Leadership: Business

Family Business CEOs to Watch 2020

This year, business leaders in all sectors were tested as the COVID-19 pandemic challenged them to keep revenues coming in and circumvent supply chain disruption while taking measures to ensure the safety of employees and customers.

A family business chief executive must have the talent to steer the business to growth and profitability while maintaining family engagement and harmony, ideally promoting good governance to help smooth the way. Family business CEOs in 2020 have had to emphasize resilience in communicating with a stakeholder group that includes family members not employed in the family company.

The exceptional CEOs recognized here include non-family executives, members of the founding family and married-ins. The family CEOs are members of the first through fifth generations. The non-family CEOs include long-tenured employees who worked their way up as well as those recruited from outside to be the next leader.

However they made their way to the C-suite, these chief executives clearly have earned the respect and admiration of the family business owners.

Robert J. Underbrink
Non-family
King Ranch Inc., Houston, Texas

Underbrink graduated in 1983 with an agriculture degree from Texas A&M University-Kingsville. In 1984, he was hired as a management trainee by King Ranch, a major, historic agribusiness whose interests include cattle ranching, farming, luxury retail goods and recreational hunting. As a trainee, he traveled to various operations in the United States and throughout South America and Australia.

In 1987, he was named general manager of Florida operations. As part of an expansion of the Florida operations, King Ranch acquired citrus groves in 1994. The King Ranch board of directors appointed Underbrink as vice president of farming operations in 1998. He became senior vice president in 2008 and in 2010 was named president/CEO as well as a director.

He also serves as a director of Consolidated Citrus Limited Partnership, the nation’s largest citrus grower, where he previously served as president and CEO from 1999 to 2005. Consolidated Citrus Limited Partnership is owned and managed by King Ranch Inc.

“Robert is a tireless worker and leader for over 800 full-time employees and another 300 to 400 part-time employees,” says James Clement III, a sixth-generation family member who serves as manager of King Ranch’s horse division and the company’s media and marketing.

“He has grown the company in Texas and expanded into California for the first time in our company’s 167 years,” Clement says. “He continues to bring the business to the forefront of the agricultural industry, and he helped purchase the few outside shares to make sure the company was 100% family-owned.”

“To effectively work with families and shareholders, as well as company employees, I believe you must be consistent in your actions, maintain impartial understanding and strive for exemplary communication,” Underbrink says. “A critical factor in preserving a family business for generations is to keep family members engaged as owners, not merely investors, and where possible, develop family members to be future leaders of the company.

“Working at all levels of management for over 35 years at King Ranch and working with employees at all levels during that time has been an honor and has provided great satisfaction. My greatest satisfaction, however, may be the role I have been able to play in laying the groundwork for the success of the next generations of family members and to have been even a small part of fostering their commitment to the family legacy and continued prosperity of King Ranch.”

Kathleen Shanahan
Non-family
Turtle & Hughes, Linden, N.J.

Two years ago, Shanahan became Turtle’s first non-family member to hold a co-CEO position with Jayne Millard, the fourth-generation family leader. The final phase of the strategic succession plan at the independent electrical/industrial distributor was completed on Oct. 1, with Shanahan as CEO and Millard as executive chairman.

Shanahan joined Turtle in 2017 as executive vice president of national accounts. Previously, she served for more than three years on its board of directors.

“Her competitive passion for growth and compassion for people aligned with the family’s values and future vision,” note Millard and board member Kathryn Swintek.

Millard and Swintek credit Shanahan with transforming the company’s overall business strategy through technology, including an ecommerce portal with custom catalogs, expansion of online sales to the global marketplace, CRM implementation, enhanced business analytics and driving high-margin product sales.

In early March, Shanahan mobilized hundreds of employees nationwide to remote work within days, ensuring their continued health and productivity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier in 2020, Shanahan led another cultural shift, eliminating a 45-year-old ESOP that “rewarded longevity over performance,” according to Millard and Swintek. “She led the recapitalization process and communications transition strategy, and instituted a culture of accountability with key performance indicators aligned to an enhanced benefits program embraced by employees.”

Shanahan served as chief of staff for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, chief of staff to Vice President-Elect Dick Cheney, deputy secretary of the California Trade and Commerce Agency for Gov. Pete Wilson, special assistant to Vice President George H.W. Bush and staff assistant on President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council.

Prior to joining Turtle, she served as CEO/chairman and then chairman of Ground Works Solutions, formerly ­URETEK Holdings Inc., a Florida-based corporation focused on soil stabilization and densification through the use of a patented polymer-based application process. Before that, she was CEO/chairman of WRSCompass, an environmental engineering/contractor company based in Tampa. She currently serves on the boards of several public and private companies.

“Turtle sets the industry standard for customer service and employee loyalty,” she says. “It is exciting to work with colleagues who find joy in legacy retention of customers, employees and supplier partners. Always reinventing ourselves, Turtle is leading the industry with digital architecture across all divisions — using AI, machine learning and robots.

“Jayne and I are complementary leaders; we agree 100% on vision. Jayne sets the tone for culture and strategy; I am the implementer focused on reaching goals with performance metrics and next-generation services.”
Millard and Swintek say Shanahan “is not afraid to roll up her sleeves, take action and put her considerable talents and high energy towards driving results, sustaining a family culture and securing a bright future for generations to come.”

Todd F. Schurz
Fifth generation
Schurz Communications Inc., Mishawaka, Ind.

Schurz Communications Inc. (SCI) began with the founding of the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune in 1872. Schurz has served as the company’s president since 2005 and as CEO since July 2007.

“In the past five years, our company made a major pivot and divested its traditional media assets (newspaper, radio and television stations), expanded its broadband operations and moved into the managed cloud services industry,” Schurz says.

“In the midst of this major shift in our assets and industries, we have learned it is critically important to know what remains stable and consistent. Our values remain the same: credibility, growth, accountability, stewardship and customer focus. Our vision and our goal are both multigenerational in nature; we aspire to be a trusted partner and pass on a better and stronger organization for all stakeholders: employees, customers, communities and owners.

“We have learned that success is always the result of a team effort. And as one of my cousins eloquently put it, ‘our sacred cow is that we are committed to doing something together as a family.’ ”

Prior to joining SCI in 1989, Schurz worked for the Times Journal Company in Springfield, Va., and for the New York Daily News during graduate school. He was the president and publisher of Associated Desert Shoppers in Palm Desert, Calif., from 1991-1995. He served as the president, editor and publisher of the South Bend Tribune from 1995 until February 2000. From 2000 to 2005, he was SCI’s vice president of technology and business development. From July 2002 to Sept. 30, 2005, he was president and general manager of WSBT Television.

He currently serves on the boards of Herschend Enterprises, 1st Source Corporation and 1st Source Bank, and as an independent board adviser to EBSCO Industries.

“Todd has been instrumental in developing the business and the family,” says Craig Aronoff, co-founder and principal of The Family Business Consulting Group. “During his leadership, the shareholders developed an outstanding family council and the board changed from being composted of family and non-family managers to a board of owners who may or may not work in the business and an outstanding group of independent directors who helped to guide the company’s transformation.

“The traditional media industry, which was dominated by family businesses, has been largely decimated, but Schurz continues to prosper with family ownership and leadership, in large part due to Todd’s abilities and leadership.”

Leslie E. Murphy
Second generation
W. Bradley Electric Inc., Novato, Calif.

Murphy joined W. Bradley Electric (WBE) as a project manager in 1985. She has been an owner and CEO of the company since 1999. She held various management positions covering all aspects of the company’s operations and has been instrumental in its growth.

She has expanded WBE’s services beyond traditional electrical construction services to six operational divisions: electrical construction, telecommunications infrastructure, traffic signals/street lighting, security control systems, audio visual and IT services. During her tenure, the company has grown from $4 million to $133 million in revenue.
Murphy is a board member of the Bank of Marin.

“Leslie is a phenomenal woman leading a very successful electrical contracting firm,” says Barbara Young, senior managing director and co-head of family office services at Cresset Capital Management. “She not only runs the firm with a very clear understanding of every role and every job the company undertakes, but she does an exemplary job of ensuring that the hundreds of people that work for her are well taken care of and have great loyalty to the company.

“During this pandemic time, she has instituted many programs to help her employees, minimizing layoffs, providing benefits and providing as much assurance of job security as possible. She also does tremendous community outreach on behalf of the company.”

“Dedication to family and hard work was instilled in me by my father,” Murphy says. “He started the company with family. My mother did all the bookkeeping, and my brothers and I were recruited to help. This was back in the late ’70s, and much of the values we started with are still here with us today. I grew up in the family business and raised two sons while always keeping a focus on the business. When the business is a family business it is much bigger than yourself and much more rewarding.

“Many years after my father retired, at WBE’s core is still family. The family has grown to 350 and they are not all blood relatives, but we are still a WBE family. We continue to work hard, support one another, care for each other and their families. The spirit is unbelievable.”

Gary Merrill
Non-family
Hussey Seating Company, North Berwick, Maine

Merrill began his career in public accounting at Coopers & Lybrand, now PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he worked for seven years before joining Hussey Seating Company as the accounting manager in 1986 under fifth-generation owners Philip Hussey Jr. and Peter Hussey. He worked in various roles throughout the organization during his initial tenure, including finance, international sourcing and operations.

He left Hussey Seating in 2005 to join Emery-Waterhouse Company as its CFO. He returned to Hussey Seating in 2009 to serve as CFO, working for sixth-generation leader Timothy B. Hussey.

Upon Tim Hussey’s cancer diagnosis in 2015, Merrill was appointed COO. After Tim’s passing in 2016, the Hussey Seating board of directors appointed Merrill as the first non-family president and CEO in the history of the now 185-year-old company.

Merrill currently serves on the board of directors of Tilson Technology.

Thomas Hussey, manufacturing lean deployment manager at Hussey Seating, notes that when the company sought a CEO to replace the late Tim Hussey, “Gary was as close to family as we could get. He has continued the Hussey way and the company values. Gary realizes it is very important to keep the family involved and very informed of what is going on in the business.”

Hussey says Merrill “has had a substantial and significant impact on the business,” setting records in sales, operating income and net income over the past three years and improving manufacturing efficiencies through new technology.

“Gary has led the company through the challenges of the tariffs, and he is now leading us through the new world of COVID-19,” Hussey says.

“Working for Hussey Seating Company gave me the opportunity to have an exciting, progressive career at a major manufacturer while balancing my desire to live and raise my family in Maine,” Merill says. “Whether it’s our seats at a convention center in Hong Kong or at Kennebunk High School, our hard work is on display all over the world.

“I’ve now worked with the fifth, sixth and seventh generation of Hussey family ownership. The Hussey family has shaped a corporate culture of longevity and community. They have contributed to the lives of every employee and empowered the business to make long-term decisions. I, along with my colleagues, have made long-lasting relationships with the family and am proud to represent our brand wherever I go.”

Mariah Gratz
Second generation
Weyland Ventures, Louisville, Ky.

Originally responsible for leading a cross-functional development team in the planning, design and construction of urban real estate development projects, Gratz held leadership positions in several departments of the organization before becoming Weyland Ventures’ CEO.

Weyland Ventures is a multidisciplinary real estate development firm known for creating mixed-use properties in urban areas across the nation. In Louisville, the firm is known for challenging historic renovations and iconic projects such as the 10-story baseball bat at the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum, The Henry Clay and the Glassworks District. She has expertise in real estate financing mechanisms such as historic tax credits, new market tax credits, tax increment financing and economic development incentives.

Gratz holds degrees in biomedical engineering as well as an MBA. She started her career in a corporate setting at a company outside Boston and returned to Louisville to join her family business in April 2009. She became CEO in 2016. Today she works with her parents, siblings and husband along with dozens of non-family team members.

“Mariah has brought her previous experience as a biomedical engineer and project manager to help her family business succeed,” says Isabel Botero, director of the Family Business Center and an associate professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Louisville. “From previous experiences she learned that understanding processes and being adaptable to the environment can help any business survive and excel. The resilience that she learned as an engineer has helped her continuously adapt to the changing environment.

“From her outside experience, she also learned the importance of teamwork. Although she is the CEO, she works with her siblings as a team to ensure the future of their business and their family legacy in the city of Louisville.”
“One of the impressive things about Mariah is that she came into a family business that was almost wholly associated with her dad,” says Rebecca Matheny, executive director of the Louisville Downtown Partnership. “She has worked extremely well with her siblings to carry that legacy forward, but at the same time, really put an individual stamp on what she sees as the vision.”

In addition, “She has taken civic responsibility very, very seriously and has been involved in a number of local organizations that are all doing very important economic development work,” Matheny says.

At the same time, “She has two really small children, and her husband works for the company as well. They seem to have navigated that very, very well.

“I can’t imagine where she’s going to be in five years.”

“Weyland Ventures is an organization created to plan, design and develop unique and special urban places,” Gratz says. “We believe great urban places require long-term vision. We imagine thriving neighborhoods where others can’t and leverage our decades of planning, design and development expertise to make them happen.

“The key for us is to think long-term. I think this is something private family businesses generally excel in versus publicly traded companies.

“I am blessed to work every day with my father, brothers, sister, mother and husband. Coming from a corporate background, it took time for me to accept that the family and the business go hand in hand and can’t be separated. This is our greatest strength and our Achilles heel. I work to make sure the family is proud of the business and that our employee team is proud of the family.”

Kent S. Johnson
Fourth generation
Highlights for Children Inc., Columbus, Ohio

Johnson, who holds a doctorate in physics from Harvard University, served in various roles in research and development, manufacturing and operations in the biotech industry before joining his family business.

In addition to Highlights, the children’s magazine beloved for generations, Highlights for Children operates a family of brands including Zaner-Bloser, Stenhouse Publishers and Staff Development for Educators (SDE), reaching millions of children, families and educators in over 50 countries, in dozens of languages and across content platforms and formats.

