fabricating, installing, leasing and servicing signs since 1954.

McCord bought the business six years ago from Calvin Lutz, one of the company’s original employees; Lutz bought it in 1980 from founder George Tyler. Of nearly 50 employees, the average worker’s tenure is 12 to 14 years, he says. “I had a guy retire last year that had over 40 years with us.”

Son Josh, 19, an engineering student at Ohio State University, builds signs in the warehouse after school and between classes. Nephews Jeremy McCord, 36, and Noah Brown, 25, work full time in purchasing and as service manager, respectively.

An OSU alumnus, McCord began his career as a public accountant. After a six-year stint with a Bain Capital company in Minnesota, he struck out on his own. “I knew that I wanted a business that not only made stuff, but also had a design element to it. To me, when you’re dealing with design, especially if you’re dealing with somebody’s brand, you can’t get much more intimate than that,” he says.

Project engineer Michael Cox, a 25-year DaNite veteran, says McCord’s financial background kept the company healthy through the economic downturn. “Tim has been able to pick up the technical knowledge of the sign industry pretty quickly,” says Cox, who worked for two larger sign companies before joining DaNite. “It’s nicer working for a family-owned business. If you have something you need to deal with, the owner is here. They’re not out of the state someplace. It is nice being able to work with people on the personal rather than the corporate level.”

Though his son and nephews work alongside him, McCord says he’d never hire relatives just to keep the business in the family. “When I used to do consulting, I saw nightmares. But if someone’s good and I feel like we can provide them a good career path and enhance their career in case they need to leave or want to leave, then I’m OK with it.”

“He’s challenging, he really is. He puts a lot of things in my hands,” Jeremy McCord says of his uncle, who insisted Jeremy finish college as a condition of his hire. Family ties don’t yield preferential treatment, Jeremy says. “There are a lot of other employees here that all deserve the same attention that I get.”

Brown started as a janitorial temp in 2009 and was offered his current job after graduating from OSU. He’s kept DaNite up-to-date on dispatching technologies and recently implemented iPad minis in the service fleet. Brown says his uncle can be a tough boss, but they maintain a strong family relationship outside the office. “We kind of put that on the back burner,” he says. “I think he has high expectations for everyone and he gives everyone a full plate.”

Might DaNite be taken over by the second generation? “It’s so far out, it’s too difficult to even speculate on that,” says Jeremy. For the time being, Tim is focused on guiding the business through the changing marketplace.

Though the company made a few layoffs early in 2009, it was hiring again later that year. A shift in business also occurred then, as new commercial development waned and companies focused instead on rebranding and upgrading existing signs. McCord’s strategy: “Stay outside of the main process as much as possible so that the process works on its own,” he says.

“I can keep looking at how to make us better that way,” he says. “My goal is to be able to observe and coach.”

 

Fisher’s Gardens

Though Bee Fisher Kocher’s family ran a successful gardening business and her future husband was a landscaping student, they swear their romance was completely unrelated to horticulture.

“This was not in our future,” says Bee, 49, of the third-generation business she and Brian Kocher, 49, have run since 2002. Bee’s grandparents Raymond and Marie Fisher were vegetable farmers who built a greenhouse in 1947 in southern Franklin County to create a year-round growing operation; when neighborly requests for their hearty tomato and pepper plants took off, the seeds of expansion were sown.

The Fishers’ eldest son, Raymond Fisher Jr., and his wife, Grace, took over the greenhouse and produce sales in the 1960s and expanded the business into a retail nursery. Eventually, four of his six children—Bee is the youngest—worked in the family business.

At its peak, Fisher’s Gardens included 10 production greenhouses and a retail greenhouse. In 1989, the family opened a second retail operation, now the sole Fisher’s Gardens shop, located on state Route 256 in Reynoldsburg. Bee’s sister Deb operated that store until 2002. When she told Bee and Brian she was tired of the business, they decided to give it a shot.

Today, the Kochers spend most of their time at the greenhouse and managing a staff of 14 to 20 part-time seasonal employees. In much the same way that they finish each other’s sentences in conversation, they have distinct but complementary roles at Fisher’s Gardens. Bee is general manager in charge of scheduling, payroll and accounting, while Brian orders plants and maintains the grounds.

Though their friends warned them of the pressure the business would put on their relationship, the two have struck a balance between personal space and professional collaboration. “She has her side of the business that she takes care of. I have the other side of the business that I take care of. Of course, we talk and bounce ideas off each other, but I let her do her thing,” says Brian.

