Anniversaries

Celebration Corner: Ralph's Italian Restaurant's 120th anniversary

The Business: Ralph’s Italian Restaurant, located in South Philadelphia, is the oldest continuously operating Italian restaurant in the United States. The previous holder of the title, Fior D’Italia in San Francisco, closed in 2012 and reopened in December of that year under its fourth owners. It closed again temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jimmy Rubino Jr., a fourth-generation co-owner of Ralph’s, notes that even before Fior D’Italia’s 2012 closing, “we had the distinction of being the oldest same-family Italian restaurant in the country. We were already used to being that and having that feeling.”

Francesco Dispigno and his wife, Catherine, immigrated to the United States from Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples. In 1900. they opened a restaurant on Montrose Street in South Philly and named it after their son, Ralph (Raphael). In 1915, they moved the business to a larger location on South Ninth Street, where the restaurant remains today.

“Both Francesco and Ralph were very charitable and involved with the community,” says fifth-generation family member Alexis Rubino-Ofchinick. “They would sponsor immigrants to come over [to America].” They gave the newcomers a job and a place to stay on the building’s third floor. In 2000, Ralph’s centennial year, the third floor opened as a dining room and party space.

Ralph Dispigno took over after his father passed away in the 1930s. During the Depression, Ralph and his wife, Mary, sold spaghetti and meatballs from their front door for 5 cents a plate. During Prohibition, they surreptitiously served wine in coffee cups.

When Ralph Dispigno died in 1972, ownership passed to his four children. Today the restaurant is operated by fourth-generation brothers Jimmy Rubino Jr. and Eddie Rubino.

The menu has changed over the years to keep up the times and with diners’ changing tastes. Tripe and sweetbreads fell out of demand, “but we’ve started featuring them back again. They have a cult following, it seems,” Alexis says. “We try to stay current but also keep true to our roots.”

The restaurant’s reputation extends beyond Philadelphia. “We have people come from all over all over the country, even all over the world. And it’s really humbling,” Alexis says.

When Ralph’s comes up in conversation, she says, people often tell her about their marriage proposals at the restaurant or reminisce about celebratory meals there.

Ralph’s has been featured many times on the Food Network, on ABC’s The Chew in 2012 and on PBS’s No Passport Required this year. “It’s funny how many people actually know Ralph’s outside of Philadelphia,” Alexis says.

Ralph’s has served a long list of celebrities, including Theodore Roosevelt, Joe Biden, Heather Locklear, Pat Sajak and Vanna White, Tommy Lasorda, members of Philadelphia’s professional sports teams, Jack Klugman, Danny Bonaduce, Dom DeLuise, James Darren and Taylor Swift (who, according to a report, left a $500 tip on an $800 check).

Jimmy recalls a celebrity encounter when he was a 6-year-old busboy in a red velvet vest. “I remember meeting this guy who became friendly with my grandfather. He’d pat me on the head.” That customer was Frank Sinatra, who performed with the Rat Pack at Palumbo’s, a restaurant and nightclub around the corner from Ralph’s. “They would come and eat,” Jimmy says. “Like, this was normal. I was never in awe. I don’t get starstruck.”

Ralph’s has survived two world wars, the flu epidemic that devastated Philadelphia in 1918, Prohibition, the Great Depression and the Great Recession. And it continued to serve customers during COVID-19 via takeout, delivery and outdoor dining. It was closed for only one day in March before shifting to takeout and delivery. It began serving customers outdoors in June, when the city permitted restaurants to do so, and resumed limited-capacity indoor dining on Sept. 8, when city restrictions were further eased.

“We are so blessed,” Alexis says. “I mean, of course there’s the dedication and the hard work and the sacrifices that have been made. But I’d be lying if I said we didn’t feel as though there were some sort of divine intervention as well.”

Because the restaurant still operates in the building that Francesco and Ralph purchased all those years ago, the family didn’t have to worry about making rent during the pandemic. Their resilience also has helped them survive a situation that has felled dining spots nationwide.

“Growing up, my mom made it very clear that sacrifices had to be made to keep this restaurant going,” Jimmy says. “So we understood at an early age what we had to do, and we did it. We put blinders on, kept our head down and just worked 60-, 70-hour weeks. And so that was one aspect — my mom laying the groundwork as far as what we had to expect.”

Continuity requires a mix of consistency and innovation, Jimmy says. “A restaurant that’s as old as this, you get comfortable. And we started to see that.”

When business started to return after the Great Recession of 2008-10, the family realized they needed to make changes. Jimmy’s son Ryan, who had returned to the restaurant in 2011 after graduating from Hofstra University and working in marketing in New York, pushed Ralph’s to develop a social media presence. Ryan also advocated for the use of third-party delivery services.

Jimmy admits to being skeptical about deliveries at first. “I was being old-fashioned, growing up with old-fashioned views from my family carrying them down,” he says. “Needless to say, thank God we did, because 10 years later, that’s keeping us afloat.”

Ralph’s has a foyer that takes up most of the sidewalk space in front of the restaurant, limiting outdoor dining opportunities. The family secured permission to set up tables in front of its neighbor Sarcone’s Bakery, a fifth-generation business that’s the restaurant’s bread supplier. Large parties were seated in the yard of Jimmy and Eddie’s mother, Elaine Dodaro, who lives in the house next door.

The family has had other ventures over the years: Ralph’s branches in suburban Ambler, Pa., and King of Prussia, Pa., a market/BYOB and a grab-and-go food store. Bar One, a bar across the street from Ralph’s that was co-owned by Ryan and his sister, Gabrielle, along with cousin Anthony Barone, opened in 2016 but did not survive the pandemic.
In 2017, the family launched Gravy Joint, its first foray into “virtual dining” — delivery-only restaurants. Gravy Joint offered homemade pasta with a rotating menu of sauces and gravy (as red sauce is known in South Philly). Because its food was prepared in Bar One’s kitchen, Gravy Joint was temporarily suspended when the bar was put up for sale. The family hopes to relaunch it and has other virtual dining concepts on the drawing board.

The Family: Today, Ralph’s is co-owned by Jimmy and Eddie Rubino and their mother, Elaine Dodaro. Other family owners were bought out in 2017 after a dispute over the King of Prussia site and a plan to franchise Ralph’s nationwide. The franchising plan is currently on hold.

Ralph Dispigno Jr., Elaine’s nonagenarian brother, came into the restaurant regularly before COVID-19 struck. “He would shuck the clams and just be a presence,” Alexis says.

After Ralph’s location in King of Prussia closed in 2019, Jimmy’s children, who had been running the suburban outpost, found jobs elsewhere. Ryan is currently working in sales for Samuels and Son Seafood, a restaurant supplier. His sister Gabrielle is a sales rep at Stryker Surgical Technologies.

Eddie’s daughter Alexis, who managed Ralph’s in Ambler, left the business to raise her family. She recently opened her own bakery and also helps out with Ralph’s marketing and social media. Her two sisters, Sydney and Olivia, have careers in special education.

“We have the next generation of family kind of just sitting there waiting for when the time is right for them to come back,” Jimmy says. “So that gives me and my brother and my mom a lot of peace of mind, knowing that it doesn’t end with us.”

Jimmy and Eddie grew up in the house next door to Ralph’s, and Alexis lived in that home with her grandmother, as well. She recalls doing her homework at a desk her grandfather had built in the bar area. “It’s home for me,” she says of the restaurant. “And I know that my father, my uncle and my grandmother would say the same thing.”

The Celebration: Ralph’s had to strike a delicate balance when planning an anniversary celebration during a pandemic that devastated the restaurant industry and jeopardized the health of people nationwide. “I didn’t want anyone to get the wrong impression,” Jimmy says. “We were very careful how we did it, because I didn’t want to come off like, ‘The end of the world is happening, and here they are, celebrating their 120th anniversary.’ So we tried to do it tastefully.”

Jimmy and Alexis created a virtual celebration on the restaurant’s Facebook page during the month of May. Ralph’s officially turned 120 on May 17.

“Engagement with the loyal customers was how we wanted to celebrate,” Alexis says. “We really wanted to honor those people that have been so loyal to us through the years. Social media has been an incredible tool for connecting.”

All month, Ralph’s Facebook page featured old photos of the restaurant, famous guests, Dispigno/Rubino family members over the years, menus and other artifacts from the past, and photos of signature dishes.

One post featured Joel and Marlene, a couple who marked their 60th anniversary this year. They sent the restaurant photos of themselves and their family “celebrating all of their milestones in our various dining rooms,” Alexis says.
Customers were invited to participate in a couple of contests. One was a Ralph’s trivia game. Faithful followers of the restaurant’s Facebook page could find the answers embedded in posts earlier in the month. Restaurant gift cards were given as prizes.

Another contest involved recipes submitted by customers. The winner earned a gift card, and Ralph’s plans to include the winning recipe on its menu.

The restaurant’s centennial celebration in 2000 included the publication of a book, Ralph’s Italian Restaurant: 100 Years, 100 Recipes. Jimmy and Alexis are planning an update that will incorporate 20 additional years of history and 20 more recipes. The project was delayed as Ralph’s focused on adapting to COVID-19, but uncle and niece say they hope to complete it by the end of the year. (He plans to make some changes to the existing recipes and add the new ones; she will write the historical section.)