Johnson also serves on Highlights for Children’s board. He was active in his family council and was a board member when he was recruited by his uncle, CEO Garry Myers III, to join Highlights in 2004 as vice president of strategic planning. His uncle passed away unexpectedly, and Johnson became CEO in 2005.

Johnson also now serves on the board of Schurz Communications Inc.

“Over the past 15 years, Kent has kept the company true to his family’s strong values while adapting their iconic publications to the digital age by focusing on providing ‘Fun with a Purpose’ for generations of children,” says Craig Aronoff, co-founder and principal of The Family Business Consulting Group. “The large number of family stockholders take great pride in their family’s enterprise and benefit from its ongoing profitability.”

“Kent does an incredible job of being both CEO of a complex enterprise and leader of a family shareholder base that is large and complex,” says Jon Eesley, a director on Highlights’ board for 13 years. “I can’t recall a time when challenging Kent that I didn’t agree with his response — well thought-out, very strategic and impressive in how willingly he takes on change that [the current or future business climate] demands.”

“Growing up, I never imagined my passion would fit with a role in our family business,” Johnson says. “My first love was science and physics, and as I focused on that, I only planned to model stewardship for Highlights for Children through our family council or company ­governance.

“As my career evolved away from research, I grew interested in how my skills and energy could make the largest positive impact on others. Reimmersing myself in Highlights as an adult, I came to realize that there was something special about a private company where passionate people committed to a shared mission — and that working at Highlights might be my single biggest opportunity to make a positive impact on kids and families.

“I am grateful every day for our talented team. I am proud that we can focus on the mission of helping all children become their best selves — curious, creative, caring and confident. It is deeply rewarding to be part of something so much bigger than myself. 

“As I reflect on the generations of hard work that built Highlights’ success over the last 75 years, I am dedicated to playing my part so that we can thrive in serving children and families for the next 75 years.”

Stanley Chen
Second generation
Telamon Corporation, Carmel, Ind.

Chen got his start at Telamon as a warehouse associate and progressed through roles such as call center representative, regional sales associate and operations manager. Before becoming Telamon’s CEO, he served as the chief operating officer, leading the firm through several acquisitions and divestitures, including one recognized by the Indiana Chapter of Association for Corporate Growth as a “Deal of the Year.”

Prior to Telamon, Chen enjoyed brief stints in marketing analytics for a MLB team, in corporate strategy for a Global 50 firm, and with a small venture capital fund.

In addition to serving as Telamon’s CEO, he is a member of the company’s board of directors.

Telamon specializes in solutions for telecommunication networks, industrial assembly and business process outsourcing. Under Chen’s leadership, Telamon has grown into a diversified holding company, serving industries as varied as wireless infrastructure, automotive harnesses and supply chain finance, while simultaneously receiving Supplier of the Year awards from customers such as Cisco and Cummins.

“Though only five years into Gen 2 leadership taking the helm, Stan has really tried to take big strides in how the business is run, using best practices and strategic thought leadership that could be taken from the pages of someone much older than him,” says his sister Stephanie Kim, the company’s chief administrative officer.

“I could list out all the contributions that his leadership has made in making our company profitable and weathering storms like the pandemic that we are experiencing. There are many, but what I find more valuable are the contributions that he makes to strengthen the roots, enabling the business to grow without toppling over.

“There is a constant desire to diversify the business to help withstand the pressure of a downturn in any single business unit. Concurrently, we need to be flexible in the businesses in which we operate and bend to accommodate the customer, the environment or any other such unforecasted, unpredictable change that may be business-affecting.”

Kim notes that Chen has transitioned Telamon’s board to majority independent. “What started with two outside members and five inside members is now four outside members and three inside members,” she says. “He continues to meaningfully look for outside talent that will strengthen our board as we grow, diversify and transition into complementary areas.

“Stan has also been applauded by our outside board members for his strong strategic goal setting and insight, not only for what he does for Telamon as a whole, but also for what he does to drive his executive team out of day-to-day operations and into long-term strategic planning and goal setting. That doesn’t mean that operational tactics are ignored, but rather they are always being realigned to help meet long-term strategic objectives.

“Stan, as a second-gen leader, is not interested in the newest technology fads. He wants to build upon and create a lasting legacy that will honor both the business and the family, all while transforming the business to set it up for growth, success and longevity for future generations.”

“I often reflect on the grace I’ve been given in being able to run a family business — allowing me to combine the intellectual challenges of running a business with the emotional and relational complexity of long-term stewardship,” Chen says. “All private businesses can define ‘shareholder value’ in a way that is meaningful to them, but of course for family, it takes on a deeply personal definition.

“Moreover, when considering a multigenerational family business, you are suddenly taking that deeply personal definition of shareholder value and placing it in a ready-made vehicle — the business — for teaching and training future generations. That intersection of acumen, values and priorities is at once incredibly challenging as well as immensely rewarding.”

Terry Graber
Non-family
Power Construction Company, Chicago, Ill.

Graber joined Power in 1992 as a project manager. He came to Power with 10 years of industry experience at PCL Construction Services and Motorola. He worked his way up through the organization, serving in numerous roles along the way.

Graber has served since 2014 as the firm’s president and CEO, the fourth in its 94-year history. His project focus for Power began principally in the healthcare, institutional and developer sectors. He continues to be directly involved with key clients such as Loyola University, AdvocateAurora Health Care, JDL Development, Northwestern University and AMITAHealth.

“Under Terry’s leadership, Power has become perennially the largest general contractor in Chicago,” says Bill Rudnick, senior partner, general counsel and co-head of family office services at Cresset Capital Management. “In addition, Terry has expanded the type of work that Power does, for example adding aviation and tenant improvement work to Power’s offerings.

“The most important strength of Power is its culture, which originates with the family. Terry embodies this culture, adding to the significance and impact of that culture by having a non-family member as the ‘culture carrier.’

“I have seen many CEOs in the course of my career, and few roles are as challenging as being a non-family CEO of a family company,” Rudnick says. “Terry executes that role with grace and leadership.”

“I have been fortunate over my Power career to work directly with the second and third generations of the Gorman family. They have always allowed company leadership to manage the business as if it was their own,” Graber says.

“As non-family leaders, we reap the benefits of being part of a family business, working alongside the Gormans, without being told how to run the company. Their philosophy is that profitability comes when you put people first. Our business partner discussions focus on the right thing to do for our clients and the people of Power.

“In the [nearly] 30 years I have been at Power, we have never had an issue between the Gorman family and the non-family leaders at Power. It is a true privilege to work at Power and be a part of this successful family business.”

Heather Falcone
Second generation
Thermal-Vac Technology Inc., Orange, Calif.

Thermal-Vac, founded in 1985 by Steve Driscol, specializes in heat treating and brazing of highly technical, exacting and high-profile projects in missile defense, deep space exploration, commercial and space heavy payload launch vehicles, medical devices, oil exploration and many others.

Falcone, daughter of Steve Driscol, joined the business in 2003 and worked in many operational and administrative roles. She became CEO in 2019.

Under her leadership, Thermal-Vac has implemented a fully compliant NIST 800-171 and DFARS 252.204-7012, achieved AS 9100:D and ISO 9001:2015 accreditation and established a peer-to-peer microbonus system.

Falcone is a certified Professional in Human Resources by the Society for Human Resource Professionals. Thermal-Vac’s Second Chance Employer program — operated in partnership with Chrysalis, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a pathway for self-sufficiency — helps to eliminate the barriers that can prevent people experiencing homelessness, low income or addiction from starting a new career.

“Working with Heather is challenging and motivating, because she pushes us to be our best and to learn more each day,” says Cheryle Hack, human resources manager at Thermal-Vac. “I appreciate that she is willing to sit down and work out issues and not let them linger, and she’s generous with her time for anyone that needs help or even just to talk. You can tell she truly cares about her team. She’s tough as nails, and she uses that strength to keep us moving forward toward our goals.”

“Scrolling through social media, in article after article I see characteristics wanted for leaders in today’s businesses: passionate, results-oriented, servant leadership, emotionally intelligent. I believe that to embody these ideals in a family business, it boils down to actions speaking loudly day in and day out,” Falcone says.

“I grew up in this business like many others, and many of the team members that have been with us for 20 or more years remember me as a child, wandering through the shop with my blanket and doll. It is here that I first developed my respect for the impact of small businesses on the American way of life, and a sense of awe for how my father incorporated business into family life. He taught me those vital leadership skills and allowed me to practice them for the past 17 years.

“Each day we focus on honoring the most important attributes; legacy, community activism and strengthening family bonds. The team members are my family; there is no substitute for the feeling of working alongside them to help achieve our collective dreams. Seeing them grow and change is rewarding and creates the opening for endless opportunity.”

David W. Henderson
Second generation (married-in)
Samaritan Medical Center, San Jose, Calif.

Samaritan Medical Center leases, develops and manages medical office space in San Jose. Henderson was asked by senior partners to join the company in 1988. Previously, he had been employed by Arrow Electronics and had worked in the San Jose, Salt Lake City and Chicago markets in various management capacities.

The company now encompasses almost 400,000 square feet of premier medical office buildings that serve more than 250 physicians and healthcare professionals. On most days over 2,500 patients will visit the medical campus for care.

Under Henderson’s leadership, Samaritan Medical Center developed a vision for an integrated cancer center and built a 70,000-square-foot, four-story building on its campus with that in mind. 

“Dave has led his family’s business for a generation, developing a medical center composed of single-story doctors’ offices into a cutting-edge, sophisticated regional healthcare source in conjunction with Stanford University Medical and other leading healthcare organizations,” says Craig Aronoff, co-founder and principal of The Family Business Consulting Group. “Dave was responsible for development and management of the property, which tremendously increased in value and in service to its community.”

With Henderson’s arrival, Samaritan Medical Center began a governance journey that would address business, family and ownership interests among the ownership group. Core to this journey was the engagement of family business consultants who targeted the priorities that should be considered as the business moved forward. Peraps the most critical implementation was the creation of a board of directors that included non-owners. Over the years this model has worked well for the organization and evolved to a point where a non-owner served as chairman for 12 years. The company also recognized the need to restructure its ownership model and experienced the departure of family members from the ownership group.

“Dave worked with his excellent board to achieve an excellent solution satisfactory to all parties,” Aronoff says.
More recently, Henderson has seen his son join the business. An interview process that included advisers and employees over a six-month period helped to affirm this addition.

Henderson frequently consults informally with other family businesses. The discussions regularly involve governance matters and the role of family members in the business. He is a guest presenter at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business several times a year.

“I gave the family business two years after leaving the electronics industry,” Henderson says. “Little did I know at the time that over 30 years later that decision would have the impact it did on me, my family and the community where I live.

“I loved my father-in law as a friend, but could we work together? With honest conversation over the years we could and experienced a remarkable run. And most importantly, how would my wife fit into the mix between family and business? With remarkable grace and insight, she has been my top adviser over the years.

“We were financially strong, experienced a solid governance model and recognized the season when it was time for family members to depart.

“Leadership is now moving to the third generation with the same enthusiasm I experienced. It is incredibly personal and affirming to watch this season unfold.”

Bruce Pettet
Non-family
Leupold & Stevens Inc., Beaverton, Ore.

Pettet is president and CEO of ­Leupold & Stevens, which makes performance sporting and tactical optics. He has been in his current role for six years.

Before joining the company in 2014, Pettet was the president and CEO of Collective International LLC, a youth lifestyle, athletic performance and global licensing firm he founded in 2004. Previously, he was president and CEO at Airwalk International and president and CEO of Brooks Sports Inc. He served as chairman of the board of directors at Mrs. Field’s Famous Brands. Currently, he serves on the board of directors of Stimson Lumber Company.

“With our company being in the 113th year of operation, it is critical to have a leader who honors the heritage and the legacy of the family business,” says Greg Waggoner, a fourth-generation owner and a member of the Leupold & Stevens board.

“Bruce’s engagement with the family ownership has been critical,” Waggoner says. “CEOs in the past were not supportive of family involvement and did not want family involved at any level. Bruce has turned the family ownership into a strategic advantage and has strongly encouraged family involvement. We recently set up a family office to manage all shareholder communications, which Bruce has been very supportive of.”

Pettet has established a 10-year strategic plan for the company, Waggoner notes. “Bruce has been responsible for significant changes in how the Leupold brand has been redefined. We had many products that had remained unchanged for many years, and our brand was not relevant to the younger generations. Our product lines have now been refreshed, with many new products competing in segments that we were previously not in.”

Waggoner adds that Pettet has spearheaded a strengthening of the company’s social media presence. “Now our social media programs are relevant and strong and our brand has been redefined, focusing on durability, performance and being made in the USA.”

Waggoner lauds Pettet’s leadership during the pandemic. “During this very challenging time dealing with COVID, Bruce has been an amazing leader and communicator. We have been able to keep the manufacturing facility operating with over 600 employees still employed. This was a well-orchestrated effort with all departments working together, following the state and federal restrictions to keep in operation.

“He is so focused and dedicated that we would not be where we are today without his leadership.”

“Dedication to the outdoors, conservation and family — these passions have sculpted my life and ultimately led me to Leupold & Stevens.,” Pettet says. “The privilege to lead ­Leupold & Stevens was driven by our incredible family shareholders, who are thoughtful, honest and focused on creating long-term value for the next generation of shareholders.

“This commitment by our family shareholders has given me the ability to optimize strategic leadership in every aspect of our business. More importantly, it has allowed our team to build a culture that has a powerful combination of high performance partnered with the compassion and care of a true family.

“As a non-family CEO, I have never been treated as such, and have always felt a part of the Leupold & Stevens family from the very beginning. It is my honor to lead a brand and company that is uniquely American with a rich heritage steeped in delivering the world’s best performance optics.”

Steven J. Shifman
Third generation (married-in)
Michelman, Cincinnati, Ohio

Shifman’s diverse career includes experience in sales and sales management and finance. He previously served as Michelman’s chief financial officer and led one of the company’s business units before becoming CEO in 2003. He also serves on Michelman’s board of directors.