Though running a greenhouse may sounds like a hobbyist’s dream, the business has its share of stress. The economic downturn combined with recent severe weather events have been a double whammy. Over the past five years they haven’t replaced employees who have left, though they hope to add four staff members this spring.

“As with everyone else, we are just doing more with less,” says Bee. If things get tight, they may forego their own paychecks. Their college-aged sons, Sam and Alex, pitch in when called upon, and friends are always willing to help them out of a bind. “Generally we just work harder. On those days when we’re short-staffed, we’ve done it. But we know that it’s our livelihood. We want it to prosper,” says Bee.

Karen Anderson began working for the Fisher family 14 years ago. Today, she is a full-time employee and manages the greenhouse when the family goes out of town. Anderson likes the personal nature of her relationship with her employers. “Brian and Bee are very good at management. They’re very considerate of the families, very flexible,” she says. “I like [working for] a family business. It’s more like a home environment. I think they’re more approachable, more open to the [needs of] employees.”

“We can’t pay a whole lot but we give them that flexibility. And for us personally, that’s a lot of the reason why we’re still in business,” says Bee. When the boys were growing up, Bee and Brian took turns leaving early while the other would stay late.

Having grown up watching their parents work tirelessly, the Kocher sons don’t plan to take over Fisher’s Gardens when Bee and Brian retire. “They’d hear us complain at the dinner table at night,” says Bee with a laugh. “All they hear is the bad part. So they’re just like, ‘Why would you ever want to own your own business?’ ”

Bee and Brian say they can’t imagine making a living any other way.

 

The Kirk Williams Co.

Three generations of Williams men joke politely around the boardroom table as they talk about the past, present and future of the Kirk Williams Co., a mechanical fabrication and installation contractor.

Working for the fourth-generation family business is “just a normal day at the office” says patriarch and company President James “Jim” Williams Jr., 81. “Some days it’s fun and some days it isn’t.”

Jim learned the family business from his father, James “Kirk” Williams Sr., who recruited him as a laborer shortly after founding the company in 1949. After serving in the Korean War, Jim, his brother-in-law John Ubbing and father Kirk built a foundation for the still-growing company. Today, with 110 full-time employees, the Kirk Williams Co. faces big decisions over growth strategies and succession plans.

Jim still reports to work every day at 8 a.m. “I’m in reasonable health. I really enjoy the business, maybe I’m kind of addicted to it,” he says. Jim’s son, James “J.K.” Williams III, 58, the secretary-treasurer in charge of day-to-day operations, joined the company in 1971 just before construction began on the current 44,000-square-foot facility in Grove City. Like him, J.K.’s sons, Pat Williams, 31, and Nicholas Williams, 29, came to work for the business after college.

The expectations are higher working for family, though that bond generates “a little more forgiveness as well,” says Jim’s younger son, Joseph Williams, 43, the project manager and safety director who joined the company 20 years ago.

Each handles the challenges of the shared business/family relationship differently. J.K. says he struggles most to balance his role as father with his role as boss. “Being a manager or boss is pretty black-and-white. Being a father’s pretty grey,” he says. “Everybody wants to be able to continue a great family relationship, I sure do. So a lot of times you find a more tactful way of dealing with situations than you might with a regular employee who’s not a family member.”

Pat and Nicholas worked for the company part time in high school and have been employed full time as project managers since 2006 and 2009, respectively. Though a succession plan is still in the works, “Our long-term goal is to grow our share in the marketplace,” says Nicholas. “We really try to put a focus on having Pat, Joe and J.K. be the face of the company with our clients. [That’s] garnished a lot of respect for the quality of work that we do within the industry.”

The recently undertaken three-year succession plan includes strategies for communicating the company’s future direction to employees, many of whom are extended family members or have long tenures. “We have to make the decision to shrink or grow, there is no in-between,” says J.K.

“One of the major, major reasons that we’ve been successful is because of our community. Columbus has grown, and we’ve grown with it. We’ve been very fortunate that way. If we’d been in an environment where the community wasn’t growing, we’d have had a hard time growing,” says Jim, who after 60-plus years with the company his father founded, is proud to have given his children and grandchildren the opportunity to go to college or find meaningful work with the family business. “I’m sold on family business, with all the ups and downs.”

 

Pierce Cleaners

No one in the Pierce family planned to get into the dry cleaning business, but that’s the way things have turned out for three generations. Brothers Robert and George “Corky” Pierce founded Pierce Brother’s Cleaners following their return to Columbus from World War II in1946.