The intent of the anniversary celebration, Jimmy says, was “showing our gratitude for the people who stood by us. Because let’s face facts, if it weren’t for the customers, we’ve got nothing.

“We never take it for granted. We would not be Ralph’s without them.”                                                                      

Copyright 2020 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.     

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Celebration Corner: YESCO's 100th anniversary

The Business: YESCO, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, produces and services signs, lighting and other display systems. The company has created some of the most memorable signs in America, including the 80-foot-tall Hard Rock Café guitar sign and the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, the sign atop General Motors headquarters in Detroit’s Renaissance Center, the Olympic rings for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre sign, the Reno Arch in Reno, Nev., and the sign and fascia that covered the front of Las Vegas’ former Stardust casino.

Founder Thomas Young was 15 years old when his family immigrated to Ogden, Utah, from England.
“He loved to draw, he loved oil painting, he loved to hand-letter,” says Jeff Young, YESCO’s third-generation senior vice president and chief marketing officer. Thomas quit school, got a job at a sign shop and then realized he could be successful on his own.

In 1920, Thomas, at age 25, borrowed $300 from his father and started the Thomas Young Sign Company, going door to door to peddle his services. His specialty was lettering in reverse on the back of glass windows so the text would be protected from the elements. He did a lot of gold leaf work and also lettered on trucks, brick walls and brass name plates that morticians attached to coffins.

A born entrepreneur, Thomas hired a team to help him manufacture signs and grow the business.

“He added on some tremendous people that stayed with him the rest of their lives. And that included some very gifted fabrication people,” Jeff says.

One of these hires, Ben Jones, became the company’s engineer. “It was Ben who, in the ’20s and ’30s and through the ’40s and ’50s, designed most of the large displays that you would know and recognize in historic Las Vegas,” Jeff says.

When the expansion of the team, the company was renamed the Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO). In 1927, it began manufacturing neon tubing and sold neon signs in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada.

The company began serving Las Vegas in 1932, one year after gambling was legalized there. YESCO’s first Vegas clients included the Boulder Club on Fremont Street, whose neon sign.

“Soon after, the Pioneer Club and all the other clubs said, ‘I want something bigger and brighter than that,’ ” Jeff says. In 1945, the company opened a branch in Las Vegas.

Thomas Young Jr. — Jeff’s father — joined the business in 1942. He was the only one of the six second-generation siblings to take an interest in the family company.

Thomas Young Jr. — today known simply as Thomas Young — was named president of the company in 1969. His father died in 1971.

Under the second-generation leader, the company doubled in size four times, Jeff says. Much of that growth occurred through acquisition.

Among those acquisitions was Western Neon, which built the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. YESCO acquired the company in the early 1960s.

“In the process of acquiring Western Neon, we acquired the title to the sign as well as the lease contract [with] the county,” Jeff says. “We’re out there at least weekly, just keeping it running.”

Over the decades, YESCO has embraced a succession of technologies — neon, incandescent bulbs, fluorescent lamps and plastics, flexible materials and computer operations.

The advent of LED lighting technology in 1996 enabled YESCO to develop big-screen electronic message centers. “Some of the largest systems in the world came from us and have been installed by us and are still maintained by us,” Jeff says.

Today, Jeff estimates, only about 20% or 30% of YESCO’s business comes from casinos. “Outside of Las Vegas, we do a tremendous amount of work for every business you can think of, every municipality you can think of. Hospitals and hotels that are not casinos, car dealerships —anybody that needs a sign, we’re pretty much on it.

“And then we love to service them. Once a sign goes up, we want to take care of it for the life of the sign.”

Following the 2008-10 recession, the company built up its maintenance and repair operations. In addition to its 40 service offices in 11 Western states, the company developed and marketed a service franchise model. Today, besides its 40 Western locations, YESCO supports 71 other offices in the United States and Canada. “We can functionally get anywhere in North America pretty easily with our staff and equipment for service,” Jeff says.

YESCO also manufactures custom signs, posters and promotional materials (even yoga mats). In addition, the company has a billboard operation.

“We’ve been able to put up our messages on our billboards, celebrating our hundred years,” Jeff says.
Many of YESCO’s vintage signs can be found in the Neon Museum in Las Vegas. The company retains the title to those signs, which are on loan to the museum. About half of the items in the museum’s collection were produced by YESCO.

“That race for bigger and brighter signs is still happening today,” Jeff says. “Everyone’s trying to outdo the other hotel-casinos with something bigger and brighter. We’re still in the middle of something that really started with my grandfather.”

There’s “a lot of emotion” tied to putting a sign on a building, Jeff says. “There’s so many other aspects of business that are important for a company, but the sign, it just matters so much. When [YESCO’s clients] finally get their signs up and put their name on the building, it’s the culmination of a lot of effort and time.

“We felt the same way when we put our signs up on the building we built about 12 years ago in Utah.”

The Family: In 1969, Thomas Young Sr. gave the controlling stock to his son and namesake, although the founder continued to work for the company until his death in 1971.

“There was no payout; there was no sale of the company,” Jeff says. Significantly, the move enabled the generational transition to occur without saddling the company with debt.

When it came time for the second-generation Thomas Young to transition ownership, “my father substantively did the same thing, although it took him longer than a stroke of a pen, through the gift tax,” Jeff says. “He was able to, over a couple of decades, gift the controlling stock to a trust.” Jeff and his two brothers, Mike Young and Paul Young, are co-trustees of the voting trust.

“That whole act, basically giving the company to the third generation without asking for a payout, put us in a marvelous position going forward. Because then, in terms of transition to the fourth generation, it just becomes a matter of naming new trustees.

“So my grandfather and my father really cleared the way for us to keep the business going without all the complications that a lot of family businesses face when there is a buyout of some kind.”

In addition to the voting shares, there is also common stock, which is held by various family members, most of whom don’t work for the company.

Like his father before him, Thomas Young, 92, has continued to work; he is celebrating his 78th year with the company. “He loves the business, he loves the products, loves the customers, he loves life, he loves the action of neon, he loves this new LED technology that’s just pervaded everything that we do. And we just love working with him,” Jeff says.

Jeff’s brothers Michael Young and Paul Young serve as YESCO’s CEO and executive vice president, respectively. A brother-in-law, Stephen Jones, is president. Patriarch Thomas Young is chairman of the board.

Fourth-generation member Ryan Young is a vice president and regional manager. Another fourth-generation member, Josh Young, is president of YESCO Franchising.

About four other G4 members also work for the company. The most recent G4 to join the company full-time is Paul’s son Thomas Young, the third family member with that name to work at YESCO.

In 2016, Jeff appeared on the CBS television show Undercover Boss. In the episode, he had to overcome his fear of heights to replace bulbs on a sign.

The Celebration: YESCO created a “100 Years” section on its website, featuring photos and stories highlighting the company’s history.

The company produced a video series to mark the occasion, featuring current and historic footage and interviews with family members, customers, employees and other stakeholders.

“We went out and interviewed anyone that we knew who knew my grandfather when he was still alive,” Jeff says. “So it was a wonderful commemoration of our founder.”

YESCO had scheduled events to celebrate with employees and their guests at each of its major locations. As of early March, three of these events had taken place. About 600 people attended the Salt Lake City event, held in February. Celebrations were also held in Denver and Los Angeles.

The remaining events will probably not be held because of COVID-19, the company says. Among the canceled celebrations is a Las Vegas party, which was expected to draw about 550 people.

Although the main purpose of the parties was to celebrate employees’ commitment to the company, some key suppliers and customers were invited, as well.

The Planning: Conversations about how to mark the anniversary began in 2017, Jeff says. Jeff worked with the marketing team, relying especially on the recommendations of Annette Gaddis, a longtime marketing department member who, like many of her YESCO colleagues, is the daughter of an employee. (There are also some third-generation non-family employees at the company.)

“I give Annette a lot of credit for her insights, because she’s planned a lot of events in the past,” Jeff says.

Jeff describes the anniversary events as among the most stressful in his career, up there with rebranding 250 bank locations over a weekend or turning on the Olympic rings in Salt Lake City a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“For me, the anxiety came from making sure that our employees and our guests all felt what we were feeling in our own hearts. We wanted to project such a great feeling of satisfaction and of 100 years of hard work for so many people. And so much gratitude, for so many reasons. That’s what we worked really hard to convey — they would feel how deep the emotion really ran, and how much we really appreciate their service and sacrifice.”

About 75% of YESCO’s employees work in fabrication, installation or service, Jeff notes. “They’re up high, they’re in the wind, they’re in the rain, they’re in the snow, they’re in dangerous situations, working with high-voltage electricity.

“We’re just so grateful for all their hard work and sacrifice. It’s not an easy business. It’s a custom manufacturing business, so there’s nothing that gets mundane, and there’s always a surprise around every corner. That makes it fun for us, but it also makes it very challenging.”

Because of YESCO’s focus on signage and branding, it was important to ensure the decorations, the graphics, the video content, the menu and “the feel of the room” were on point, Jeff notes. All of those efforts were completed before the pandemic.

The Response: At YESCO’s 50th anniversary celebration, which took place a year before Thomas Young Sr. passed away, a photo was taken of the founder and his wife, Elmina, with a cake.