During Shifman’s tenure, Michelman — a technology and manufacturing company — has quadrupled in size and profitability and expanded its global footprint. Pre-2003, the company primarily did business in North America. Today, more than half of its business is generated outside the United States. This global growth has occurred both organically and through acquisition. Michelman now has 450 associates worldwide, 25% of whom focus on product development and new technology.

Michelman operates in multiple markets, including industrial and agricultural coatings, digital printing, consumer packaging and advanced composites for the automotive and aerospace industries.

Shifman is an advocate of purpose-driven leadership. “He has set the company’s tone through the development and implementation of its companywide purpose, vision and values,” says Jerry Reichert, chairman of Michelman’s board.

“Michelman’s purpose of ‘Innovating a Sustainable Future’ reflects his commitment to solving societal problems, such as packaging waste, with sustainable technology through expertise and constant innovation. This purpose is central to every decision and the essential thread that weaves this global business together.”

Shifman believes that the company should fulfill its purpose in a way that equally prioritizes the “three Ps” of people, profit and planet. Michelman’s six corporate values — integrity, respect, success, curiosity, collaboration and giving — guide the way the company treats its stakeholders.

He considers community work a critical leadership-development tool and implemented an Annual Global Day of Service, when the company closes its doors so employees can volunteer at organizations throughout the world.
Reichert lauds Shifman’s work on succession planning and governance. “He often says that he and his executive leadership team are building Michelman for the fifth generation of stakeholders — many of whom have not even been born yet,” Reichert says. Shifman uses the term “stakeholders” rather than family “shareholders” to encompass the interests of associates, customers and suppliers.

“He has invested substantial time and energy working on both family governance and corporate governance with the intention of positioning Michelman to be family-owned for generations,” Reichert says.

“I believe that family-owned companies like Michelman — those that are purpose-driven, values-based, people-first and evergreen in nature — have an opportunity to change the world for the better,” Shifman says.

“When I say that we can change the world, I don’t believe I’m making a grandiose claim. We work at making a positive difference in the lives of the people we employ and whom we come into contact with, along with improving our planet — and continuing to do work that matters to make a difference in our stakeholders’ financial well-being. That is why my family and I have loved owning Michelman for the last 71 years and why we plan to own and sustain it for generations to come.”

Michael P. Neal
Non-family
H.G. Fenton Company, San Diego, Calif.

H.G. Fenton Company has been family-owned for 114 years. In 1996, its 90th year of business, the shareholders made the decision to sell their two industrial businesses and reinvest the proceeds into their third business: real estate. Neal, who at the time had worked for H.G. Fenton for nine years, was named to lead the real estate business. In 2002, Neal was chosen to be the CEO of H.G. Fenton Company. Through his direction and leadership, the business has grown and prospered.

H.G. Fenton Company is now one of the largest real estate owners and developers in San Diego. Neal grew its residential real estate portfolio from nothing to today’s 17 apartment communities. The company also supports more than 1,250 local businesses through management of more than 4.5 million square feet of commercial property. In 2018, the company expanded into two additional markets, Long Beach, Calif., and Austin, Texas. Since Neal became CEO, the number of people employed at H.G. Fenton has doubled to 242.

“Mike has a very strong connection to his own family, so he understands the critical importance of family and family values,” says third-generation owner Henry F. Hunte. “His family values are the same as the Fenton shareholder family values, and this alignment of values results in an unparalleled partnership between Mike as CEO and the Fenton family shareholders. Most importantly, he is a friend of each one of us.”

Neal partnered with the family to professionalize the governance process and to set clear shareholder objectives.
“He has earned my trust and admiration as to how he handles management, employees and family. He has managed a great balance,” says fourth-generation owner Laura Norling. “As a family member, I am appreciative of all the roles he plays, in such a professional and gracious manner.”

The family notes that Neal has continued the company culture and how it cares for employees and community, values grounded in the family history, beginning with Henry G. Fenton.

Fourth-generation owner Geoff Swortwood says that instead of taking a “safe” approach to running the business, “Mike continues to transform the business into one of the most dynamic, efficiently run real estate companies in Southern California. Moreover, he has done so in collaboration with the dynamics of an evolving family in a way that has been bonding, rather than divisive; growing, rather than stagnant.”

When the company transitioned to working remotely in March, Neal and the executive team created a “Daily Live” video update, accessible to all employees. Each day, he provides new information on the city and state and updates on the various departments within the company, highlighting both the employee and customer experience. He frequently praises employees and leadership and shares encouraging stories about customers. He has included leaders and employees from different departments in the “Daily Live” to highlight what their teams are doing. The family notes that Neal has intentionally used the video updates to encourage, be vulnerable and lead with positivity. The “Daily Live” has served as a bridge connecting the family office, the board of directors and family shareholders to the rest of the company, communicating support and commitment to all the employees.

“Mike has worked for the family business for over 30 years, and he understands the family’s values and vision for the business,” says fourth-generation owner Henry F. Hunte II. “The importance of this in a time of uncertainty cannot be emphasized enough. He leads through values. He empowers all employees to achieve their best and to make correct decisions in the face of challenges that this generation has never seen before. That is tremendous. Mike has built a first-class organization with a culture that creates certainty in an uncertain time.”

“The Fenton family’s personal values are their true guide in leadership, and together we have created a community where our team members can flourish,” Neal says. “We believe that when employees flourish, they engage genuinely with our customers, and the positive financial results are the natural outcome. Together we have followed this path for many years, with solid and sustainable results.

“A key part of my strong connection to the Fenton family and my drive to lead our organization is rooted in my lifelong passion for building. I come from a family of builders and spent my childhood building treehouses with friends and cars with my father. From my first job in the building industry, I was hooked. It is now a privilege to live my personal purpose statement of ‘Building Companies, Communities, and Careers’ in alignment with the Fenton family as we grow and evolve H.G. Fenton Company. I am grateful for our team, I am proud of what we have created together, and I look forward to what is on the horizon as we continue to build for the benefit of all of our stakeholders.”

Marc Blackman
Third generation (married-in)
Gold Eagle Company, Chicago, Ill.

Blackman joined Gold Eagle in 1997 as vice president of sales. He was named president and chief operating officer in 2001 and became CEO in 2007. Before joining the company, he was a manager at E&J Gallo Winery.

Gold Eagle makes premium products that keep things people are passionate about looking and operating like new. Armin Hirsch founded the company to produce automotive chemicals to prevent and cure engine problems. Today, the company offers protection for cars, boats, recreation equipment, patio furniture and more.

“Marc has been instrumental in Gold Eagle’s continued success as a leading auto and marine care consumer products company since 1932, while expanding the company into healthy and growing new markets, new products and new forms of sales and distribution,” such as ecommerce and direct-to-consumer, says advisory board member Liz Levy-Navarro.

“He has achieved this through encouraging innovation companywide, motivating his team of employees and being willing to invest for the future through smart and strategic acquisitions and new internal capabilities.

“Marc strongly believes in the Conscious Capitalism movement, and runs the company with these values. He and his father-in-law and uncle-in-law believe that business is a force for good by positively impacting all stakeholders they touch.

“Most recently, Marc has demonstrated his business acumen and leadership by very successfully navigating the company through the pandemic and the economic fallout. When the COVID-10 restrictions first hit, he encouraged his team to identify new ways to quickly generate revenue to help replace the lost revenue from their core business during this difficult time. The outcome was the quick creation and launch of HEROES, a line of hand sanitizing products. HEROES is an FDA- and WHO-approved hand rub produced in Chicago.

“Gold Eagle Company has shifted production from automotive, marine, outdoor power and home products to produce hand sanitizing products for first responders amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This has resulted in the company generating a significant new source of revenue this year.”

“As a third-generation family business, Gold Eagle Company has been a great place to work while growing into a leader in helping folks preserve and protect the things they love.,” Blackman says.

“We are a people-first organization with a culture that allows us to manufacture American-made products that are used around the world. I am proud that as a Conscious Company we believe that business is a force for good by positively impacting all stakeholders.

“I am passionate about my personal guiding principles: Know and show your strengths, be genuine and show that you deserve your good fortune, know your stuff, surround yourself with strength, let culture wear the crown, keep an eye on the future, make your mission meaningful to stakeholders, find a shared ‘why,’ set the tone for embracing challenges and show both gratitude and preparedness.”

David DeStefano
Non-family
Vertex Inc., King of Prussia, Pa.

DeStefano has been Vertex’s president and CEO since 2016 and was appointed chairperson of the board of directors in 2020. He previously served as vice president, chief financial officer and executive vice president. Prior to joining the company, he was principal and vice president at The Mid-Atlantic Companies Ltd.

Vertex is a global technology company delivering corporate tax compliance solutions to large, complex multinational companies. Vertex has offices around the world and more than 1,100 employees.

“It’s been quite a year at Vertex!” says Amanda Westphal Radcliffe, a principal shareholder and a director at the company. “In addition to expertly shifting our entire enterprise, overnight, to a work-at-home environment due to COVID-19, in itself a herculean effort, David was at the epicenter of our multiyear effort to become a publicly traded company.

“Leading Vertex’s people, processes, customers and partners through the pandemic has taken superhuman effort, determination, leadership, and exceptional poise under exceptional pressure,” Radcliffe says. “Partner that journey with leading the truly crushing amount of work that must be achieved in order to be ready operationally, organizationally, legally, professionally, personally, emotionally (hey, we’re still a family business!) and financially to prepare Vertex to file to become a publicly traded enterprise. And that’s just to get ready.

“Now, let’s tack on preparing the S-1, a grueling road show (albeit virtual), investment bankers (what you heard is true), lawyers, countless board meetings, investor meetings, analyst meetings, sleepless nights and after all that … a virtual IPO.

“It’s like climbing Everest for a businessperson. We reached the summit; David was our guide. It takes every bit of energy, expertise, fitness, and honestly ounce of soul you’ve got — and then at the very end, even more.
“Never once in all this time, all this complexity, all this stress, did I ever see or hear David lose his cool. He was a rock. Always the conduit of information, champion of control and bearer of truth, be it welcome or unwelcome. He told the Vertex story, time and time again, proudly, boldly and enthusiastically, every day, for countless days, because he helped write it, and because he believes it, and because he lives it.

“By the way, in the meantime, he also led our best second-quarter sales performance. Ever. In the company’s history. During the pandemic.

“I could not be prouder to call him my true partner.”

“When I started at Vertex in 1999, it was clear the Westphal family shareholders had a deep commitment to the success of the company and its mission-driven culture,” DeStefano says. “Over the years they have consistently grounded their decisions in the long-term interests of customers and employees to build strong relationships and an enduring business.

“As CEO, this environment is inspiring and energizing and influences how I lead. I believe the highest value I can bring to all of our stakeholders is a passionate commitment to foster a culture where collaboration, innovation and integrity are the cornerstones for success.”

James Derry
First generation
Derry Enterprises Inc./Field Fastener Supply, Machesney Park, Ill.

Derry has 30 years of fastener distribution experience. He has Six Sigma Black Belt certification and emphasizes lean principles to drive efficiency and continuous improvement. He has helped form a culture where working relationships lead to friendships, and those friendships lead to partnerships that go beyond what is defined, required or expected.
Field is a full-service, global provider of inventory management and supply chain solutions for fasteners (hardware devices that join two or more objects together) and other Class C inventory items.

Derry took over the role of president from his older brother, Bill Derry, about five years ago. Since he became president, the company’s revenues and profits have doubled, according to Venita Fields, who has served as an independent director of the company for five years. “Two years ago, the board unanimously promoted Jim to president and CEO,” she says.

“Under Jim’s leadership the company achieved its sales goals by successfully executing its strategic plan,” Fields says.

“Jim continues to foster a culture with a focus on team members, customers, suppliers and community. The culture is driven by 26 guiding principles, ‘the Fieldamentals,’ that guide team members in all that they do to provide world-class service to customers.

“Jim has built a world-class senior leadership team and is preparing the next generation of managers to lead Field into the future.”

“One of my older brothers and I purchased a very small fastener distributor in 1990,” Derry says. “The company had 12 people and revenues of $800,000. Twenty-nine years later, we exceeded $100 million in revenue with over 200 team members. The family business expanded from two brothers to include a nephew and three of our sons.

“As we considered the future of our business, we are committed to keep the company in our family to be able to make the biggest impact on ‘Improving Lives,’ the overarching purpose of our strategic plan.

“Our goal is to help our team members become the best versions of themselves, support their families and the communities we operate in. We have been on an amazing journey, and I’m so fortunate to be a part of this. We are living the American Dream!”

Michael F. Golden
Second generation
The Stephen Gould Corporation Whippany, N.J.

Golden joined The Stephen Gould Corporation (SGC) at the encouragement of David Golden and Stephen Gould in 1971 after receiving an MBA from the University of Bridgeport. He was named CEO and president of the company in 1978.

SCG is a packaging solutions company that generated $750 million in revenues in 2019 under Golden’s leadership in partnership with his younger brother John Golden, executive vice president. “Over the last six years the organization has been orchestrating a generational leadership transition, with Michael’s son, Justin, taking on the role of president,” says Erica Peitler, a member of the board of directors.

“Michael Golden has been a champion of change with a long-term perspective,” Peitler says. “He demonstrates a compassionate and steady leadership hand as well as a joyful, optimistic enthusiasm for co-creating the future for SGC along with his son.”

SCG’s growth “has been exponential in size and global in scope,” Peitler says. Golden has increased its national footprint and expanded to China, Malaysia, Canada and Brazil, she notes. “He established an executive management team, a board of directors and a structured organizational focus on accelerating the development of Generation 3 leaders by creating forums for them to have a ‘voice at the table,’ “ in addition to connecting with and coaching sales agents and employees, she says.

Golden has instituted structural changes to ensure the company’s ability to support future growth, including compensation plan revisions and cost structure adjustments, Peitler says.

“With nearly four years under their belts in their roles of president and CEO, Justin and Michael have demonstrated a respectful, collaborative approach in running the business,” Peilter says. She praises the transparency of the succession planning process.