Today, Pierce Cleaners is run by Robert’s daughter Diane, 60, who serves as president, and her son, Phil Landauer, 33, the company vice president. Diane, a former teacher, was the only one of three siblings to go into the family business. Corky, who sold his share to Robert in the 1990s, died in 2007. Robert, 87, retired in 2009, but still reports to the North High Street business every day to lend a hand and have lunch with his grandson.

“I started something that I’m turning over to my kids and my grandkids. It’s something they don’t have to buy,” says Robert. He’s proud that his daughter and grandson have not just maintained but grown the business. “Usually second generations kill a good business, or third generations demolish it. They’re doing better. I just am thrilled the way they’re taking over. It’s sort of comforting to know.”

Phil grew up in the Clintonville laundry, running around with his brother, Chris, (now a teacher) and watching his grandfathers at work. Like his mother, Phil worked in the store after high school, though he never intended to take over. When his mother and grandfather considered selling Pierce Cleaners in 2001, Phil decided to join the business. “He never pushed me to this, but I know there was a sense of pride and a sense of excitement when I did decide to come on,” Phil says of his grandfather.

Phil has upgraded software and added satellite locations at the Nationwide and American Electric Power offices Downtown. Those were the sorts of challenges his grandfather and mother were hesitant to take on as they aged with no clear successor. “They’re at a stage in life that they’ve worked for 40 years or 60 years and can see the fruits of their labor and what they’ve done. I’m younger. … I want to run this and see things go,” says Phil. “The challenge is always finding a middle ground with that.”

Diane doesn’t have retirement plans yet, though she’s begun taking more personal time. “It’s not a business you can really retire [from]. I might slow down,” she says. The company has 18 full- and part-time employees, some of whom have been with the company for decades.

“The same people who were working here when I was a kid playing, running around this place are the same people that I’m working with today,” says Phil. Pierce’s turnover stems mainly from retirements, births or employee relocations; family members say they worked hard to avoid laying off employees during the recession.

Danielle Eakin has been with Pierce for six years, since she was a high schooler. After earning a degree in criminal justice, she returned to work part time following her night shifts at a correctional facility. “I like the fact that it is a very open environment,” Eakin says. “I’d gone off to school and come back. It worked very well with our schedules. I don’t think there are too many challenges, to be honest.”

Family members say they aim to create a family atmosphere with in-house promotions and trust—factors they say have been invaluable in cultivating staff loyalty and quality customer service. “[You] have to have people that have a pride in where they work and want it to succeed. Who want it to succeed even when you’re not looking, which is something that we’ve been lucky enough to find,” says Phil. “I don’t know that you can just manufacture that.”

Phil plans to grow the company by following the work ethic passed down by his grandfather. “I never thought I should make all the money in the world,” says Robert. “I make a good living and [I’m] passing it on to these people. I just hope they continue.”

 

Rick Kelley Builders

Rick Kelley and his son, Jeremy, have been building houses together since Jeremy was in kindergarten. Rick founded his company, Rick Kelley Builders, in 1980, just as he and his high-school sweetheart wife, Betsy, were raising Jeremy through the terrible twos. Rick ran his fledgling company out of a home office, balancing work with Jeremy’s school schedule. Jeremy spent his afternoons and weekends helping Rick on build sites while Betsy worked outside of the home.

Today, the father and son run the business together. Both credit those early years for their good working relationship. “We get along great, and I think a lot of it has to do with how much [time] we spent together when I was a kid. We never fight, we get along perfectly,” says Jeremy, 34, who joined the company full time 12 years ago.

Rick nods his agreement, but adds that it was a challenge at first to follow his son’s more modern ideas on running the business. He credits Jeremy with bringing the company into the digital age with cell phones, iPads and business software. “It was hard for me to just get a grip on all that,” says Rick, who questioned Jeremy’s push to buy computers when they had a perfectly good typewriter. Rick, 58, has since learned to trust his son’s instinct for technological innovation. “Now every time he comes up with something, it doesn’t take long for me to get on board.”

Jeremy faced challenges of his own when he decided to work for his dad. The contractors who had long-term working relationships with Rick, some for 20 years or more, still saw Jeremy as the little kid playing on their equipment rather than as Rick’s business partner.

“Not only was it an adjustment for Rick to bring him in and accept the way that we now think, but the contractors had a tough time. For those first few years, they didn’t want to talk to Jeremy. They wanted to talk to Rick,” says Betsy, 49. “Jeremy really had to prove himself. And he did. It just took time.”