The Young family beamed with pride at the Salt Lake City centennial celebration, held on Feb. 20, when Thomas Jr. and his wife, Dwan, posed with a 100th anniversary cake.

“We had a band playing, and the lights came on, and we cut the cake. The whole event, for us, it was a dream come true,” Jeff says.

Jeff says his father had had some health setbacks before the celebration. “To have him here for the 100th was a remarkable experience for us.”

Having the extended family at the celebrations was “a great opportunity to expose the wider family to what we do and what opportunities might exist,” Jeff notes.

At the three events, there were “a lot of tears shed, for all the reasons,” Jeff says.

“I mean, we have employees whose parents may have worked for us in the past, who have since passed away, and they weren’t here to celebrate with us. And [the employees] are looking back, wondering what [their parents] would have thought.

“We have the same thought in our minds: What would the founder and his wife, our grandmother, think if they could be sitting here today? What would they be saying? What would they be feeling? It evokes some really deep emotions.”

The videographer who produced YESCO’s commemorative videos found an 1922 invoice for brushes and gold leaf from a company called N. Glantz. That company, also a family business, is still a YESCO supplier. The discovery of the invoice made the owners of both businesses emotional, Jeff says. “Can you imagine a supplier relationship that’s endured nearly 100 years?”

YESCO has similar long-term relationships with customers. Some of those companies also recently marked 100 years, such as Salt Lake City companies Woodbury Corporation, a real estate development and management business (founded in 1919), and Okland Construction (founded in 1918).

Key Bank, which does business with YESCO, put up billboards congratulating the company. “If you can imagine this, they paid for billboards from us commemorating our hundred years,” Jeff says. “Key Bank put ads up for us, thanking us for decades and decades of business.”

The Advice: Jeff says the YESCO team researched other companies’ milestone celebrations to generate ideas.

“You need to celebrate in a way that would be the most meaningful for your group,” he recommends.       

Copyright 2020 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.    

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Celebration Corner: Centier Bank's 125th anniversary

The Business: Centier Bank currently has 64 retail locations throughout Northern and Central Indiana plus a corporate campus in Merrillville, Ind. In April, the bank passed $5 billion in assets, a significant milestone.

Mike Schrage, Centier’s fourth-generation president and CEO, credits the bank’s success to its privately owned status, as well as “a commitment to strong cultural values and a servant leadership mindset, both internally and externally.”

The family first came to the state in 1854, when German immigrants Christoff and Fredricka Schrage settled in Lake County, Ind. Two years earlier, the Michigan Southern Railroad line had reached the area that would become the city of Whiting.

Christoff and Fredricka’s son Henry opened a general store. His wife, Caroline, ran the store whFour generations of bank leaders.ile Henry worked for the railroad. In 1871, the store added a post office, with Henry as postmaster.

In 1889, Standard Oil used local “straw men” to acquire land to build a refinery in the area, in order to hide the identity of the real buyer and keep prices low. Henry, who had sold about 50 acres of family property to the oil company, became a straw man.

On April 21, 1895, Henry founded Bank of Whiting, capitalizing the bank with his earnings from the Standard Oil land deals.

Henry’s eldest son, Henry Jr., became a teller at Bank of Whiting and rose to vice president; he died in 1928 at 58. The youngest son, Walter, joined the bank as cashier. In 1917, Walter became president of the bank.

Henry Sr., who remained chairman of the board, bought two square blocks and built a 12-bedroom house, known as the Schrage mansion, on one of them. The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church later acquired the Schrage mansion property and used it as a rectory.

When Standard Oil established the similarly named State Bank of Whiting in a nearby location in 1931, the Schrage family’s Bank of Whiting fought back by extending its hours to 8 p.m. on Standard Oil paydays.

Henry Sr., who died at 88 in 1932, ensured the bank’s survival during the Great Depression by putting his estate in trust to back bank deposits. Henry’s heirs couldn’t touch the assets until 15 years after his death, the amount of time Henry predicted the country would need to recover from the Depression.

Walter, named as trustee of the trust, took over as bank chairman after Henry died. Walter had served as mayor of Whiting from 1914-1929.

Walter’s son Walter Jr., known as Wally, joined the bank as a clerk in 1933 but left to in 1937 become president of Straub Pianos Inc., which had been repossessed by the bank and reorganized after going bankrupt. In 1941, the piano company was sold and Walter Sr. died suddenly at 56. Wally, 28, was named as his successor.

Doris Smith, Walter Sr.’s executive assistant, ran the bank unofficially while Wally grew into the position. In 1944, Doris and Wally married.

Under Wally’s leadership, the bank’s name changed (albeit only slightly) to First Bank of Whiting in 1960. Its first branch location opened in 1963.

Wally’s son, Mike, attended Denison University. Although he originally planned to become an athletic coach, he earned an MBA from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and joined the bank to open a branch in Dyer, 15 miles south of Whiting. He attracted the public to the grand opening by offering helicopter rides.

Several years later, Mike moved to Whiting to work with his father. Although the board rejected his suggestion that the bank change its name, he developed innovative advertising campaigns.

Mike created a trust department in 1975 and bolstered commercial lending. In an acknowledgment of the bank’s expansion past Whiting, in 1976 it began calling itself simply “First Bank.”

Mike was named bank president in 1977. In 1980, he formed a holding company to acquire other banks. First National Bank of Crown Point and Southlake National Bank were acquired in 1982.

Other than those acquisitions, Mike says, the bank has been built “one branch at a time.”

Growth by acquisition, he says, “can be, and was at the time, culturally disruptive. The legacy I want to leave is the culture of the bank — not the size or the number of offices or the stock value or any of those types of things.”

“Our culture is all about family and it’s all about community,” says Mike’s son-in-law Anthony Contrucci. “Yes, the family did a lot of things in the private sector entrepreneurially, but they also equally did a lot of things within the civic arena.”

At the time of Wally’s death in 1982, First Bank of Whiting had 12 banking offices and more than $250 million in deposits.

The bank faced a crisis in the early ’80s. Mike had hired a senior lender so he could focus on expansion. The senior lender made bad loans that he buried in the books, hoping regulators would move to shut the bank so he could acquire it. When the FDIC threatened to close the bank, Mike developed a plan to save it, including austerity measures, lower deposit rates and higher interest rates. Loyal associates and clients stayed with the bank and Mike’s wife, Jill, pledged her inheritance.

The bank developed a 401(k) and an employee stock-ownership plan. An annual meeting, now called the Celebration of Excellence, was instituted to share information 

on bank performance with associates and present service awards. Each year, the event has a different theme (including costumes) that is kept secret until associates arrive.

In the late ’80s, a new board member encouraged Mike to change the name of the bank, a move Mike had wanted to make since 1972. A firm was hired to devise the new name, Centier — a combination of the word “Century” (since the bank would celebrate its centennial in 1995) and “Premier” (part of the bank’s vision statement). In announcing the 1991 name change, Centier Bank also noted that it was founded on Center Street and puts clients at the center of attention.

In the mid-1990s Centier leased a space in Merrillville and centralized operations staff in one building. It later bought property and built the Centier Corporate Centre, which opened in August 2008. About five years later, the bank added another building across the street, completing the corporate campus.

In 1999, Mike launched a “Not For Sale” marketing campaign and pledged that current and future associates would split a $1 million penalty if Centier were sold before 2010.

“Mike is a banker, obviously, but he fell in love with marketing,” says Anthony. “His premise is, ‘How do I differentiate the bank?’

“It hasn’t been just product or rates. It’s always been about culture. That’s how he’s been able to so successfully differentiate and grow the bank over the past half-century.”

In 2009, the city of Whiting learned that the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church would vacate the Schrage mansion. The city took over the property to save it from demolition, and the Schrage family committed to contributing $100,000 to a restoration project.

During the Great Recession, Centier took a $95 million loss from its investment portfolio. The bank needed to be recapitalized, and Mike didn’t want to take funds from the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

Mike asked his sister and her children as well as his daughters and sons-in-law to contribute funds to recapitalize the bank. The family (including the families of his two sons-in-law) contributed millions of dollars.

In the decade after the Great Recession, Centier doubled in size and entered the Greater Indianapolis market. In 2015, it opened a downtown Indianapolis retail branch. Centier became the largest bank in Northwest Indiana in 2017.

The Family: There are 27 Schrage family members in the fourth through sixth generations, of whom about 16 are shareholders.

Mike’s wife, Jill, began working in the marketing department, focusing on special events, after her three daughters reached school age. She has been semi-retired since 2018.

Mike’s two sons-in-law both work for the bank. Chris Campbell, married to Mike’s eldest daughter, Laura, is senior partner in lending. Anthony Contrucci, married to middle daughter Melissa, is vice president of community and business development.

Melissa serves as special events coordinator for the bank, and Stephanie, the youngest daughter, works with her father on business and board governance.

Anthony notes that the bank has taken an inclusive approach to married-ins throughout its history. “In literally every single generation, the spouses played a crucial role.”

At several points in the bank’s history, the family has been “all in,” contributing personal funds to shore up the bank, Anthony says — “stepping up to protect our associates and to preserve hometown community banking.”