Golden orchestrated increased exposure for his son as a presence in the company over several years, Peitler explains. “This provided Justin with an opportunity to develop his voice, further solidify relationships and begin to create the foundation for his vision of the future. Michael played the role of father, coach and CEO with patience, insight and a belief that traction and momentum would build over time — and it did.”

SGC engaged a leadership coach and instituted a program it called the Leadership Development Initiative. “The goal was to engage in communication and relationship skill building so that collaboration and decision making could be enhanced and silos/walls broken down,” Peitler says. “Justin participated in each of the team workshop events along with the leadership coach as a co-facilitator.”

The company also convened a team of senior sales leaders. “This was an opportunity to create a clear communication interface between the independent sales agents and the corporation to ensure transparency and alignment for building the future together, especially during this time of generational transition when anxieties and fears can escalate,” Peitler says. “This team of trusted sales leaders has provided an important bridge to further support the generational transition process.”

As part of the process, a shareholder agreement was created, she notes.

“As I reflect on nearly 50 years, I can’t help but feel so blessed,” Golden says. “Our business model today remains, at its core, what its founders envisioned: a solution provider in an entrepreneurial environment in service to our clients. What we’ve achieved is the enhancement of scale, with professional leadership to now provide our services on a global platform.

“I am so deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to work along such great mentors and continue the family legacy. I am equally optimistic for the company’s future, given the talented members associated with us throughout the world.”

Chris Thorkelson
Second generation
Lloyd Companies, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Thorkelson, nephew of founder Craig Lloyd, began his career at Lloyd Companies in 2003. He worked in and led multiple divisions and spent three years as the chief operating officer before becoming CEO in 2015.

Lloyd Companies, founded by Thorkelson’s uncle Craig Lloyd, is a regional leader in development, commercial real estate, construction and property management. Under Thorkelson, Lloyd Companies has entered a new stage of growth, which has included expansion into many markets throughout the Midwest, a new division focused on hospitality, and signature mixed-use developments in downtown Sioux Falls.

“Chris has made some bold moves in the past four years, built an amazing leadership team and positioned the company for growth,” says his cousin Christie Lloyd Ernst, executive vice president of property management at the company. “Under Chris’s leadership the company has grown the bottom line year after year.

“In March 2020, we were on pace to have a banner year with four hotel development deals in the pipeline along with several other high-profile projects. Chris was quick to respond to the threats that COVID had on the hospitality industry, and by the end of March he had plans in place to put all but one of the hotel projects on hold and redeployed our resources into multifamily development.

“His ability to lead nearly 200 employees through this pivot has allowed us to retain our employees, and we anticipate ending the year with minimal damage to the bottom line. The communication he provided to the employees, board and ownership group on a weekly basis was engaging, transparent, motivational and responsive to the needs of all. He was very intentional about keeping our team COVID-free, even though many of our staff were considered essential. We were able to keep our construction crews, maintenance teams and property managers working and healthy by providing training, extra precautions and PPE.

“Chris has shown his ability to prosper during the great years and, more importantly, how to focus on what we can do during tough times.”

“As a family-owned business, we put family first; however, we also place an emphasis on high ethical standards, building sustainable relationships and giving back,” Thorkelson says.

“The greatest advantage of working in our family business is the opportunity to be more active and engaged in one another’s lives, especially when we have the chance to see our kids be active with and grow close to one another, cherishing all of the time we can gain from being a close family. And then there is the business. We are all passionate about ensuring its success, and we hope that it will continue to be passed along to many generations to come, remaining a family-owned business but not necessarily a family-managed business.”

Chip Wann
Non-family
Royal Cup Inc., Birmingham, Ala.

Wann is the first non-family member to lead Royal Cup Inc. Royal Cup is a major importer and roaster of specialty coffees and fine teas with a nationwide distribution network. The company was founded in 1896 by Henry T. Batterton as Batterton Coffee Company. It was purchased by William E. Smith in 1950 and renamed Royal Cup Coffee. The company, which is still owned by the Smith family, has a reach that extends throughout the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean. It serves customers in the food service, hospitality, office and specialty coffee markets.

Wann joined Royal Cup in 2017 as chief financial officer, responsible for corporate finance, accounting, commodities, information technology, pricing and procurement. He was named to the post of chief operating officer in April 2019, overseeing all aspects of Royal Cup’s day-to-day business and personnel decisions. He was appointed as president and CEO in February 2020.

Prior to joining Royal Cup, Wann served as chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Birmingham-based Mspark and held executive-level positions in public and private-equity-backed companies in the healthcare services and life insurance sectors.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Wann led Royal Cup to significant growth, says Jonathan Quigley, managing director of Brightstar Capital Partners. “He has maintained the company’s competitive position through the crisis and positioned it for future growth.”

“I recognize the tremendous honor and am humbled by the trust the Smith family has placed in me as their first non-family member CEO,” Wann says. “It is not lost on me what an incredible company they have built and the foundation on which the company is rooted. The values of our organization translate seamlessly to how I view the organization today.

“At Royal Cup, we are steadfast in the quality of our products, we act with the utmost integrity in all that we do, we recognize and celebrate the amazing team we have around this great country, and we provide service to our customers that is unmatched in our industry and which brings an intrinsic value to everything we do.”

Ray H. Neisewander III
Third generation
Raynor Worldwide, Dixon, Ill.

Raynor is a manufacturer of high-quality residential, commercial and industrial garage door products. The company was founded by Ray Neisewander Sr. in 1945 and then led by second-generation chairman Ray Neisewander Jr. 

Ray H. Neisewander III began his work with Raynor in 1983. He became the team manager and president of the company’s Indy Car racing team subsidiary, Raynor Motorsports Group, in 1987; general manager of its KWIK-WALL operable and portable wall systems subsidiary in 1990; vice president of its Raynor Hospitality Group of Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express and Crowne Plaza hotels in 1994; executive vice president of Raynor Worldwide in 1997; and CEO of the Richards-Wilcox Door Systems/Canada subsidiary in 1999.

Neisewander was named Raynor’s third-generation president and CEO in 2004. He leads the company’s manufacturing, wholesale and retail distribution throughout North America and more than 20 international markets. He became chairman of Raynor Worldwide in 2013. He also is an independent board member for Detroit-based PVS Chemicals Inc. and serves on the board of directors for KSB Hospital in his hometown of Dixon, Ill.

“Ray has led innovation, expansion and growth of the company, and he has championed the role of the family and proper succession planning,” says Bill Hudson, president, international, of H.D. Hudson Manufacturing Company and chairman of Sasser Family Holdings, who has known Neisewander for 10 years. “He effectively planned for and managed the transition from G2 to G3 and has solid plans in place for G4.

“Ray has been a student of family business for his entire adult life. He is considered a subject-matter expert and often speaks and counsels on best practices.

“Ray instilled and nurtured a strong set of core values into the company that serve as the bedrock of their incredible high-performance, respectful and inclusive culture. Leading by example, Ray’s high morals and ethics have inspired their vast team that does business in over 50 countries and five continents.

“He has the unique ability to build on the business’s strong past while envisioning a future that goes beyond one or two more generations. His commitment to the perpetuation of the family business is really special.”

“My formal ‘family business’ education began when my grandfather passed away unexpectedly,” Neisewander says. “Like too many family businesses, our first- to second-generation transition was utter chaos. The business was prospering and the family was miserable. There had to be a better way.

“I stumbled on the writings of family business author and consultant Léon Danco, and later those of John Ward, at Loyola University’s Family Business Center. It was my first introduction to the unique dynamics common to family business practitioners. I began a lifelong pursuit of learning best practices for sustaining and perpetuating our family business — governance, management succession, ownership transitions, strategy formulation, next-generation development — while also promoting family unity, harmony and trust. As the current-generation steward of my family’s business, I am passionate about learning from the successes and failures of those that came before me, and doing better.”

Taylor Merritt
Third generation
Merritt Family Enterprise Henderson, Colo.

Taylor Merritt is chairman and CEO of the Merritt Family Enterprise, which consists of manufacturing companies as well as diverse investment holdings, primarily in commercial real estate and private equity. He is also the chairman and CEO of Merritt Trailers Inc. and Merritt Aluminum Products Company, manufacturers of transportation solutions for agriculture and aftermarket accessory products for the heavy-duty truck industry in North America.

Prior to accepting the concurrent roles of CEO for both Merritt Aluminum Products and Merritt Trailers, Merritt was the CFO of Merritt Equipment Co. His passion for finance, investments and business development helped grow the family business to the point that it blossomed into two separate entities in 2016 to keep up with growth and demand.

Merritt navigates both business paths by adhering to the core values of integrity, trust, excellence, respect and teamwork, as well as focusing on building a strong foundation centered on company culture.

In 2018, Merritt Aluminum Products developed and launched a new product line serving the commercial light truck market.

Merritt earned dual degrees in management and finance from the University of Denver Daniels College of Business, then completed the Owner President Management Program at Harvard Business School. He serves on the advisory board of the Bailey Program for Family Enterprise at the University of Denver.

In 2016, when the family split their 65-year-old company into two entities, Taylor Merritt, the only third-generation family member working in the company, became CEO of the newly formed aluminum company. In early 2019, his father, Everett, decided to retire as CEO of the trailer company, and Taylor took over the leadership of both companies, notes family business consultant Kristin Keffeler of Illumination 360.

“After only 15 months in the leadership seat for both companies, Taylor was faced with leading two manufacturing companies through a pandemic. With commitment and diligence, Taylor has led both companies through the challenges facing their supply chains and customer bases as a result of the pandemic, while always prioritizing the safety of both companies’ employees. In watching Taylor, I would expect him to be a CEO with decades of experience, not a CEO who is still under the age of 40.”

“I am the third-generation Merritt to take on the leadership role in stewarding the family enterprise. Bearing the family name that exists on every product our companies produce makes me want to ensure not only that I can be proud of what we’ve made, but every member of our team also feels that same sense of pride,” Merritt says.
“I have been humbled and inspired by the fortitude of my grandparents and the business acumen of my father. I have been able to apply elements of their skills and experience to develop a leadership style unique to my personality and entrepreneurial spirit.

“I firmly believe all strong leaders should first lead by example. Communication, integrity, humility, teamwork and mutual respect are core components to my leadership style. I continue to strive to better myself by engaging in educational and business development opportunities and encourage my leadership team to do the same.”

Steven P. Cote
Non-family
Chalmers Insurance Group, Bridgton, Maine

In January 2014, Cote became the first non-family member to assume the president/CEO title at the fourth-generation Chalmers Insurance Group. Founded in 1857, Chalmers has eight insurance agency locations — six in Maine and two in New Hampshire — and a staff of about 100. Cote is also an owner of the company, alongside fourth-generation family members Dottie Chalmers Cutter (vice ptesident of operations) and Jim Chalmers (vice president of sales).

An industry veteran, he is a trusted risk management adviser to individuals, families and businesses. His focus industry segments include hospitality, social services, nonprofit educational institutions and camps, as well as personal insurance and vacation rental properties.

Cote often serves as an advisory board member to Chalmers’ carrier partners. Current and past advisory relationships include Hanover Insurance, Liberty Mutual, Acadia Insurance, MMG Insurance, Main Street America Group (2017 National Council chairman), Patriot Insurance and Safeco (2020 Northeast Council vice chairman).

Cutter praises Cote’s hands-on approach and his transparent and consistent communication. “For the past several years, he has published weekly blogs with important messages to staff regarding client service, financials including growth and retention goals, as well as year-to-date goals with insurance company partners.,” she says. “He numbers each blog edition and once he gets to 100 editions, he changes the theme of the blog.

“With 200 blog editions archived, he is currently 88 editions into his first video (‘vlog’) series. At the end of every post, Steve recognizes co-workers who have earned praise from clients and other co-workers. This weekly recognition increases workplace motivation, which is something the company consistently monitors through frequent surveys.

“The latest motivational survey results from April 2020 indicated that 85% of the Chalmers Insurance Group workforce is considered motivated or highly motivated. (This compares to only 34% of employees being considered motivated/engaged across the United States, per Gallup 2018 data.) The survey results also indicate that the organization is extremely prideful, posting an impressive 4.45 out of a target score of 4.5. These results would not have been possible without the direct display of passion and leadership set by Steve’s example and modeled throughout the organization by every co-worker.

“He values being highly visible in the organization, listening to co-workers’ wins and losses, providing relevant insights and examples pertaining to client service and insurance coverage, as well as ‘shout-outs’ (or ‘Crush-Its,’ as the company refers to them).

“Steve has advanced the agency’s innovation and technology, keeping on top of industry trends through voracious reading. He has even pushed Chalmers Insurance Group to create their own weekly podcast, called ‘The Community Cast,’ which features a neighbor or a local leader, sharing their story, experiences, both successes and lessons learned, and how they pay it forward in their community.

“Communication and collaboration drive his success. He articulates goals, initiatives, challenges and general announcements actively via the company’s intranet. He holds quarterly roundtable meetings at each agency location (now being conducted over Zoom due to COVID-19) and shares year-to-date production data, reviews the company’s financial position and opens up about culture.

“Focused on continuous improvement, Steve has encouraged small charter groups of co-workers to take an idea for workplace or client service enhancement and ‘make it happen.’ Steve participates in all of the charters. Finally, Steve has introduced rigorous consultative training in areas such as leadership, building relationships, sales and time management.

“As president and CEO, Steve Cote wants nothing more than to ensure a successful transition of the family business to the fifth generation (the oldest currently in fifth grade), having thoughtfully paved the way for future success.”

“I do not think of myself as having ‘employees,’ but rather ‘co-workers.’ ” Cote says. “Our team understands our individual roles and how we can best work together to serve at a high level. We are a collaborative, innovative and trusting family, who both expect and embrace change.

“We believe that by continually elevating our business and keeping the organization relevant, we can provide deeper value to all we serve. We are intentional about recognizing and appreciating the extraordinary efforts of co-workers who practice our core values of service, honesty, involvement and passion.