The company had its best year in 2012, and made it through the housing crisis thanks to remodeling work from longtime clients as well as new business Jeremy has drummed up through social media and other low-cost efforts. Aside from the Kelleys, the business has one part-time office manager, Barb Davis, who is Betsy’s best friend. Like other builders, the company relies heavily on subcontractors.

George Pezzot, owner of Dino Pezzot Concrete, has worked with Rick Kelley Builders since the company was founded. “They’re great to work with—both of them. They’re great people,” says Pezzot, who appreciates the trust that comes from long-term dealings between family businesses. His father started Pezzot Concrete 50 years ago.

Rick and Betsy, who works at Nationwide, plan to retire in the next three to five years, leaving the business in Jeremy’s hands while they travel the country in their RV.

Much like his father, Jeremy once balanced parenting his daughter, Avery, with the business while his wife, Katelyn, worked. “You just can’t have two parents in consuming jobs,” says Katelyn, who now stays home with Avery. Katelyn edits company correspondence and occasionally accompanies Jeremy on client meetings.

Just like her dad, 10-year-old Avery has grown up in the business. She’s already honed her construction skills on several gingerbread houses and helped her grandfather repair the roof on her dollhouse. Avery says she would “probably” like to work with her dad when she grows up, but she’s also considering a career in figure skating.

If there isn’t a third-generation Kelley running the company, Jeremy plans to close up shop when he retires. “I’m not going to sell it and have someone else have his name on [Dad’s] company. If she doesn’t want it, that’ll be it.”

 

Three Leaf Productions

Ron and Lavita Stokes are small business owners in overdrive. The husband and wife balance their work with the basketball schedules of three children, the wedding plans of a fourth and side careers as a sports announcer and author, respectively.

“I don’t think we’re any different from any parent today,” says Ron, 49, Three Leaf’s president and CEO. The former Ohio State basketball player also works as radio announcer for his alma mater’s men’s hoops team and co-hosts Thad Matta’s radio call-in show. “Everybody’s busy and pressed for time. But we do prioritize. We go to all of our kids’ games.”

The couple purchased the marketing company from the Cleveland owner of Shamrock Productions, bringing Three Leaf to Worthington in 2002. As the business expanded, it moved to a 5,000-square-foot warehouse and office facility closer to the Stokes’ Gahanna home in 2009.

Separating family time from business time, as well as delineating the duties each manages, keeps things running smoothly, says Lavita, 49, vice president of finance. The pair, who have know each other since kindergarten, have a natural dynamic. “He and I work together as a team, we’re one unit. But we have an excellent team here that has the same values that he and I share. We know that if we’re not at this office, this office, our customers, whoever walks through that door, is going to be well taken care of,” she says.

Three Leaf has five full-time employees and seven sales representatives. “I can always contact someone at any time if I need help. I feel very open to call them or text them,” says warehouse manager and sales representative Darrin Carter. Working for a small business requires employees to wear many hats, though it also provides a “close-knit” atmosphere that’s difficult to find in the corporate world, says Carter, the Stokes’s nephew.

Ron and Lavita credit teamwork, disciplined management and good communication for the company’s success. “You have to be a good listener,” says Ron. “You have to develop a discipline of doing things consistently the right way, otherwise it’s going to be so chaotic.”

Lavita says she and Ron, who have known one another since kindergarten, have a natural dynamic. “Let me do my work and you do your work. If there’s an issue we’ll come together to resolve it,” she says.

The Stokes children grew up earning pocket money at Three Leaf, but so far none has emerged as a clear successor as Ron nears retirement. Laurel, 24 and soon to be married, is a special education teacher; Amber, 22, is a guard on the OSU women’s basketball team who plans to play overseas before pursuing a career with the FBI; Ron Jr., 17, plays for Gahanna Lincoln High School and plans to study business or sports management in college; Sydney, 16, also plays for Gahanna Lincoln and wants to be a zoologist.

“Even though this company that he and I have may not be the road that they will take for their success, I think in the long run it teaches them about responsibility,” says Lavita. They’ve met with succession planners and will sell the company if none of their children want to take over the reins.

“I would like to have my kids, or at least one of them, want to come up in the business. It’s hard work, but the hardest part is those first three or four years,” says Ron. “Not that they wouldn’t have to work hard, but at least they’d have a jump start on owning their own business.”

Kitty McConnell is a reporter for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the February 2013 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.