“Henry made the biggest commitment that I can think of, back in Depression times, when he put up his entire estate to cover any shortage on bad loans,” Mike says. “His kids and the other family members got nothing for 15 years. He certainly set the example of personal commitment.

“I’ve tried to live up to that as best I could, over the last 48 years, through some trying times.” Through the current economic downturn, he says, “We’ll be as committed as Henry was.”

The Celebration: Mike considers the centennial celebration “an opportunity for myself and the family to thank all the associates we have, and all the clients and the community that stand by us through thick and thin.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a 125th anniversary gala that had been set for April 19 has been rescheduled for Aug. 30. On Tuesday, April 21, associates throughout the state had small celebrations, documented in a photo gallery on the bank’s Facebook page.

“I wanted [the gala] to be special, and it still will be special,” even though it won’t be held in April, the month the bank was founded, Mike says. “We have even more time to plan it and refine it, and come up with additional things to make it special.”

A history book, entitled Centier Bank: A Family Legacy, was published early in the year. Although the family had previously looked into the past for the bank’s centennial and the opening of the Corporate Centre, the focus of those efforts was on the bank. The new book emphasizes the family history.

Two copies of the book will be placed in each bank office: one on the coffee table in the waiting area, and one for associates to peruse at their leisure.

The family is also in the process of building a museum that will be located in Centier’s Whiting branch, which dates to 1910. The museum will take guests on a journey starting in the early 1840s, when the Schrage family immigrated from Germany. It will cover the family history through 1895, along with the history and growth of Whiting, and then continue on with an in-depth look at Centier’s evolution from 1895 to 2020.

A corporate historian hired to help the family review and catalog the old photos and archival material continues to work with them on a part-time basis.

The 125th anniversary will also be celebrated in a video. “It will cover some of the history and the highlights, but more importantly, it will pay homage to our Centier family,” Anthony says. The video will spotlight the associates’ contributions to the bank and the community.

Centier is creating a time capsule to be buried on the Merrillville campus, Anthony says. “Our goal is to bury it for 25 years and have it dug up in 2045. And the people who would dig it up would be the sixth generation — my children and my niece and nephew.” Among the items to be included in the capsule are a letter from Mike, a copy of the history book and Centier logo T-shirts.

The bank bought a trolley, decorated with the 125th anniversary logo, which it will use in parades and special events. The trolley might also be used to take participants in the Foundations program — the bank’s three-day orientation for new associates — from the Corporate Centre in Merrillville to visit the Whiting branch and tour the museum.

The Planning: “It all started with the book,” Anthony says of the celebration planning process. About six or seven years ago, he says, he and his sister-in-law Stephanie chatted at a conference with a business family who had just completed a history book.

The idea of a Schrage family history book appealed to them.

“Over the years, we’ve done a nice job of documenting some of our history, and using it as an asset in how we market. But we — our generation, in particular — really wanted to take it to the next level.”

The Schrages engaged a publishing firm that specializes in family business history books amply illustrated with historic photos. They wanted a partner who had the technological capability to restore old and damaged pictures and “bring them back to life,” Anthony says.

The book is candid in its discussion of the bank’s ups and downs over the decades, as well as pivotal events in Mike’s life.

“We can list a lot of characteristics of strong leadership, but I think to be transparent and humble are big factors,” Mike says.

“The more you share with people, the easier it is for them to understand why you are the way you are and the journey that you’ve been on. If they only know the high points, they’re going to think this is a cakewalk. And it isn’t.
“To me, it’s a great opportunity, for the future generations in our family and other people to appreciate what’s been done up to this point, the sacrifices that have been made for the greater good of the legacy of the community bank.”
Research for the book branched out into other projects, such as the museum, Anthony says.

“We were trying to find all these old assets — old pictures, artifacts, you name it. So we started digging through our marketing department, we started digging through branch attics and basements, family home attics and basements.”

An ongoing project involves digitizing the images, which will be stored on a content-management system that will be indexed for easy retrieval.

Acquiring the trolley was also a complicated process. “First it was, where do you find it? Then it was, what features do you want on it?” Anthony says. “We knew we wanted one that you could drive in all seasons. And then you have to figure out how you decorate it. And that was a whole other process. It took a long time.”

The Advice: Mike recommends starting early with planning for a major business milestone: “It’s not something you want to put off till the year before.”

He says he’s been thinking about the 125th anniversary celebration for five to 10 years. “As I would read different stories about other companies or leaders, it would jog me into writing things down, like, ‘Hey, in eight years when it’s our 125th, we might want to do something like this.’

“Take advantage of the time to celebrate and enjoy,” Mike advises.    

Copyright 2020 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.                                                                     

 

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Celebration Corner: Zoeller Company's 80th anniversary

The Business: August “Pop” Zoeller started designing and building pedestal sump pumps in the basement of his Louisville, Ky., home in 1939. The business operated from there until 1949, when he moved to the location where the company headquarters remains today.

The company developed as both a manufacturing and a distribution business. Pop’s four sons managed the two arms until 1959, when there was a split. Two brothers took the distribution business and the other two, Robert and Jerry, took the manufacturing business. (The distribution business — Masters’ Supply, a plumbing wholesaler in Louisville — is now owned by an ESOP.)

In 1984, Robert bought out his brother’s stake in the manufacturing company. Robert ran the business until 1990, when he retired. Non-family executive Don Fleming succeeded him.

Robert’s son John Zoeller, who joined the company in 1989, was named president and CEO upon Fleming’s retirement in 2003.

Today, the company has 1,100 employees worldwide and eight divisions. Manufacturing is done at four domestic locations as well as in Canada and Taiwan. Zoeller Company products are sold in more than 50 countries. Though Zoeller is primarily a wholesale business, it offers some products to the retail and omni-channel markets through its Star Water Systems brand.

The company headquarters, originally 3,000 square feet, is now 300,000 square feet. Zoeller’s Center for Excellence training facility offers hands-on technical experience and an overview of the company’s products.

The Family: In addition to CEO John Zoeller, four other family members work in the business. John’s son Bill Zoeller runs Zoeller Pump Company. Bill’s cousin Chris Zoeller is the operations manager in Louisville. Another cousin, Anthony Huntchman, is an engineer, and a third, Dale Dueffert, works in sales.

Robert Zoeller and his wife, Clara, had 10 children. Shares in the business have been gifted down through the generations. Bill estimates that about 100 family members own stock in the business. There are 44 members of the fourth generation and more than 40 G5s.

The Zoellers have a family governance body that they call a family business council. The council has about 50 general members, who have voting privileges. There are also auxiliary members, who don’t vote, and associate members, who receive communications but don’t vote or attend meetings.

“There’s lots of attachment to the business, regardless of whether people work there or not,” Bill says.

The Celebration: The company kicked off its 80th anniversary events with an ice cream social on July 25.

Robert Zoeller’s motto was, “Life is short; eat dessert first.” In his honor, the company incorporates ice cream and desserts into its celebrations, “just to kind of keep that memory alive,” Bill says.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Robert would pack a station wagon full of pumps and set off to drum up business. Sometimes his wife and children would join him. As an homage to those days, John and Bill visited all 28 of Zoeller’s U.S. manufacturers’ representative agencies and customers in what they called a “roadshow.”

“We were using ‘80 customers in 80 days’ as kind of our mantra, but we saw a lot more than 80 customers,” says Bill, who guesses the actual number was more than 200. “We were on the road pretty much the whole third quarter.”

The anniversary festivities ended with an open house on Saturday, Oct. 5. Invited guests included employees and their families, former employees, Zoeller family members and four community organizations the company supports.
“We invited them to the factory, gave a mini plant tour and just had some fun,” says Bill.

A company history book is also in the works.

The Planning: The complicated logistical arrangements for the roadshow began around mid-May. The amount of time spent in each territory varied according to the size of the territory and flight schedules. Customers were notified of the dates when John and Bill would be in the area, and appointments were scheduled.

“Once we got the logistics of where we were going to be, it flowed pretty good,” Bill says. “I only missed one dinner due to a flight delay.”

The roadshow covered 42 states. Bill traveled to 32 of them. “John kind of picked which ones he wanted to go see, and I took the rest,” he says.

Bill estimates the travel budget for the roadshow came to about $75,000. The company’s 28 sales rep agencies, along with some people from the sales and marketing team, were involved in the arrangements.

A team of eight employees planned the open house. The planning process began in February 2019.

The Response: The roadshow was “a huge success,” Bill says.

“Everyone’s been real appreciative of the effort to come into their territory. When you think about business today, so much of it is transactional. So the message that we were portraying to our customers is that we’re owned and operated by the family. We do have a family atmosphere in our business.”

Customers liked the personal touch. “You don’t see presidents and CEOs going out and just thanking customers for their business,” Bill says. “It wasn’t a true sales call; it was a thank-you call. Everyone was welcoming.” Many of the customers’ companies are family-owned as well.

The open house drew approximately 300 people — about 100 more than had responded to the invitation.

“A lot of the younger employees actually brought their parents, to show them where they work.”

Former employees reminisced about the old days. “Those conversations were great,” Bill says.

The Advice: “Go big or go home,” Bill says.

“You only turn 80 once. We kind of swung for the fences with the roadshow.

“It’s really how we started, by building those relationships. And [now] our job is to maintain them on a different level.”    