“My relationship with the Chalmers family is open and honest because we share the same vision: We are simply stewards of this wonderful business. We will remain fiercely independent and, when the time is right, successfully transition leadership to the fifth generation.”

Brian Tuohey
First generation
Collins Pipe & Supply Co., East Windsor, Conn.

Tuohey joined Collins Pipe as its sales manager in 1983. In 1989 he was promoted to president, and in 1998 he purchased the company. Under his leadership, Collins has grown substantially. Founded 100 years ago, Collins is one of the oldest and largest industrial distributors of pipe, valves and fittings (PVF) and engineered specialties serving the industrial marketplace in the Northeast. On Jan. 1, 2020, Tuohey took on the CEO title and promoted Paul Andruszkiewicz, who had been vice president of sales, to president.

Over the last 20+ years, Collins has acquired Marsden and Wasserman in Hartford, Conn.; opened a new distribution center in East Windsor, Conn.; opened second and third locations in East Syracuse, N.Y., and Niagara Controls in Buffalo, N.Y.; opened two more locations in Bangor and Portland, Maine; and purchased Power House Supply in Haverhill, Mass., and International Valve & Instrument in Springfield, Mass. Sales have grown from approximately $2.5 million in 1983 to $45 million in 2020.

“I had heard for years of Brian Tuohey and his family business, Collins Pipe & Supply Company, and finally became acquainted recently, as he joined a peer advisory group that I facilitate,” says Ira Bryck, the Amherst, Mass.-based former director of the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley, current host of WHMP’s Western Mass Business Show and an adviser to business leaders.

“It has been my pleasure to discover this loving man of faith, who has grown the small distribution company he bought from a friend to its nine locations, with his five children in the next generation of leadership. I have been impressed by the goodwill and collaboration that he has instilled in his family members, who are a strikingly professional and familial group.

“I am moved by the business fundamentals the company has developed, and how they regularly drill down into how to make those guiding values real and effective for all concerned.

“I was not surprised when I suggested to Brian that he do something I’d just heard of: call front-line employees that he may not know well, to see how they’re doing during the pandemic and offer support and resources, as needed. He told me he had been doing that since the beginning of lockdown.

“He makes this all look easy, as he is so full of clarity and good cheer, at the same time that he is a thought leader to his employees and to colleagues in our roundtable. He has figured out how to sell expertise and value at the same time that he can supply you with pipes, valves and fittings.”

Citing Tuohey’s investments in his community, Bryck says, “His giving back is not forced, it comes from his view of the world as a place to do good. I think people who want to know how to do well while doing good would be wise to watch Brian Tuohey.”

“I might be one of the most blessed men on this planet, as at a very early age I dreamed of running and owning my own business. However, I had no idea how that was ever going to happen, as I had neither the financial resources nor business acumen to accomplish that goal,” Tuohey says.

“I come from a strong Irish Catholic family and attended Catholic grammar and high school and a Jesuit college, so I have always had a strong belief in God, and He made sure that my dream came true!

“At 33 years old, I got a phone call from a man that I knew only as an acquaintance. He told me that he had been praying for God to send him someone to run his business and that my face immediately popped into his mind. I told him that he could call 100 people and open with that statement and he’d probably be listening to 99 dial tones, but I was still on the line. I started at Collins that next Monday. A leap of faith, definitely, but I knew that God had a hand in making this opportunity happen, so I knew I was in good hands.

“I realized immediately how blessed I was to be afforded this extraordinary opportunity and immediately began to make Collins into a faith-based company that ‘treated people, as you would want to be treated,’ which is the fundamental principle on which our company still operates today.

“My children joined me at our family business 13 years ago because they believed, in their words, that ‘Collins was a company worth preserving,’ so I truly am twice blessed.’ I get to come to work every day at a business that I love, and I get to do it with my children, who I love even more!”

Phil Harrington
First generation
Kuder Inc., Adel, Iowa

Harrington, the youngest of nine children, grew up poor on a farm in Iowa and was asked to help support the family at age 9 after his father passed away, an experience that shaped his work ethic, says his son Connor Harrington, Kuder’s vice president of business intelligence.

Phil Harrington spent more than 10 years directing regional sales and marketing for MetLife. He was also the founder and president of a successful financial services corporation serving the Midwest.

The company is named after Dr. Frederic Kuder (1904-2000), a pioneer in vocational guidance who developed the Kuder Preference Record, one of the most-used career guidance instruments, in 1938.

In 1997, Harrington established a company he called Career Assessment Centers. He assembled a faculty of experts in career development theory to evaluate career education programs. This served as the foundation of a research-based career development system called Kuder Career Planning System.

Career Assessment Centers changed its name to National Career Assessment Services Inc. (NCASI) in 1998. NCASI developed the Iowa Career Learning Assessment, used by 15 states to evaluate career education programs.
In 1999, Dr. Kuder approved the transfer of the rights to his line of assessments from McGraw-Hill to NCASI. In 2007, NCASI merged with two subsidiaries to form Kuder Inc.

“The Kuder Career Planning System is used all across the U.S. as a career guidance system. It is the premier career guidance system for the country of Singapore and is expanding rapidly across the world,” Connor says.

Kuder has received the President’s “E Star” Award for Exports, the highest recognition a U.S. entity can receive for making a significant contribution to the expansion of U.S. exports.

Connor calls his father “one of the most inspiring, motivated and positive people on the planet.” All four of Phil Harrington’s children participate in the business, along with all three of his sons-in-law and his wife, Janice. “With the support of his family in leadership roles at the organization, Kuder is launching new products and seeking to radically grow the business,” Connor says.

“In an effort to build a business that will span for generations, Phil has taken many steps to ensure a smooth transition of ownership,” Connor says. “In the past two years, he has engaged with strategic counsel that specializes in family business transition. He has mentored his daughter Erin Milroy to take a leadership role as president. He has organized quarterly reviews of the ‘state of affairs’ with all members of the family involved in the business.

“In every action he takes, he considers the next generation, and the next. Like many successful first-generation owners, he has turned down many offers to sell the company in hopes that his children and their children will have the opportunity to grow with the business. His entire life has led up to where we are today, and the pivotal change of all of his family being involved with the business (in some fashion or another) has sparked a new fire for Phil.”

“We discovered the need for quality career planning tools and guidance when our daughter Erin was in her early teens,” Phil Harrington says. “She came home from school one day with a hastily devised ‘career plan’ that hadn’t given her the opportunity to assess her interests or explore her options.

“My wife, Janice, and I wanted Erin to plan for the future more effectively, but there were few resources available. We gathered a group of experts to determine how to help people of all ages discover and achieve what they want to become.

“The Kuder Career Planning System came to life in 1997. Since then, more than 165 million people throughout the world have used our career guidance resources to build brighter futures.

“We’re a mission-driven organization. As a family business, our core values serve as a framework for how we operate. We’re committed to cultivating a flourishing workplace culture for all of our employees, and we look forward to making an impact for generations to come.”

Ben Foster
Fourth generation
Twin Valley Telephone Inc./ISG Technology, Overland Park, Kan.

“The Twin Valley family of companies operates in two ultra-competitive spaces, telecommunications (voice/internet/video and business services) via the Twin Valley companies in north central Kansas, and IT technology/managed services via ISG Technology, operating in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma,” notes Scott Leitzel, chief operating officer at Twin Valley and human resources executive at ISG Technology.

“In order to remain competitive in these spaces, a CEO must be forward-thinking, bold and willing to push him/herself and team outside traditional comfort zones, time and time again,” says Leitzel, who has reported directly to Foster for 10 years. “Ben operates in this manner on a consistent basis, and in partnership with previous generations has led [the business] to growth that would not otherwise have occurred.”

Foster joined Twin Valley Telephone in 2004 as vice president of operations. He rose to chief operating officer and was named CEO in 2014. Prior to Twin Valley he was the director of consumer support centers and chief of staff at SBC, now AT&T.

At Twin Valley Telephone, he managed the integration and subsequent upgrade of 13 exchanges and 6,000 customers, which tripled the size of the company. He brought in the company’s first two non-family executives and led the acquisition of ISG Technology as a diversification strategy.

Five of the seven fourth-generation members work in the business, Leitzel notes. “This presents a unique responsibility in which Ben serves as CEO of the Twin Valley family of companies while representing the collective ownership and heritage of the company, which dates to 1947.

“Ben has done this while serving on multiple boards, including currently serving as chairman of KsFiberNet and ESPi.”

“I am passionate about being a positive steward of the business that we inherited from previous generations,” Foster says. “I do this by living by the values that we were taught and talking about those values with our team. I wish to leave the next generation a family asset that is more resilient and larger than what we received. Improving ownership cohesion, hiring professional board members and mentoring key executives with expertise that goes beyond my own are three ways of ensuring that my skillset improves and is never the limiting factor to my family achieving our goals for the company.

“Family businesses are important to the economy and broader society because we put the heart behind the capital, as well as a longer-term horizon that helps solve bigger problems. I find tremendous purpose in being a small part of the positive impact our companies make.”

Edward G. Saxon
Second generation
Conco Services LLC, Verona, Pa.

Edward G. “Gunner” Saxon is the CEO of Conco Services LLC, which offers an integrated platform of products and services for condensers and heat exchangers. For more than 35 years, Saxon has been a principal leader in the business, expanding Conco from a manufacturing-only facility of mechanical cleaners into a service provider in the power generation, international power and global petrochemical markets. Eighty percent of its business is in the U.S. energy market, and 20% is generated by three offshore subsidiaries.

Conco, founded in 1923, was owned and operated by the Saxon-Goldish family since 1971. “Through several years we had been working on succession planning,” says Saxon’s brother George Saxon, a consultant to the company. The outcome was a sale of 70% of the company to a private equity investment firm, “allowing for some family shareholders to retire, some to roll over their previous investment into the new company and some to stay on and continue to produce and participate,” George Saxon says.

“The going was complicated, packaging our 48 years of business into a prospectus to attract investors. The exercise resulted in the reflection of many accomplishments over the years, from the first generation to the third. All felt a great sense of pride. The family grew closer as our presentations continued through the interested suitors. In the end an investment was consummated and the company is off to new highs.

“Ed is now the CEO of the new company, which still employs many of his children and their spouses, as well as his nephew. In proceeding the intent is to grow the company from $34 million to more than $70 million with the additional funding secured.”

“I am proud to have helped nurture and grow Conco into the success it is today,” Edward Saxon says. “Our hard work, diligence, openness and ability to change and persevere is something unmatched in today’s market.
“I look forward to working with our outside partners to help further grow and better Conco for years to come. Together we will continue to strive to achieve legendary success by exceeding our customers’ expectations.”

John G. Doyle Jr.
Fourth generation
Doyle Security Systems Inc., Rochester, N.Y.

Doyle is president and CEO of the company, which was founded in 1919 by his great-grandfather, John A. Doyle.
Doyle Security is headquartered in Rochester, N.Y., with additional branch locations in Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, Catskill and Fishkill, N.Y., as well as Erie, Pa. The company provides commercial and residential alarm systems, video and access systems, medical monitoring systems plus a broad range of additional security services. It operates a UL-listed central station.

Doyle Security Systems currently ranks as the 30th largest company in its industry, and recurring monthly revenues have grown at a compound annual rate of more than 10% since Doyle joined the company in 1981. Previously, he worked in sales for the Burroughs (Unisys) Corporation. He took over the reins from his father in 1986.

Outside of his endeavors at Doyle Security Systems, Doyle served many years as a director and chairman of Lifetime Health Inc., which operates Excellus Blue Cross and Blue Shield, plus MedAmerica, a national long-term healthcare insurance company. He also served as an elected official in the Monroe County legislature and as a councilman in the town of Brighton.

Two of Doyle’s four children, Jack Doyle and Alexandra Doyle-Justis, work for the company. Doyle-Justis, marketing specialist at Doyle Security, says her father has been “quietly yet actively preparing our family to decide if we want to be a part of the family business at any point in our careers.

“Ever since we were young kids (before I can even truly remember), he has hosted family meetings to teach us about the company and update up on how things are going each year. We grew up knowing that we had the option, without any pressure from him, to one day work within the family business if we met the criteria he laid out for us. It was never a requirement and it was never pushed upon us. Jack always knew he wanted to join, whereas it happened much more slowly and organically for me.

“Doyle Security has grown significantly through my dad’s use of smart acquisitions and steady growth strategies. As my siblings and I have gotten older and entered the workforce, my dad even hired family business consultants to help us write a family constitution together and more formally work towards our goals: family harmony, keep the business in the family, keep the business strong, among others.

“This work has been invaluable to not only our family, but to the company as well. Having a third-party consultant to help walk us through these (sometimes difficult) decisions and planning processes has been priceless.

“Doyle Security Systems would not be as poised for continued family ownership into the fifth generation without the huge amount of work my dad has put in to get us there. Similarly, our family wouldn’t be nearly as harmonious through it all without my dad’s (and my mom’s) hard work to get us here.”

“I have often reflected on the serendipity of being born into a family that owned a small and successful business,” Doyle says. “Serendipitous because I’ve felt an entrepreneurial streak inside for as long as I can remember, and I feel very lucky to have had a built-in opportunity to engage with it.

“Additionally, family is very important to me. To have been able to pursue my entrepreneurial interest and work with my father at the start of my career, and now with my own children, is a dream come true.

“The cherry on top is the service industry we are in: security. Working with so many talented people, including immediate family members, to provide peace of mind to many thousands of families and businesses is highly rewarding, motivating and inspiring. Together we provide a vitally important service for our community while cultivating a growing asset at the same time.”         

Family Business CEOs to Watch is presented by BDO.

Ben's Chili Bowl: A spicy landmark in the nation's capital

Tucked away on a once-trendy, once-forsaken, now-trendy-again street in Washington, D.C., stand two national monuments perhaps less publicized but certainly as beloved as the museums and memorials that make the nation’s capital a top tourist destination.