Copyright 2020 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.    

                                                   

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Celebration Corner: Jazzercise Inc.'s 50th anniversary

The Business: As a pigeon-toed toddler, Judy Ann Sheppard (later known as Judi Sheppard Missett) enrolled in dancing lessons to straighten out her gait. She showed a clear aptitude for dance and was performing by the age of 3. At 13 she was teaching and performing competitively. As a student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., she studied jazz dance with Gus Giordano and worked as a professional dancer and choreographer.

In 1969, Giordano wanted Judi to teach a class for mothers of his students, called “Jazz Dance for Adult Beginners.” Faced with a 90% dropout rate, Judi asked people why they had stopped coming and learned that the class was too challenging for them. They didn’t want to be professional dancers; they just wanted to look like them. Judi responded to the feedback by creating routines that were “simpler and more fun,” accompanied by good music. The class grew exponentially, and Jazz Dance for Fun and Fitness was born.

In 1971, when Judi and her husband, Jack Missett, moved to Oceanside, Calif., Judi started teaching the class there, capitalizing on the perception that “California is about health, fitness and beautiful bodies,” she says. The class was renamed Jazzercise in 1977. Judi gave up performing and began teaching 25 to 30 classes a week until she developed nodules on her vocal cords. Told by a doctor to cut back, she began training other women to teach the classes. By the early 1980s, there were more than 1,000 Jazzercise instructors all over the country, many of them military wives who had moved away from California.

Attorneys and accountants advised Judi to change Jazzercise’s business model to make the instructors either employees or franchisees, instead of independent contractors. “I wanted people to feel empowered, so we opted for the franchise model in 1983,” she explains. By 1984, Jazzercise was declared the second-fastest-growing franchise behind Domino’s Pizza. “Domino’s puts the calories on, and we take them off,” Judi quips.

Today there are 8,300 Jazzercise franchisees in 32 countries, and Jazzercise earns about $100 million per year. With 200,000 customers dancing and sweating to Jazzercise choreography in 32,000 classes every week, millions of lives have been touched during the company’s 50-year history. Jazzercise’s dance fitness program continues to evolve.

While some people may think of Jazzercise as “your mother’s workout from the ’80s, with leotards and leg warmers,” today’s Jazzercise offers high-intensity, 60-minute classes that fuse cardio, strength, Pilates, hip-hop, yoga and kickboxing. Routines change every 10 weeks, and multiple formats provide variety.

Jazzercise has been known for innovations throughout its history. Its many fitness industry “firsts” have become the status quo in today’s group fitness classes, including: choreography to Top 40 music, introduction of new routines on a regular basis, an extensive training program and certification for instructors, and a store offering fitness apparel.

Judi emphasizes that Jazzercise is a “workout program for every body.” Instructors encourage customers in a judgment-free zone and provide modifications for challenging routines.

People stay with Jazzercise for an average of four years and attend an average of four classes per week. Customers tend to socialize after class. The company also has a longstanding tradition of giving back and has raised more than $28 million for a wide range of causes.

The Family: Judi, 75, is the CEO and sole owner of Jazzercise Inc. She says she surrounds herself with good people and listens to them. “Passion is like a magnet,” she says. “It attracts other people who have passion.” She says her willingness to change has sustained the business and given it resilience. “Having a good balance between mind, body and spirit keeps you centered, allows you to make good decisions and move forward in the right way,” she adds.

Her daughter, Shanna Missett Nelson, 51, is president of the company. Shanna says she wears “many different hats.” She splits the “constant and ongoing choreography” with Judi; serves on the leadership team, which develops long- and short-term goals to guide the direction of the company; oversees Jazzercise Apparel; and manages the corporate studios in Oceanside and Carlsbad, Calif. Shanna, who has been a Jazzercise instructor for 30 years, enjoys “finding new talents and mentoring and watching people become good at their jobs.”

Jack, 75, is the owner and founder of JM Digital Works, which produces the videos Jazzercise distributes. He emphasizes that not actually being an employee of Jazzercise has allowed him and his wife to have “52 years of wedded bliss.” He says the key to Jazzercise is sharing the joy of movement. “Get people on their feet and let them be dancers, and see the personal relationships that develop,” he says.

Two nieces are also part of the company. Joan Missett Gambill, 56, sales manager, had her “aha moment” when she became a Jazzercise instructor at the age of 18. She started Jazzercise classes at Chico State University, in Italy during her junior year abroad and then in San Francisco. Now, based out of her home in the San Diego area, she helps other Jazzercise franchisees to grow their businesses.

Kathy Missett, 49, executive adviser, focuses on building the perception of Jazzercise as a continually evolving program that changes people’s lives while improving their fitness. She joined the company in 2000 as vice president of marketing, following the example of her mother, Sandy, who is married to Jack’s brother. Sandy worked at Jazzercise as Judi’s assistant until she retired.

Judi’s granddaughters, ages 16 and 13, are already performing and teaching children’s classes. As for Judi, she has no plans to retire.

The Celebration: For Judi, the 50th anniversary celebration was about the sense of connection brought about by Jazzercise as well as a way of giving back to those who have been part of it. To celebrate her own 50 years of teaching and running a business, she has written a book, published by McGraw-Hill: Building a Business with a Beat: Leadership Lessons from Jazzercise — an Empire Built on Passion, Purpose and Heart. As she tells it, the goal in sharing her experience is to “empower others to embrace their passion, trust their instincts and go for it!”

Jazzercise celebrated its golden anniversary with a two-day international convention and party June 28 and 29 at the San Diego Convention Center. The event featured dance fitness classes taught by instructors from around the world, live entertainment, international guest performers, reminiscences and connection. Three thousand customers and instructors attended, including 17 of the original 30 instructors, some of whom are still teaching classes.

Jazzercise holds annual sales meetings, but conventions are now spaced a little further apart. The previous convention took place in 2016 in Palm Springs, Calif. The next convention is not yet in the planning stages. The 50th anniversary convention was special because of its emphasis on the history of the business.

The weekend began with behind-the-scenes tours of the corporate offices and a festive Friday night gala in which Judi’s granddaughters, Skyla and Sienna Nelson, danced with their friends, Jazzercise’s Japanese instructors put on an energetic performance, and Judi honored and recognized 13 of the original instructors. Saturday was a day full of dance fitness classes. An interactive museum chronicled Jazzercise’s influence on the industry, such as the class flow (warm-up, building intensity, cool-down) and instructors’ use of microphones. Specialty 50th anniversary merchandise was offered for sale, as was Judi’s book. Fans waited in line for her to sign their copies.

“We always celebrate any milestone, but this is so special,” Judi says. “We wanted to celebrate the fact that we have touched so many people over the years, and to bring those people together so we could celebrate the physical commitment and the joy of 50 years of Jazzercise.

“Also, I don’t know how many women have founded a company and been with it for 50 years — this alone is worth celebrating.”

The Planning: Planning began about 2½ years in advance. Everyone in the company was involved at some point. Tasks included securing the convention center and hotels, planning the classes and selecting the talent to present, writing the gala show, designing and ordering apparel to sell in the store and putting together a museum for the event.

The planning team paid special attention to the look and feel of the celebration. “We wanted to make sure our customers got the best, most authentic Jazzercise experience while celebrating this milestone with us,” Judi says.

The Response: “It was so cool and energizing to be part of something huge and international. There’s nothing like dancing in a room with 3,000 people,” says Kathy Rogers of Friendswood, Texas, who has been a Jazzercise customer since 1985. Rogers adds that when the convention closed with the classic disco song “Last Dance,” people were getting emotional.

Renee Baumler of Irvine, Calif., who has been a Jazzercise customer for “19 years and counting,” enjoys the program because of its “fun, knowledgeable instructors, great company, great music and whole-body routine.”

She adds, “The topper is being part of an organization 50 years strong and being able to celebrate that milestone with thousands of other Jazzercise members!”

Sue Grassi, a 28-year Jazzerciser and 10-year in­structor, says the convention heightened her sense of the Jazzercise community. “We’re like one big family, and Judi is so real,” she says. Grassi, who is from Webster, N.Y., near Rochester, enjoyed connecting with people from all over the world, hanging out with fellow instructors, taking a variety of “really good classes” and touring the corporate headquarters. She also appreciated the little touches, like professional signage and multiple fitness formats.

Shawn Masse, of Tustin, Calif., who has taught Jazzercise since 1987 — “back when we used a Califone and 45 RPM records,” appreciated “the details that made the convention center feel like our own facility.” The highlight of the convention, she says, was “to feel the extra energy that comes from being part of a company where you can get 3,000 people to come and jump around.” Masse adds that the convention demonstrated Judi’s “infectious way of bringing out passion. It’s a special thing.”

The Advice: For owners of businesses approaching a milestone anniversary, Judi’s celebration advice is simple: “Do it,” she says.

“Be proud of who you are and celebrate in a way that lets you acknowledge all those who have been involved along the way — both employees and customers. I think it’s important for people who work for you — with you — and your customers to give themselves credit for their involvement in your celebration. Thank them!” 

Ilene Schneider, a freelance writer based in Irvine, Calif., has been attending Jazzercise classes on a regular basis since 2006.

Copyright 2020 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

Building a community

When Family Business Magazine debuted in 1989, business leaders who had grown their companies after returning from World War II service were passing the baton to their baby boomer children. Today, those baby boomers are ceding leadership to their own kids.

In the late 1980s, business schools had only recently realized that family enterprise extended beyond mom-and-pop shops. Prior to that time, MBA students were steered to careers in public companies, which they had been taught to regard as more “professional” than family firms. By the end of the decade, a higher percentage of business school grads were expressing interest in joining their family businesses.

The Family Firm Institute, an association of academics and consultants, had been established in 1986, but few family business owners knew where to turn for help in resolving the dilemmas that arise at the nexus of family and business. To help meet that need, Family Business Magazine began publishing our directory of advisers in 1993.

Family Business has also connected family business owners with each other. Some of the families we’ve featured in print and online are household names; others have enjoyed great success while maintaining a low profile. These families have generously shared the issues they confronted and the strategies they implemented to address those issues — not just the techniques that worked, but also those that didn’t. Such stories have helped readers realize they’re not the only ones who have had to fire a family member or mend a rift that began a generation ago.

Our conferences have been powerful opportunities for family business members to connect with each other and share experiences in a candid and confidential environment. Their connections have lasted well beyond the dates of the conference. Attendees have struck up friendships, visited each other’s businesses and even joined each other’s boards.

Through our magazine and events, we have built a community of wise and accomplished families who are committed to peer-to-peer learning. These families have demonstrated through real-world experience that governance — creating policies, agreements, activities and working groups to promote family unity and business success — is the way to work your way out of family business challenges.

The centerpiece of our 30th anniversary celebration is our special section in this issue spotlighting 30 families who have made exceptional progress in governance. Each of these families took a unique approach to the process, centered on their family culture and values. Though there are similarities in some of the approaches, no two are exactly alike.

These 30 inspirational stories prove there are many ways to begin a governance journey. Some families got started because there was a problem that needed fixing. Others realized there were issues on the horizon that needed to be addressed proactively so they wouldn’t affect the business or the family.

It doesn’t matter how you start, or why. Just the process of starting is a major step forward. We offer a community to support you as you take that important step.

Copyright 2019 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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Dueling Perspectives: Carolyn Brown and Dave Juday

A company anniversary, like a wedding anniversary, offers a chance to reflect on the past and plan for the future.

Mannington Mills, based in Salem, N.J., and IDEAL Industries, headquartered in Sycamore, Ill., both celebrated a century in business in 2016. Mannington Mills manufactures commercial and residential flooring. IDEAL Industries makes tools and supplies for the electrical and telecommunications industries. Each company is still owned by the founder’s descendants.

Carolyn Brown, a fourth-generation member of Mannington Mills’ founding Campbell family, serves on the company’s board and started the Campbell Family Council. She was a part of the group that spent years planning Mannington Mills’ centennial celebration.

Dave Juday is IDEAL’s former chairman and CEO. The same year the business marked its centennial, IDEAL moved to a new manufacturing plant, and the family set up perpetual trusts that would protect IDEAL stock and ensure the company would remain family-owned through future generations.

As Family Business celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, we reached out to Brown and Juday for their thoughts on marking company milestones. We asked each of them: Why are anniversaries important?

Carolyn Brown, Mannington Mills:
“[Celebrating] is important for several reasons. First, it is a time to get the wider family together to celebrate family history and to launch the family into the next decades of ownership. Second, it is a chance to bring the family and their associates, distributors and customers that work or support the family business together in a celebration and to thank them for their support. And finally, it is a chance to market and relaunch the family brand into the future through advertising, events and collateral.

“I think you can celebrate too often, and it would lose its significance. [A big celebration] should mark a significant anniversary for the company or possibly a significant change. If you do them right, they take a lot of planning, time and cost. If it is a less significant anniversary — 10 to 20 years as an example — the celebration could be scaled down with a picnic or smaller fete.”

Dave Juday, IDEAL Industries:
“Celebrating an anniversary is about acknowledging the past while taking action for the generation to come. I once had a thought, ‘I’m doing a better job that my dad did running the company.’ I was appalled that I said it out loud. That’s not how you talk about people, that you’re better than someone else. You acknowledge what they did and that you have to do better.

“The value of reflection is to provide you the guidance of what you cannot do that was successful in the past. You need a fresh view of the market and the family condition. But by dwelling too much in the past, you can really miss some significant opportunity.”

Copyright 2019 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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Celebration Corner: Family Business Magazine's 30th anniversary

The Business: Milton L. Rock, Ph.D. (1921-2018) joined Edward N. Hay in 1949 to establish a compensation and human resources consulting firm and became the Hay Group’s managing partner. Milt’s son, Robert H. Rock, joined the firm and worked alongside him. At the time of its sale in 1984, the Hay Group had 2,000 consultants and 90 offices in about 25 countries.

In 1980, Hay acquired a small company that published a quarterly journal, Directors & Boards. The governance journal helped promote Hay’s services to top executives.

When the Hay Group was sold, the Rock family bought back the publishing unit. Bob stayed on as CEO at Hay until 1987, when he joined his father and their longtime partner Charles E. Fiero at the publishing venture, called MLR Holdings LLC. The business grew to include Mergers & Acquisitions (now owned by SourceMedia), a chain of 16 newspapers (sold to Journal Register Company in 2001) and a financial information provider, IDD Enterprises (sold to Dow Jones in 1995), among other businesses. Today, MLR Holdings owns and operates MLR Media, the parent company of Family Business Magazine and other media properties, as well as Uptime Institute, the global leader in data center certifications, and 451 Research, a leading provider of business intelligence for the technology markets.

In September 1989, MLR launched Family Business Magazine. At the time, business schools were just starting to recognize the importance of studying family enterprise. Family business consulting had emerged as a professional specialty, but most business families didn’t know where they could go for help. What’s more, they were unaware that other family business owners were facing similar challenges.

An internal staff memo prior to the launch of the magazine said, “a market exists for a publication called Family Business because no other magazine seems to be serving the interests of this market adequately — and because people in the family business market seem to want such a magazine.”

The first employees of Family Business worked out of an old Victorian house in the small town of Great Barrington, Mass. In the summer of 1990, the magazine’s operations moved to Philadelphia, MLR’s home base.

Like other owners of privately held family companies, the Rock family took a long-term, values-based view of their business. The publication changed its format from a monthly glossy magazine to a quarterly journal in 1992. Family Business again increased its trim size and became a full-color publication in 2006. A fifth annual issue was added in 2008, and the magazine became a bimonthly in 2012. Family Business has published a digital newsletter since 2003 and now also connects with its audience through a variety of digital platforms and live events.

Bob, who succeeded his father as MLR’s chairman, says he, Milt, Chuck and Leonard Zweig, Family Business Magazine’s first editor-in-chief, “saw family businesses as the backbone of American industry.

“We believed we could help enhance both their businesses and their families by providing advice and guidance on how best to address their opportunities and challenges. By helping to professionalize their management and governance, we thought we could help raise the image and the status of family businesses, which were often viewed as ‘ma and pa shops.’ ”

Family Business Magazine has received regional (2010, 2011, 2012, 2018 and 2019) and national (2011 and 2019) Azbee Awards for editorial excellence from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and a Tabbie Gold Award, a national honor, from Trade Association Business Publications International (2011).

Family Business, which had presented conferences in the 1990s and early 2000s, developed a new conference series, Transitions, in 2010. Transitions has provided a venue for family business stakeholders to meet each other in a confidential, no-selling environment with an emphasis on peer-to-peer learning and networking. Family business panelists and speakers share their experiences, describing the challenges they have faced and the strategies that have helped them along the way.

Building on the success of Transitions, Family Business introduced the Private Company Governance Summit (presented jointly with MLR Media publications Directors & Boards and Private Company Director) in 2013 and the Family Business Generational Wealth conference in 2016.

The Family: Bob’s wife, Caro U. Rock, became publisher of Family Business in 2005. After a career in finance, Caro had joined the family’s newspaper business in 1990 and five years later founded and led a weekly paper, Main Line Life, which reached more than 15,000 readers in Philadelphia’s western suburbs. Main Line Life was named “Best Suburban Newspaper” multiple times by the Suburban Newspaper Association.

Caro herself grew up in a family business in Kansas City, Mo., that manufactured and sold Ceresota and Heckers Flour, Wheatena and Maypo hot cereals and Patio Chef Charcoal.

In 2018, the Family Firm Institute honored Caro with its Barbara Hollander Award for professional achievement.

MLR became a third-generation family business in 2008, when Bob and Caro’s son Bill Rock joined the company. Today, Bill is president of MLR Holdings and works alongside his parents at the company’s Philadelphia headquarters.

“For 45 years I worked with my father — 15 at the Hay Group and 30 at MLR,” Bob says. “For 20 years I have worked with Caro, and for over 10 with our son Bill. I have been blessed to be able to go to work with the family I love.”

The Celebration: Family Business Magazine’s publishing team felt strongly that the 30th anniversary celebration should focus on business families and governance excellence. This decision was made in accordance with MLR Media’s mission to provide public and private company directors, leaders and owners of multigenerational family businesses and C-suite executives with knowledge and skills to be successful in their roles.