One is the world-famous Lincoln Theatre, built in 1922 and venue for jazz and big band performers of legend, including Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey and Louis Armstrong. The prominence of the theater and its star-studded calendar helped create what became known as Black Broadway in the middle of downtown.

The other, equally renowned, is the original Ben’s Chili Bowl, which opened on Aug. 22, 1958, under the management of co-owners Ben and Virginia Ali. More than six decades later, Virginia still makes the rounds at her two D.C. locations: 1213 U St. N.W., a historic site in its own right (initially the Minnehaha, the first silent movie theater in Washington, built in 1910), and 1001 H St. N.E. She offers quiet guidance, chili-making secrets and a historical perspective to the second generation, her three sons and their spouses now running the business, and the emerging third generation of three grandchildren.

The early days
A young Ben Ali, firstborn to a Muslim Indian family in then-British Trinidad and Tobago, immigrated to the United States in 1945 to pursue his studies at the University of Nebraska, with plans for a medical career.

That dream was short-circuited when he fell down an elevator shaft and broke his back. In the end, he received his college diploma from Howard University.

Along the way, Ben met Virginia Rollins and made plans to marry. But before they did, the two lovebirds took a giant step together and signed a five-year lease for a restaurant location on  U Street in the heart of downtown. Ben and Virginia shared a love of spicy foods, Ben made a mean chili and they knew they had a great product. Determined to control their own destiny, they scraped together $5,000, a princely sum at the time, and launched a business.

“We both were working, so we were able to put together our own funding,” Virginia Ali, known as Mom by one and all, remembers. “It seemed like a lot at the time, and it still does.” The lease was signed, local contractors were engaged, suppliers were enlisted and what would become the flagship restaurant opened with Ben, or Pop, at the door and Mom behind the counter. Seven weeks later they married. Performers and concertgoers from the Lincoln started a parade of celebrities and politicians that augmented a built-in local clientele of hungry diners looking for something different.

“We wanted to be self-employed,” Mom says, “and the restaurant business looked good. Ben felt that there were already many hamburger joints in the neighborhood. We wanted to stand out, and the Ben’s Original Half-Smoke and Chili was our recipe for success. It turned out that people really appreciated this bright new shiny place called Ben’s.”

What Ben and Virginia couldn’t see in those early years was the impact the gradual erosion of segregation would have on their restaurant. As the local Black population began to experiment with newfound freedoms, the economy of U Street took a hit. Restaurants just a few blocks away that had been off limits to Black patrons suddenly became alluring. At the same time, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, white-owned businesses started moving onto U Street, “and Black Broadway was slowly erased from history.”

But the Alis were busy with the restaurant and even busier with the arrival of three sons: Haidar (nicknamed Sage), then Kamal and then Nizam. A growing business and a growing family consumed all waking hours. To make sure there was always a “Ben” in the store, all three boys were given the middle name Ben, Mom says with a smile.

A terrible day, two terrible decades
When you’re about to celebrate your 10th anniversary as a successful small family business, it’s tempting to feel like you’ve really made it. Business along the U Street corridor had made a comeback and was brisk. Performers, staffers and patrons continued to stream in from the Lincoln next door. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed in 1964 and 1965. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. set up a satellite office of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference a few doors away from Ben’s and started to pop in from time to time when he was in town for lunch with staff and visitors. The Great Society was on the march and the future looked bright.

Such was the atmosphere at the Bowl in the early spring of 1968, but the assassination of Dr. King on April 4 that year changed everything. Rioters essentially burned U Street to the ground, sparing only a few businesses, including Lincoln Theater and the Chili Bowl.

“When the first person came into the store and said Dr. King had been shot, we just couldn’t believe it,” Mom recalls. “A few hours later we heard on the radio that he had died. It was a very scary time. People came in crying, and then frustration led to anger, which led to uprising.”

Mom recalls with pride being asked by the city government to stay open as much as possible during those four days of turmoil, and the Bowl served activists, protesters, first responders, local police and the National Guard side by side. Activist organizer Stokely Carmichael asked D.C. mayor Walter Washington to exempt Ben’s Chili Bowl from the curfew so people could have a comfortable place to gather and eat. The mayor said yes.

But the damage was done. From a fading but fabled history as Black Broadway, U Street was plunged into a darkness that reigned for 20 years. The twin scourges of heroin and crack cocaine dealt a virtual death blow to anything but very local patronage. Even people who knew and loved the Chili Bowl did not venture into the mean streets bracketing the store’s location.

The next hard hit, ironically, had been sold to the public as a revitalizing force: the Washington Metro. As luck would have it, construction of the U Street Station and the underground subway tracks, which began in 1987, required a hole 60 feet deep along U Street as well as the boarding up of much of the street front. Available parking was blocks away. Virginia and a single employee kept the store open for those difficult years until the station and Metro’s Green Line finally opened in May 1991.

“What had been a disaster for the Bowl turned into a godsend,” Mom says. On opening day for the U Street Station, Ben’s posted a banner reading, “We Survived Metro.” Suddenly, folks from all over town could meet and eat at Ben’s. Business began a steady pace of rebuilding, and Mom started hiring, always with an eye to Ben’s original vision, mission and values.

With the renewed popularity of the Bowl and the widening scope of customers and friends, one thing led to another. In 1994 Ben’s Chili Bowl won the prestigious James Beard Award as one of America’s Classics. By then, the Bowl had been serving up what is now widely recognized as the signature dish of the nation’s capital for more than three decades. It had become the down-home go-to place for Washingtonians and friends from everywhere.

So much so that in 2009, Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty brought President-Elect Barack Obama and some of his staff to the Bowl for lunch and good cheer. Mom remembers that visit as one of the proudest days of Ben’s life. And Obama isn’t the only politician, entertainer or celebrity to make a stop at the Bowl. Just ask George Bush or Dave Chappelle, Bono or Serena Williams, or even Pope Francis!

All in the family
The years since 1958 have flown past, and the Ali family has not given too much attention to the documents, covenants and structures that undergird many successful multigenerational family enterprises. Even six decades later, Ben’s Chili Bowl retains the cachet of a true mom-and-pop family business. It has remained a small business with fewer than 50 employees.

Ben died in 2009, leaving Mom as sole owner. All three sons already had entered the business as executives without portfolio. Sage’s wife, Vida, says even today there are barely formal titles within the company’s organization chart, and those titles are invoked only when some legal or licensing issue requires the signature of the CEO or another company officer. Vida could call herself chief brand officer, but she’s more likely to just say that she handles public and media relations.

“Chief cook and bottle washer” simply cannot be sustained over more than a generation or two, and the family is looking at how best to transition the business from Mom to her sons. They are all equal partners and co-heirs, with two wives working at Ben’s Chili Bowl as well. It’s a bit unclear if the third generation will follow their parents into the hospitality arena, but that door is open. “We want them to be free to pursue their own passions and goals,” says Kamal. “We would be thrilled if any or all of them wanted to take charge downstream. But we’ve got another couple of good decades left in us.”

The Alis hold an all-family meeting on Thursday afternoons, and discussion of late has included consideration and creation of key family documents, a succession plan, formalizing transfer of the business and a potential move to non-family executive management. In fact, says Vida, “The opportunity to work with Family Business Magazine has refocused us on some key processes that should be addressed sooner than later.”

When reputation is bigger than the business
The stellar global reputation of Ben’s Chili Bowl has created new business opportunities. When the three sons divvied up responsibilities for a growing organization, Kamal took retail, Sage began looking at expansion and franchising, and Nizam selected e-commerce.

“I have a real passion for e-commerce,” Nizam says. “We have shipped to all 50 states and to countries around the world. If you can’t come to the Bowl, we’ll come to you.” Likewise, adds Kamal, at more and more venues around the country you’ll be able to find Ben’s Chili Bowl products, including the half-smokes, the chili con carne and the veggie chili. “We’ve been at Costco for a few years, and we want to engage additional big box and brick-and-mortar retail outlets,” he says. “We’re making a real effort to diversify.”

“One tenet of our philosophy, which comes from Mom and Pop, is that the right partner is just as important as the right location,” Vida says. She is putting out the word that Ben’s Chili Bowl is open to discussions with interested parties, including potential franchisees. “If you’re in the hospitality business, if you know and love Ben’s Chili Bowl, and if you see a future in growing with us, we want to hear from you,” she says.

It’s all part of projecting a larger footprint for a beloved food product. Sage, the lead on franchising, has seen some ups and downs as the COVID-19 crisis has played out around the world. The original store and the H Street location are the anchors of the organization. He and the family have engineered a number of local franchises, including a stand at D.C.’s Reagan International Airport, one at Nationals Park baseball stadium, one for the Washington Football Team at FedEx Field and another at the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore. Beyond the region, the world is waiting, he says.

What the future holds
Like restaurants nationwide, the Bowl has struggled during the pandemic. “COVID-19 has been devastating to our business,” says Vida. “We went down 90% in just a few weeks. We hadn’t really focused on the fact that we had evolved into a tourist destination as well as a local restaurant and gathering place. The tour buses stopped pulling up out front, that just completely disappeared.” As of mid-September, however, business had returned to around 50%, which Vida attributes to “the outpouring of love and support from our local community.”

Nizam, channeling his father, says, “The fun of our family is being able to take charge of our passions and see where we can go with them.” For more than 60 years, that passion has driven the phenomenon known worldwide as Ben’s Chili Bowl. With the U Street flagship location and Ben’s Chili Bowl on H Street, the business is hanging on, and the family sees a bright future ahead. Inquiries from potential partners have come in from places as far-flung as Switzerland, Dubai, Singapore, Australia, and China, as well as many states in the U.S. “There’s a real appetite out there for Ben’s chili,” Kamal says.

“We’re giving it our best shot every day,” says Mom, with a philosophy that “this too shall pass.” The Bowl, Mom says, has seen a lot of changes over the past 62 years, and has weathered many different storms. “The pandemic,” she says, “is certainly something that we never faced in my lifetime. It’s the most challenging thing we have ever encountered because it involves illness and even worse.” At the same time, Mom adds, “we’re still fighting for civil rights, just like we were in August 1958.”

Nonetheless, Mom hits the original U Street Ben’s nearly every day. “I just can’t wait to hang out at the Chili Bowl. We’re strong, we’re together, and we can’t fail.”            

VIRGINIA ALI ON BLACK LIVES MATTER, FALL 2020:

“I remember Dr. King stopping in the Chili Bowl to share his dream with us. I remember that his whole philosophy was nonviolence — let’s demonstrate nonviolently — and it was effective.

“We were able to pass the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, the Voting Rights Bill in 1965. But today we still have problems, our basic human rights are still being violated, our sons and daughters are suffering at the hands of the police today.

“We’ve got to find a way to make systemic change in the laws of our country, and I am so grateful to all the demonstrators who have protested peacefully. We’ve had so many that are just agitators, and that certainly does not help the cause.

“We cannot continue to destroy our communities. We’ve got to come together in harmony and peace and love and demonstrate nonviolently, as Dr. King taught us to do, and make this change. We’re going to get it done. And please try to get it done before I leave this earth. I’m 86 years old. Thank you so much. I love you all.”

Virginia Ali reaches her 87th birthday on December 17.

Ben’s Mission, Vision and F.A.M.I.L.Y. Values

MISSION
Our mission is simple: to provide great food and a fun, memorable experience where team members are like family and visitors are embraced as guests in our home.

VISION
Our vision is to bring a small piece of our home to diverse communities throughout the world. We believe that each restaurant reflects our home and is the heart of the community in which it is embedded. Ben’s is a place where people come to soak up a rich and growing history, build lasting friendships and experience the great food, service and personal attention that they deserve.

VALUES
Ben’s F.A.M.I.L.Y. Values are an integral part of providing our guests with an unforgettable experience. We strive to incorporate these values into everything we do and in all our interactions.

Friendship — Friendship is something to be cherished, and we do our best to treat each individual with respect and honesty as we would our friends, in hopes of creating strong, lasting relationships.

Appreciation — We always look for ways to connect with, laugh with, and uplift the lives of everyone we come in contact with, even if just for a few moments. This way, our actions show how much we truly value them.

Motivation — We constantly strive to motivate each other, because we believe that when we are inspired and show genuine love for everything we do, our guests will feel the warmth that makes Ben’s so unique.

Inclusion — When people feel a sense of belonging, our restaurants become a haven, a break from outside worries and a place where they can feel at home.

Love — We commit ourselves to interact both professionally and personally with each other and those we serve in a courteous, kind and respectful manner. We go the extra mile to show that we care.

You — The most important value we have is people, because without great people we would not exist. We hold ourselves accountable in making sure that our guests know they always come first.

Ben’s Mantra: Great Food Today, Good Friends Tomorrow, Fun and Family Forever!

OUR PHILOSOPHY
We are committed to:

• Exceeding the expectations of our guests 

• Providing a workplace that enhances the lives of our team members 

• Maintaining a company vision which stimulates growth and profitability 


We believe that success and profitability can only be achieved with wholehearted support from each and every team member. Because we recognize how important you are, we have made a firm commitment to: 


• Create a workplace where all team members are recognized and respected for their contributions.

• Provide the direction and leadership necessary to ensure that every team member has a part in making Ben’s a success.


• Promote teamwork. It is our policy to handle team members fairly and honestly and to respect and recognize each as an individual. In addition, we strive to provide opportunities for growth and development wherever possible. You were selected from other applicants to work at Ben’s because we believe you have the ability, desire and energy to contribute to our team. Through your contribution, you can help create an opportunity for your personal and professional growth. 


The Mission, Vision, Values and Philosophy were created back in 1958 and were codified in 2012 as a document that can be shared with team members, partners, suppliers and others working with Ben’s Chili Bowl.

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.    

 

Bringing joy, and fresh food, to low-income communities

Even if you don’t live in Greater Philadelphia, you may be familiar with Jeffrey Brown, a fourth-generation grocer who is chairman and CEO of Brown’s Super Stores. About half of the 12 ShopRite and Fresh Grocer stores Jeff operates are located in “food deserts” — urban areas where residents lack access to stores selling fresh food.

You may recall Jeff from President Barack Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address, when the grocer was among Michelle Obama’s guests. Jeff was an adviser to the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, part of the first lady’s “Let’s Move!” campaign aimed at ending childhood obesity.

You might have seen Jeff in 2015 on PBS NewsHour, which praised his work to build “an oasis in a Philadelphia food desert.”

More recently, you might have seen him on CNN, lamenting slow police response to the looting of two of his stores amid the national unrest after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police.

Jeff, his family and store personnel rushed to reopen the two decimated stores within a week to ensure his customers had a source of fresh food and the other services his ShopRites provide.

After the looting, “We must’ve received 15,000 notes from customers,” says Jeff, 56. “A lot of them felt bad that there wasn’t something they could do to prevent this. And they just wanted to express a lot of love and affection for the work we do and our commitment to them.”

The word “love” comes up frequently when Jeff speaks about his relationship with his urban customers. That relationship dates back generations.

Jeff’s great-grandfather opened a small grocery store in an inner-city neighborhood, and the family has been serving low-income shoppers ever since. Jeff recalls accompanying his father to work at age 8, chatting with customers and employees. He grew up viewing ethnic diversity as normal. Today the majority of customers in his urban stores are Black.

Brown's Super Stores’ mission is “to bring joy to the lives of the people we serve.”

“If you’re building a business basically to bring joy to people that have very little joy in their lives and it’s going to be super difficult to do it, you have to be motivated,” Jeff says.

The mission helps unite a multiethnic team around a shared purpose and a roadmap to achieve it. Brown’s Super Stores doesn’t just sell groceries; the company aims to solve problems in the communities where its stores are located.

Food desert economics
When his father sold his stores to a public company in 1987, Jeff, the 23-year-old CFO of the business, decided to open his own stores. He joined Wakefern Food Corp., a buying cooperative whose brands include ShopRite and the newer Fresh Grocer.

He opened his first store in December 1988, taking over a money-losing ShopRite in Philadelphia’s Roxborough neighborhood. The young entrepreneur, who graduated from Babson College and in 2012 was named to the school’s Hall of Fame, earned credibility by orchestrating a turnaround of the store. He opened two more stores in 1995 and 1999.

Jeff’s wife, Sandy, says her husband’s devotion to the business comes from his father, Lenny, who died in 1995.
“A job is a job,” Sandy says. “But if you have an excitement and a passion about something, that’s what makes the difference. I think his father ­really gave him that passion and that love.” Sandy, Jeff’s executive assistant, has managed a variety of projects at the company over 25 years.

In 2000, Jeff opened his first store in an urban neighborhood, in a declining shopping center in Cheltenham, just outside the city limits.

While grocers’ profit margins are low— about 1% to 3% of sales, depending on the item — the challenges are even greater for stores in low-income communities. The average sale is lower, and training, security and insurance costs are higher.

“We had done early work before we opened the first store to calculate that the gap was somewhere around 5% of sales,” Jeff says, comparing margins in poor and higher-income communities. “So instead of making that 1% of sales bottom line, it would be a 4% loss.”

Poor consumers buy lower-cost commodity items rather than value-added products, which yield higher margins. What’s more, the challenges these consumers face — such as violence and dependence on public transit — also affect stores that serve them.

Most grocers bridge the gap in low-income areas by charging higher prices, paying lower wages and reducing quality standards. Jeff found a different solution.

“Our thought was that we could use entrepreneurial creativity to solve about half that gap,” he says. To make up the rest, “We would need some sort of financial engineering solution or a public-private partnership to give us a fighting chance. A lot of our innovations have to do with how we could take advantage of existing economic-development tools.”

Jeff has succeeded with this approach and is bringing it to others through a non-profit organization he founded.

“When they opened up the ShopRite, it made a lot of the grocery decisions much easier and much more convenient,” says Alexandra McFadden, board president of the Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation, made up of residents and organizations in the West Philadelphia neighborhood where the Browns have had a store since 2008. Before then, many residents had to take a long bus ride or costly taxi to reach a grocery store, she notes.

Serving the community
In 2010, when the Browns launched their company’s mission to bring joy to the lives of the people it serves, they established four brand attributes: authentic products, affordability, community responsibility and an enjoyable shopping experience.

They also set out four core values: seek understanding, be flexible, show respect and act responsibly.
Before opening a store, they meet with community members to seek input on shoppers’ expectations and how the store might meet their needs.

The Browns take note of community members’ heritage and stock their traditional foods: halal meat for Muslims, ackee fruit for Jamaicans, fufu flour for West Africans, sweet potato pie for Black Americans. Competitors who stock specialty items in affluent neighborhood stores neglect this service in poor neighborhoods.

“We’ll have people come into a store and [say], ‘I cannot believe you carry this product. I haven’t seen this anywhere since I left my country.’ That brings them joy,” Sandy says.

Some of the Browns’ stores offer additional services, such as a pharmacy, ecommerce, a health clinic with sliding-scale fees and a credit union (with no minimum balance requirement, no monthly maintenance fee and no ATM fees).
The family’s two Fresh Grocer stores offer prepared meals and high-quality perishables, emulating the Whole Foods experience in neighborhoods where Whole Foods wouldn’t open.

The Brown family is a strong supporter of community organizations.

“I put on a lot of events in the community,” says Tracey L. Fisher, founder and CEO of Gateway to Re-Entry, which provides education and support for returning citizens — people released from prison who are reintegrating into society. “Any time Gateway to Re-Entry called, Jeff automatically donated.

“Not only did he come physically and give his time and volunteer, but he does it as well through [donating] his products.”

Staffing up
Jeff’s stores are unionized, as his father’s were. Sandy says most of the workforce is drawn from the stores’ neighborhoods, although employees are moved around as they rise within the organization.

“If I were to open a store in a suburban area, we would get lots of applications from experienced people in the food business,” Jeff says. In urban areas, there are exponentially more applicants because of high unemployment, but most lack experience. “In many cases, they may never have worked before.”

When Sandy joined the company, she developed its human resources function. At the time, Jeff was in the process of purchasing his second store.

Sandy had worked for Unilever and Revlon and had a strong HR background. “I recognized that I didn’t have a world-class human resource capability,” Jeff says. “And I always marveled at what she did in that area.”

“I had no idea what you needed to be a good deli worker or how to train a deli clerk. So I had to basically learn all of those different positions, and then I proceeded to write the training programs,” Sandy says. “Over time, I gained the knowledge and the background on the interviewing style.”

At a town hall meeting to discuss the opening of the Parkside store in 2008, a community member urged Jeff to hire returning citizens.

“She explained to me that a lot of people in West Philadelphia have a criminal record, and they’re never going to be the type of customers they should because they can’t get work. And maybe I had the capability to solve that problem,” Jeff recalls.

He took the suggestion to heart and hired six returning citizens, originally as an experiment. Today, about 700 of the company’s 2,500 employees are returning citizens. Some hold store manager positions.

Fisher says when he was starting his organization, “Jeff Brown, literally personally, made phone calls to all his stores to hire my returning citizen guys. It made me more credible when I was going to the prisons and telling them, ‘When you come home, I got a job for you.’ ”

The biggest issue with returning citizens, Jeff says, is not theft or violence but the use of street language in the workplace — a problem that can easily be fixed with training. He’s found that turnover among these employees is low and loyalty is high.

Sandy, who has been involved in many aspects of the business, currently works on store design, customer relations, retail technology and social media. “She’s been a tremendous contributor to the business,” Jeff says.

Jeff and Sandy’s eldest son, Joshua, 29, has worked in the business for two years. Josh, who studied business at Cornell University, previously worked for a private equity real estate fund. At Brown’s Super Stores, he’s training to replace the company’s longtime CEO, who plans to retire.

“I thought that his finance skills were just tremendous, and really were enhanced and refined during his work experience on the outside,” Jeff says of his son. “As a kid, he worked in the business and truly valued the human aspect of what we do.”

Josh spent his first year rotating through various departments. “We wanted him to understand at the operating level how everything works,” Jeff says. “And he also wanted to show the team that that he’s willing to work and do what they do.” He has learned every operating manager’s job and every role in finance.

Of course, no one had planned for a pandemic and destructive looting to be part of Josh’s training program. “I knew going in, no matter what happened, this wasn’t going to be easy,” Josh says. “I’m prepared to fight the long fight.”

Destruction and rebuilding
The looting on May 31-June 1 “was not a complete shock to us,” Jeff says. “My family in the ’60s had inner-city stores that went through the same thing, and so we always understood that this was a possibility. History tends to repeat itself.”

The Browns’ ShopRites in the Nicetown neighborhood of North Philadelphia and in the Parkside community were completely destroyed. At press time, Jeff was still awaiting final figures but estimated the damage would total about $2.5 million. He anticipated that most would be covered by insurance.

Community members joined store staff in the cleanup effort. “As soon as they could help, they came out in large numbers,” Jeff says.

“I understand the anger and the pain” over police killings that drove the unrest, McFadden says. “But it was also very frustrating for me. That’s my grocery store.

“I felt like it was so many steps backward for people who are living on the edge of food insecurity as it is.”

Each store had to be thoroughly cleaned. Workers “needed to refill that whole store with thousands and thousands of products, and then also do all the work to put in the flooring and fix the doors and the windows.,” Josh says. “It was such a tremendous effort.”

Sandy worked the phones, trying to replace registers and self-checkout systems that were damaged beyond repair.
Did the Browns consider leaving their inner-city locations after the looting? “Not for one second,” Sandy says. During the unrest, she says, the family’s focus was, “‘How fast we can fix all this, and how are we going to secure it so this doesn’t happen again?”

Both stores reopened within a week.

“Seeing how our team responded, how we all pulled together, drove home for me why it is we do what we do every day,” Josh says. “I think it says a lot about the way we think about the community and the way we want to be involved.”

The Browns held store reopening ceremonies centered on remarks by local clergy.

“We felt that it would be important to have almost a religious-type ceremony with all the different faiths we serve, and just stay away from political speeches because, obviously, the public sector let us down,” Jeff says.

“All we did was communicate it on social media, and we had a very large turnout at both. They were very moving, genuine ceremonies, with a lot of affection and love for our life’s work.”

Fisher, who attended the Parkside ceremony, was moved when Jeff introduced a group of returning citizens who had been promoted to managers. “I was so proud that moment, watching him bring up people that I bought to him years ago that’s managers now.”

Pandemic protections
Jeff and other Wakefern cooperative members prepared early for COVID-19, having been alerted by peers from Asia and Italy.

“Before the CDC came out with advice on masks, we procured masks and started requiring our employees to wear them, and we started temperature checks,” Jeff says.

“Every day there were innovations like plexiglass shields. We kept track of how many people were in the store at one time.” Graphics were placed on the floor to promote 6-foot distancing, and sanitizing stations were installed in the shopping cart area. Shower curtains separated self-checkout stations and, later, were hung behind cashiers.

“We immediately came out with hazard pay for all our workers to give them a reward for coming in,” Jeff says.

COVID-19 hit grocery retailers first. “But then it started to spread to all of our vendors,” Jeff says.

“Industry by industry would start to get shut down. And as it spread through the country and more and more of the food system was impaired, the logistics of getting product became very difficult. So then we had a new wave of figuring out, how do we get products to our stores?

“That was a much more difficult job than [after] the looting. The looting happened, we fixed it, we were open within a week.” Months into the pandemic, “we still have logistics problems getting certain kinds of merchandise.”

The pandemic has also disrupted office operations.

“Since COVID, I’ve had to increase the number of things that I handle,” Sandy says. Among them: adding third-party logistics companies like DoorDash to accommodate the increased demand for deliveries.

Josh notes that along with day-to-day operations, the business is also coping with the challenges of COVID and the aftermath of the looting.

“Various little things in our society that fall apart go unnoticed until they become a problem,” Josh says. One example is a coin shortage in the United States, which arose because nowadays fewer people are using cash.
“So now I’m trying to find coin. Our team is looking for ways to work without it.”

Challenges from right and left
Jeff has faced off with politicians from both sides of the aisle, opposing policies that hurt his customers and his business.

He’s criticized conservatives’ calls for a significant reduction in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). “Of course, in a very impoverished area, the people count on that to get their food, and my business model counts on that,” Jeff says. “So we would often find ourselves in Washington fighting conservatives and explaining to them, you can’t sustain an infrastructure to serve the poor if you take away the revenue of SNAP. Besides, we already know that the sink-or-swim mentality does not result in a lot of people miraculously going to work, because the opportunities just don’t exist where they live.”

More devastating to his business, Jeff says, is the beverage tax imposed by Philadelphia’s Democratic mayor, James Kenney. The tax, 1.5 cents per ounce, is levied  on sweetened caloric (regular) and non-caloric (diet) non-alcoholic beverages.

“Of all the things I’ve dealt with, the beverage tax was the most absolutely damaging, and for absolutely no benefit to society.”

Despite his efforts to improve customers’ health outcomes, Jeff says, Hispanic and Black consumers prefer sweet beverages. “It’s a very hardwired preference.”

After the tax was instituted in the city in 2017, the price of sweetened beverages doubled in Jeff’s Philadelphia stores. His fears came true: Shoppers with the means to do so traveled to suburban stores to buy their beverages and, while there, also bought their other groceries.

“It was devastating to revenues,” Jeff says. “Some of the stores were down 25%.” That blew up his meticulously designed business model for stores in low-income areas.

Jeff sold one of his stores “because, in my way of analysis, there was no way to correct the damage that was done.” He’s still operating three other stores that are struggling because of the tax.

“And of course, after a lot of years and an incredible number of studies, what we feared the most was true: There was virtually no reduction in sugar intake among the poor.”

Public health researchers from Drexel University, for example, polled Philadelphians and those from neighboring areas outside the city a year after the tax went into effect. Of the city residents, 39% reported drinking fewer sugar-sweetened beverages than they did a year earlier, compared with 34% of respondents outside the city — not a statistically significant difference.