Thirty family businesses or enterprises that have made exceptional progress in governance are profiled in this special anniversary edition of the magazine. Members of several of these families will speak about their governance journeys at the Transitions Fall 2019 conference in Newport Beach, Calif., Nov. 6-8.

“Since for 30 years we have been covering the dynamics, complexities and challenges that family businesses face, we felt it was the correct decision to make them our focus for this special anniversary issue,” Caro says. “We all know how difficult it is to sustain a company beyond the third generation. As a result, we have enormous respect for what these companies have accomplished in their stewardship.

“We hope that Family Business Magazine has, in some measure, helped them survive and thrive into the future.”

New one-year subscriptions to Family Business are being offered at the special price of $30 (regularly $79) in honor of the 30-year milestone.

A party for the Family Business Magazine team is planned for later this year.

“I am proud that for three decades Family Business has contributed to the advancement of the field and has continuously underscored how good governance of family businesses can lead to improved business performance and family dynamics.” Bill says. “I am fortunate to have been on this mission with my grandfather and my parents. Working together has brought us closer, and I have been honored to learn from them for over a decade.”

The Planning: The idea of honoring 30 exceptional business families was first raised at an MLR Media editorial committee meeting in early 2019. Honorees were nominated by Family Business team members as well as members of the magazine’s editorial advisory board. The editorial and publishing teams discussed the candidates and narrowed the list down to the final 30. Honorees were notified in late May.

The Advice: Family Business Magazine has championed family companies’ celebration of their longevity and has encouraged them to publicize their major anniversaries. The magazine began publishing a list of the oldest family companies in 1999 and has continued to update the list.

Family Business has published this “Celebration Corner” section, highlighting family firms’ milestone celebrations, since 2015. Readers have told the editorial team that they use this section as a guide when deciding how to celebrate their own business anniversaries.

Successfully managing the challenges to family business sustainability — which can arise on the family side as well as the business side — is truly something to be celebrated. Through our magazine, digital offerings and conferences, Family Business is committed to helping our audiences reach the next big milestone.                                                             

Reflections on entering the third generation

By Caro U. Rock

I was never sure that Bill would come into the family business, but I am delighted that he has. I knew he could add valuable perspective and insights into how to operate and expand our business. Of course, just as we tell our family business audience, it is best to work outside the family company prior to entering the family enterprise, and that is exactly what Bill did.

What has made our business relationship successful is three-fold: respect for each other’s opinions; adherence to and understanding of our family values, i.e., integrity, work ethic, community responsibility and teamwork; and the freedom to explore new opportunities. We also give each other space to operate.

My husband and I now have four granddaughters, and we couldn’t begin to guess what fields they will go into. They might opt for the family business. I just hope we are around to see the legacy continue into the fourth generation!

Copyright 2019 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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Celebration Corner: Jensen Precast's 50th anniversary

The Business: As a high school student in Reno, Nev., Don Jensen worked part-time pouring and selling concrete parking curbs. In 1967, he went to work for a friend of his father’s who owned a business called Washoe Septic Tank Service, an excavating contractor that manufactured, installed and pumped septic tanks. The owner offered to sell Don the precast and pumping portion of the business. On Feb. 14, 1968, the sale was completed.

What started out as a one-man business today has 800 employees and 12 manufacturing facilities in Nevada, California, Arizona and Hawaii. The company manufactures 22 product lines for use in highway construction,
retaining walls, electric and gas utilities, telecommunications, water, on-site wastewater and sewage
applications.

As Don was running his new business, he was also serving in the U.S. Army Reserves. Although he wasn’t sent to Vietnam, he was an active member of the Reserves until 1972, the year he bought the company’s first manufacturing site in Sparks, Nev.

In 1978, the company entered Las Vegas in its first expansion. According to Don’s daughter Jill, that initial growth spurt represented a major challenge for the founder. “It was really huge for him and his company to venture out like that to another area,” Jill says. “It was quadruple the work, in his opinion; it wasn’t just double.”

A further expansion occurred in 1981, when Jensen Precast opened a branch in the Northern California city of Roseville. (The Roseville facility moved to Sacramento in 1995.)

After moving into Northern California, Don began combining geographic expansion with product diversification. In addition to septic tanks, he started making precast concrete products for underground utilities. “That opened a huge door for the company,” Jill says. “He just continued that growth.”

Another significant point in the company’s history was its acquisition of Brooks Products, a precast concrete company in Fontana, Calif., in 1997. “He put all his chips on the table for that growth,” Jill says. Today, it’s known as Jensen’s Fontana branch and is the company’s most profitable location.

Jensen Precast has continued to grow by acquisition in addition to organic growth.

Today, the company has seven California locations. It has been operating in Arizona since 2002 and now has branches in Phoenix and Tucson. Jensen also entered Hawaii in 2002 and over the years has leased property in Honolulu and Kapolei.

In 2017, the company purchased the property it had been leasing in Kapolei; it’s currently expanding and improving the manufacturing facility there.

Jensen started its MetalTech metal fabrication division, based in Reno, in 2010. MetalTech engineers and manufactures steel, aluminum and galvanized materials for subsurface utility enclosures.

In 2015, the company combined its pump stations, stormwater systems and on-site wastewater systems into
one initiative, Water Resources, in Sparks.

Don “pushes very hard for growth and expansion,” Jill says. “He just has that in his personality. What we’re doing now in our family council is trying to transfer his knowledge. We’re trying to find out why he made those decisions.”

The Family: Don, 72, is the sole owner of the business. His son Eric, 51, is president. Don’s other son, Kurt, 49, is general manager of the Sparks branch. Eric and Kurt joined the company in 1985 and 1987, respectively. Jill’s husband, Fred Mayorga, a maintenance technician at Jensen MetalTech, is the only married-in working in the business.

Don’s daughters Jill, 47, and Megan, 36, are co-chairs of the family council. Jill has worked at Jensen Precast since 1989 and has been involved in sales, accounting, marketing and property management. Megan has worked in the company since 2006 in a variety of roles, including customer service, inventory control, estimating, sales management and oversight of Las Vegas production facilities.

The family has engaged a consulting firm and has been holding regular family meetings. They are in the process
of developing a set of agreements and policies that will help the second generation function smoothly as business
partners in the future.

There are three members of the third generation, whose ages range from 10 to 17.

“We talk about family issues in our family council so they don’t bleed over into the business,” Jill says.

The Celebration: “The family decided that we wanted to celebrate with all of our employees, and also celebrate throughout the year,” Jill says.

On Feb. 14, 2018, parties were held at all locations. These celebrations featured food, cake and giveaways. Employees received a tumbler and a hat with the Jensen Precast logo. They also got a $100 gift certificate to Lands’ End Business (the retailer’s corporate apparel unit), which they could use to acquire a clothing item of their choice featuring the 50th anniversary logo and the logo of one of the branches.

Each branch put its own spin on the party by choosing the food on offer (for example, pizza and wings at the corporate office, hot dogs and hamburgers at MetalTech).

The Hawaii branch held its event outdoors, and team members at the Water Resources office played “Jensen Bingo.” Don visited four company locations on the anniversary day.

Other events are scheduled throughout the year. The family and leadership team are spending 2018 traveling to company branches for additional celebrations: Southern California in January, Arizona in April, Northern California in May, Reno/Sparks in July and the Las Vegas area in December. These visits include a luncheon and a special anniversary program.

The program opens with a presentation by Jill on the company history, followed by remarks from Eric focusing on recent achievements and the company’s plans for the future. Then the management of the branch location discusses the history of the branch and forthcoming major branch projects.

The luncheon agenda includes a talk by a representative of the local Boys and Girls Club. Jensen Precast and its employees support the organization through a matching-donation program.

Each branch celebration concludes with a service award ceremony honoring employees who have been with the company for five years or more.

The Planning: The family council took the lead in planning the celebration. Jill began working about a year in advance; Megan later joined her. They have called on employees from several departments for assistance. The first step involved creation of a 50th-anniversary logo. An outside graphic design company was hired to develop the logo. Jill and the Jensen marketing team then considered where the logo would be placed and how the milestone would be publicized and commemorated.

The planning team also ensured that each location received the supplies it needed for its events and that employees were well informed about the dates.

Among the items being distributed to employees is a thank-you letter from the family. A Spanish-language version of the letter has been produced for employees who are native Spanish speakers. Although the marketing department was the most heavily involved in the planning, Jill worked with each branch office manager and general manager to plan events at the branches, Jill says. The HR department assisted with the service awards presented to employees.

The Response: The company encouraged team members to share memories of working at Jensen Precast on an intranet site set up to mark the 50th anniversary. “We are able to respond and say, ‘Thank you, and we appreciate you,’” Jill says. The company also invited employees to submit photos of themselves sporting their logo apparel. Those who do will be entered into a drawing to win a $100 gift certificate.

Congratulatory emails from employees have been circulated among family members. “The family is getting feedback from the employees,” Jill says. She says employees have been enjoying the celebrations. “They like having the family come to the branches to say thank you, meet them and talk about the history.”

The Jensens are having a good time, too. “We did determine early on that not every family member could make it to every single event throughout the company, but that we would make every effort possible,” Jill says. The third-generation members join their parents for branch visits as often as they can. Family members started traveling to branch locations as a group several years ago at the urging of their family business consultants.

“That’s where we really became united as a family, because we were able to see that we had a shared goal, a shared vision,” Jill says. “Family is very important, but the very next thing on our list is our employees: how much we appreciate them and want to take care of them and be able to meet them,” Jill adds.

Planning the celebrations, she says, has been “a lot of work, but very rewarding. This is the highlight of what I do.”
The Advice: “My advice would be to start early,” Jill says. “At least a year in advance would be my recommendation.
And try to include as many stakeholders as possible in the celebration.”

Jill says her family is proud to have sustained their business for half a century. “We’re enjoying celebrating,” she says. “We know that a lot of companies don’t make it to 50 years, and a lot don’t transition well to the next generation. That’s something that is a priority for us, and that we want to stay focused on.”  

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Celebration Corner: Crescent Jewelry's 175th anniversary

The Business: The history of Crescent Jewelry Company begins in 1842, when R.E. Lackner opened a jewelry, camera and general mercantile store in Hannibal, Mo. Lackner had three children: two sons, Lyman and Linus, and a daughter, Lucy, who married Lewis Heiser, also a jeweler.

When Lackner decided to move his business to Paragould, Ark., Lucy and Lewis stayed behind and started their own store, the Heiser Jewelry Company.

Bobby Heiser, 69, the fifth-generation owner, was always puzzled by his ancestor's move to Arkansas. "I don't know why they chose Paragould, of all places," he says. "They built a nice, beautiful store there, but things slowed down." In 1907, the Lackner side of the family moved to Brownsville, Texas, where they opened what Bobby Heiser calls "one of the finest stores in Brownsville." The 1907 move to Brownsville was easier to understand: A jeweler skilled in watch repair would get a lot of business in a railroad town like Brownsville, since precisely tuned timepieces were critical to running the railroad. The Brownsville store, Bobby says, "was always much larger than what we were here."

Meanwhile, in Missouri, multiple Heiser children and in-laws had joined Heiser Jewelry Company. By 1923, the store had become very crowded. The family started another store, called Crescent Jewelry, which is what survives today. (The original Heiser Jewelry Company was sold in the late 1970s.) Lucy and Lewis's son Alvin (Bobby's grandfather) married Veda Erickson, who ran the store with her brother, Edwin "Pete" Erickson.

Alvin worked in the business for about four or five years, then spent some time in Mexico building a railroad. He later returned to the store and worked there until his death in 1944.

Bobby's father, Robert L. Heiser, became an optometrist and partner in the store with his mother, Veda, and uncle, Pete. Young Bobby joined the business at the tender age of 7, walking to the store after school instead of going home. There, he would polish rings that his father and great-uncle had repaired or resized, standing on a little stepstool built to help him reach the polishing wheel.

"In third grade I was a good speller, so I'd take the engraving machine home and do that at home Sundays, [while] watching TV," Bobby says. "If I got it wrong we couldn't sell it, so we had some silver at home with doilies on it to cover up the wrong names."

Bobby especially credits his great-uncle Pete with teaching him the business, more so than his father or his mother, who worked at the store only occasionally. "I sold my first 1-carat diamond at age 13," Bobby says. "It was a big deal. We didn't sell a lot of large stones before then. Hannibal isn't a wealthy, rich town."

Bobby Heiser, fifth-generation owner of Crescent Jewelers.At that time, it was common for jewelers to be optometrists also. Bobby's father clearly enjoyed that part of the business. "He was a bit shy and didn't want to take the blame for bad decisions, so he had me making decisions," Bobby says. "He didn't like selling because he was afraid he'd say the wrong thing and lose the sale."

Crescent Jewelry today has seven employees: four full-time and three part-time. None are family, but all have been there a long time, says Bobby. One employee who began working at the store in high school is still there, celebrating her 41st year at the company.

Between 1969 and 1970, when Bobby returned from college, the store experienced a key growth period. "We bought the building next door and expanded," Bobby says. "That was when we carried sterling flatware and china. We added more engagement rings and bigger diamonds. My dad didn't like big diamonds, but you can't sell from an empty case." Like most jewelers, Crescent now sells some giftware but no tableware; customers today want stainless and stoneware instead of the sterling, crystal and china that earlier generations coveted.

The Family: Bobby and his wife, Donna, are the sole owners of Crescent Jewelry. Bobby's older sister, Judy Heiser Pratt, never wanted to be part of the store. Judy left Hannibal when she got married.

"I love her, and we get along really well and we probably could have worked together, but she didn't enjoy working in the store, and I did from the time I was 7. I have a passion for it," Bobby says. "I was the Number 1 salesman from the time I was 14 or 15."

When Alvin died, Veda inherited half the store. The other half was split between their two children, Bobby's father and his aunt, Toby Evelyn.

Bobby's father took a different approach to estate planning. "It took a long time to buy his sister out, so my dad set it up that my sister got the CDs [certificates of deposit], the [life] insurance, et cetera, and I got the store. He knew that was what I wanted," Bobby says. "When my sister never showed an interest in the store, he'd buy her cars and stuff, and it sort of evened out. So often you get two siblings in the store, and if all they do is fight, it is terrible for the business."

Bobby and Donna have no children. "I've had three nieces and a nephew work with me, but it wasn't for them, and they went on to other jobs," Bobby says. "I worked 60 to 70 hours a week, but I have a passion for it. It's something I always loved my whole life." Donna comes into the store sometimes, he says, but she doesn't officially work there.

Bobby's cousin, Robert H. Lackner—also called Bobby—owns R.H. Lackner's Fine Jewelry & Gifts, a descendant of the Brownsville store. That store and Crescent are separate entities. Bobby Heiser's and Bobby Lackner's fathers had a friendly relationship, but distance took its toll on the two G5 cousins, who lost touch over the years.

The Celebration: Plans are under way for Crescent Jewelry's 175th anniversary celebration. The store will hold a two-week sale in fall 2017. Bobby Heiser's plans for the celebration all revolve around the store's roots in the community and the many generations that have shopped there. He intends to give away a 1.75-carat diamond, as well as some other jewelry, as part of the celebration.

"We haven't finalized everything, but we're going to have a writing contest," Bobby says. "There are so many families where we've sold [to] two, three and four generations of the family, so we're going to have them submit an essay about what Crescent gift meant the most. We'll have four or five categories: bridal, graduation, gifting and other things meant for memories in our business," he says.

He might also have a few other events during the two-week sale period, but so far the essay contest is the only certainty.

A big party won't be on the schedule. "My family was really involved in alcohol, and I drank very heavily when I was younger, but I quit 35 years ago, so I don't do a lot with alcohol," Bobby says. "It doesn't bother me that others drink, but I don't. I don't think the store would be here if I'd continued. I was just one of those people that couldn't handle it," he says bluntly.

Bobby reports that he received many congratulatory letters from community members after an article about Crescent Jewelry's 175th anniversary was published in Quincy's local newspaper, the Herald-Whig, in January.

"We've always been involved with all the good projects—the YMCA, the United Way. I've been on almost every committee you can think of," says Bobby. "My nephews come in summer and they're amazed that I know everyone. Everyone drives by and waves. We go out to a restaurant and I know everyone. I've got a lot of fourth- and fifth-generation families I've dealt with."

Al Heiser at the original Main Street store.The Advice: Bobby credits his and Donna's modest lifestyle as a key to the store's longevity. "One of the reasons we've stayed in business so long is we're really conservative," he says. "If we don't have the money, we don't buy it. We're not real big spenders. We don't go on big vacations."

This approach is a stark contrast from that of other jewelers who strive to maintain a lifestyle that mirrors their affluent customers'—even if it's beyond their means. "A lot of people got very high and mighty and thought they could get someone else to run the store [during the owners' frequent vacations] and it wasn't run right," Bobby says.

Bobby's driven 150 miles to deliver a wedding ring on time, and even slipped a customer's ring under the family's Christmas tree when they were out. "I went down to the post office on Christmas Eve—back when someone was there all night—and asked if they had a registered package for Crescent," he recalls. "It was the mounting, so I went back and set three stones in it, then drove it over to the customer. Back then, everyone left their doors unlocked, so I went in and put the ring under the tree."

Bobby's key piece of advice for business owners planning a milestone celebration—offered with a laugh—is to start earlier than he did.

The Future: With no younger-generation Heisers waiting in the wings, Bobby says he might end up having to close the store, though that's still far off and he hopes to be able to sell it first. "A couple of people are interested," Bobby says. "There's one gentleman that wants to take it over but doesn't have the funds. He might have them by then, though, and he's a nice fellow."

Bobby will turn 70 in September and envisions working at least until he's 75. "My health's pretty good, but not what it used to be," he says. Still, he doesn't see the point in sitting around at home, since Donna is younger and still working.

Beyond his desire to preserve his family legacy, he's also worried, as always, about his customers. There used to be more than a dozen jewelry stores in Hannibal, but they're gone now, and one frequent theme in all the congratulatory letters he's gotten is, "What would we do if you're gone?"

"If we close," Bobby says, "there's nobody in town to change a watch battery except Walmart."

Hedda T. Schupak is a business writer and jewelry industry editor and analyst.

Copyright 2017 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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