Public service initiatives
Jeff was a founder of the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a public-private financing program to attract grocery stores to underserved communities. The program began in 2004 and ended six years later when all its funds were deployed.

In 2009, Jeff and Sandy created a non-profit organization called Uplift Solutions, whose original purpose was to assist with grocery store development in low-income communities nationwide. It grew out of a request from Thomas Vilsack, Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture.

Uplift now has an executive director and a team that includes Jeff and Sandy’s youngest son, Scott, 23, a Saint Joseph’s University student who serves as Uplift’s fund development officer. The mission has also expanded.

Besides offering food service consulting nationally, Uplift provides workforce training to returning citizens through a program called Workforce Solutions. Via a program called Philly Food Rescue, it distributes food that would otherwise go to waste to groups serving the needy.

Jeff is also a board member of the Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund, which distributes up to $3,000 in forgivable loans to small businesses shut out of federal Paycheck Protection Program loans.

The program, created in April, has primarily helped urban minority- and woman-owned businesses that have struggled during COVID-19. In addition to providing the loans, fund officials offer advice to the business owners.

Planning for the future
The fifth generation of Browns has been working with a consultant to establish a collaborative business relationship.
Jeff and Sandy suspect that Scott might be interested in joining the company in the future.

“He seems very interested in the business, and he’s very motivated by the mission,” Jeff says.

“Scott’s people skills are off the charts. His emotional intelligence is incredible, and he’s just beloved by everyone who meets him. And we could totally see how [Josh and Scott] would make a good team. But we’ll have to see.”

There are two sons in between Josh and Scott. Alex, 27, works for a consulting business in Washington, D.C. Lenny, 24, aspires to be an app developer.

“Whether my brothers end up being involved in the operation of the business or not, they’re always going to be part of my life and part of our family business in some way,” Josh says.

With the consultant, the four are “working out how we work together, how we think through problems, and how we don’t allow childhood biases or things like that to interfere with success as a group and as a family,” Josh says.

“What does the organization look like 10 years out?” Sandy wonders. “There’s so many logistics about that, and things that really need to be worked out and negotiated.”               

LOOTING AND ITS AFTERMATH: FEAR, FRUSTRATION AND RESOLVE

Two of the Brown family’s ShopRite supermarkets in low-income areas, one in the Parkside neighborhood of West Philadelphia and one in the Nicetown neighborhood of North Philadelphia, were destroyed by looters during protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Machines were dismembered; glass was smashed; food, alcoholic beverages and medications were stolen; and items were flung from the shelves onto the floor.

Jeffrey Brown, chairman and CEO of Brown’s Super Stores, contends that poor handling of the situation by Philadelphia officials was partly responsible for the extensive damage.

The looting started in Philadelphia’s tony Center City on May 30, and the police department sent most of its resources there.

“It had the unintended consequence — which I think was predictable — of forcing [looters] into the poor neighborhoods,” Jeff says.

Brown’s stores operated May 31 until the violence escalated. The city ordered all retail businesses to shut down that afternoon. The Parkside store fell under siege as soon as it closed.

“The store had a very heavy loss-prevention and security contingency, but they were overwhelmed fairly quickly,” Jeff says. “So we let the outside security go after a while.”

The Parkside store’s loss-prevention staff locked themselves in the security office. Meanwhile, the looters were being captured on camera. “We knew everything they were doing, in the store and outside the store,” Jeff says.

“And we continually called the police, but with no response because the police had other priorities. And at some point, we told our loss-prevention [staff] to go out the emergency exit and leave because we didn’t think it was safe for them.”

The Parkside looters ransacked the store through the night. The destruction lasted 15 hours.

Looting began at Brown’s North Philadelphia store on the evening of May 31. “And again, we called the police and they also didn’t have the resources to help there,” Jeff says. 

The store was boarded up, but at about 12:30 a.m. on June 1, looters penetrated the barrier by driving a truck in reverse through the front doors.

The night crew inside the store heard explosives at about 4:30 a.m. Looters were blowing up ATMs. The employees fled to the roof and had to be rescued by the fire department.

Jeff wanted to rebuild the stores quickly but realized “I couldn’t get anyone in there to work if they’re under attack.
“I started to explain to the elected officials, I’m going to need real robust protection to get these stores rebuilt. I’m not going to want to spend money to rebuild the store if it’s only going to get destroyed again. Until the rioting quiets down, I need to have absolute certainty that the stores will be protected. And I cannot get that from the police.”

Jeff urged the city to call the National Guard, to no avail. “I decided the way I was going to address it was to do an interview with the [Philadelphia] Inquirer — I would make my plea public and hold elected officials accountable that way.” That plan worked.

The National Guard’s armored vehicles and automatic weapons may have upset neighbors, but store employees felt safe. Despite extensive damage to the equipment, the North Philadelphia store reopened June 5 and the Parkside store resumed operations June 7.

The Browns believe the looters were mostly from outside the stores’ neighborhoods. “I never had the feeling that anyone betrayed the spirit of our relationship,” Jeff says. “I didn’t see it as an attack on us other than just acting out over the situation, which, in a sense, is understandable.” — Barbara Spector

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.    

Risky family business

This year, our MLR Media team has focused on the topic of risk — an appropriate subject to consider in a year marked by a pandemic, destructive wildfires and social unrest.

Our sister publication Directors & Boards is addressing risk from various angles in each of its issues in 2020. Here at Family Business, we’ve centered our Transitions Fall 2020 conference on the theme of “Managing Risk in Good Times and Bad.”

A black swan event like the COVID-19 outbreak can take even seasoned business leaders by surprise. Other risks are more predictable but nonetheless negatively affect numerous companies each year. Unfortunately, family businesses are among those most likely to overlook warning signs.

Here are a few questions to consider:

What is the risk of failing to embrace diversity? America’s corporate giants are examining their business practices with the goal of increasing diversity and inclusion, a task that became more urgent amid recent outrage over police killings of Black men. Family businesses tend to be insular, but if you aspire to grow your company and operate in a business-first culture, you would do well to conduct a similar review. Does the public perceive you as contributing to the problem or to the solution?

What is the risk of putting off succession planning? Study after study has found a depressingly high percentage of family businesses lack a succession plan that has been documented and communicated to key stakeholders. Procrastination, especially during a pandemic, threatens the continuity of your family enterprise.

What is the risk of not sharing information with outsiders? A reluctance to broadcast your financial results or family squabbles to the world is understandable. But engaging accomplished independent board members (fiduciary or advisory) can help your company reach the next level of growth, and the right consultant can help your family work its way out of destructive conflict.

What is the risk of not spending time (or money) on family governance? Multigenerational business families need a formalized system for sharing information, addressing concerns and strengthening relationships. This involves time, effort and a budget allocation. The alternative is a disconnected group of distant-cousin shareholders with tenuous ties to the business and few reasons to continue as business partners.

What is the risk of ignoring shareholders’ need for a return on their investment? If you never provide liquidity for your investors, they will demand a buyout. A family firm should have a policy that spells out when and how dividends will be paid. The policy should balance shareholders’ need for money with the company’s need for capital investment.

The good news is that many business families have managed these risks and are willing to share their experiences and lessons learned. On the flip side, you can easily find news reports describing what happens to families who don’t address business risks.

As this perilous year comes to a close, I hope you all commit to comprehensive, dispassionate risk assessment in 2021. Have a safe holiday season.

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.    

At the Helm: Joseph C. Richert

Generation of family ownership: Second.

Annual revenues: Just under $50 million.

Number of employees: 650.

First job at this company: Maintenance. We bought the business from another company and were scrambling to survive. I did everything. Even when I became administrator, I still wore a toolbelt. People sometimes have no idea what one had to do to make it in the old days.

At what age? 17.

Most memorable thing I learned from my father: He was an amazingly positive and patient guy and still is. I learned patience.

Most memorable thing I learned from my mother: My mother set an example for thinking out of the box. She painted every door a different color and brought animals around for therapy before anyone was doing that sort of thing. My mother was drawn to people who didn’t fit the usual geriatric demographic of residents we typically served. We took several who had been evicted from facilities for behavioral issues. These were often younger patients and many with brain and spinal cord injuries, which ultimately led us on the path to the niche services we now offer.

Best thing about this job: The variety. I can go from a meeting on wound care protocol in the morning, to talking to a design firm about new color choices, to a family business meeting. After that I might visit a property we’re considering.

Our greatest success: We’re a multiple winner of the state Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award for performance excellence. We won it again this year.

Best advice I ever got: FLAP — Finish like a pro.

Quote from our company’s mission statement: Hope, encouragement and expertise for people who have experienced life-altering changes.

On my wall: A protest sign from the demonstration I took part in at the Capitol in Lansing in the late 1990s. It says, “Detroit Deserves Fair Insurance Rates.”

Best thing about working in a family business: Our shared values.

One of my greatest accomplishments: We’ve grown incrementally every year. We went from zero to almost $50 million just by showing up every day for 45.

Advice for other family business leaders: Your best shot at managing people, both within the family and generally, is to make your expectations clear and come to an agreement on them.

On a day off I like to … spend time with our family and golf.

Philanthropic causes our family supports: We’re big supporters of the Brain Injury Association of Michigan and the Brain Injury Association of America. I’m former chairman of both organizations, and my brothers are on state boards. In addition, we support the Detroit Institute of Arts. We serve more than 20 communities in the state and provide scholarships to every high school where we own facilities.

Books I think every family business leader should read: Thriving on Chaos, by Tom Peters, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey.

I realized I had emerged from the previous generation’s shadow when … I hired a cousin into an important role while Mom was on vacation. She was not happy. However, it was a good decision and it all worked out. I know that the only reason I was able to take on so much responsibility was that I was her son. She was irritated with me half the time.

Future succession plans: My son will most likely succeed me, and I’ve slowly and systematically been getting him more involved in decisions.

Words I live by: My mom always said, “You go where your feet are led.” To me it means you have to be proactive and involved, but in some ways there’s probably a bit of divine intervention.    

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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Wearing many hats

When our MLR Media team — including Family Business and my colleagues at Directors & Boards and Private Company Director — began working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I started wearing hats to our videoconferences to amuse team members, who these days see me only from the neck up. I select the headgear from my collection of chapeaux and ballcaps as well as silly Halloween costumes. I like to keep everyone guessing what look I’ll be sporting when I log on.

Those who are familiar with the landmark “three-circle” model of the family business system, developed by Harvard Business School’s John A. Davis and the late Renato Tagiuri, know all about hats. Davis and Tagiuri’s model illustrates the overlapping roles and responsibilities of family business owners, managers (or employees) of the business, and family members. In discussing a nettlesome issue, participants in the conversation must clarify whether they are wearing their “owner hat,” their “manager/employee hat” or their “family member hat.”

Knowing which hat you’re wearing can aid in decision making. For example, if a NextGen needs an infusion of cash to buy a new home or pay for a child’s schooling, it’s more appropriate for the funding to be given as a gift from parents or grandparents (family hat) than to be awarded as a distribution from the business (ownership hat) or a raise in salary (employee hat).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the extended family who have not been active in the family firm or in family governance may have worn business or ownership hats they had never tried on before.

Family members in the medical field, for example, may be advising managers of their family’s business on safety precautions for employees returning to work. NextGen digital natives may be helping older relatives get comfortable with videoconferencing technology. In financially strapped companies, family members who don’t hold jobs in the business may be volunteering their services.

Some family business owners are discovering that their requirements in this crisis go beyond a change of hats — what they really need are some new heads. People from outside the family or organization can offer the benefit of their experience as companies consider how to move forward. Independent directors or professional advisers can suggest options that business leaders might not have considered. Alternatively, they can point out flaws in plans on the drawing board. Strategies that have been successful in the past may not be viable in these unusual new circumstances.

Companies that gamed out supply-chain disruption and an economic downturn before the pandemic, and those that had cybersecurity systems already in place, were able to adjust more quickly than others. Those who have borne the cost of reengineering facilities to accommodate social distancing have seen the advantages of avoiding debt and taking minimal cash out of the business.

I tip my hat to everyone for making it through this difficult year, one day at a time.

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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At the Helm: Thomas Hartland-Mackie

Generation of family ownership: Third.

Revenue: Approximately $2.5 billion.

Number of employees: 8,000.

First job at this company: Shredding profit and loss statements for my grandfather from as young as I can remember, probably age 5. My first official job was when I was in eighth grade. We were on a family vacation in France, and I spent two weeks working at one of our warehouses there.

Most memorable thing I learned from my grandfather: I took over from him. He always told me, “If you find something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life."

Most memorable thing I learned from my mother: You can forge your own path. She didn’t join the business and was successful on her own. When you grow up in a large family business, that group is a huge center of gravity. It was nice to grow up knowing this was a choice for me, not a given.

Best thing about this job: Seeing the impact that careers in our business have had on our employees’ and their families’ lives. We pride ourselves on being a company in which you can come from any background with or without a degree and work your way up.

Our greatest success: We’ve been the fastest-growing wholesaler of electrical material over the last 10 years, and that’s been incredible for the group. But I go back to the fact that our greatest success is our people, because that number is a reflection of them.

Best advice I ever got: Take care of and empower your people and they will take care of your customers.

Quote from our company’s mission statement: We don’t have a corporate mission statement, but our family office does: “Empowering people who care to create lasting things that matter and sharing our success with our people and communities.”

On my wall: I’m a big lover of contemporary art, so I have a few paintings on the walls, and also artwork from my little kids.

One of my greatest accomplishments: I took over our U.S. business in October 2008, when we were hit hard by the financial crisis. I was able to take a business experiencing heavy losses and turn it around.

Best thing about working in a family business: You have a group of shareholders who all really care about the long-term success of the business.

Advice for other family business leaders: Communicate. When the founder runs a business, communication is largely determined by that person. I’ve tried to focus on changing that communication style. We engaged a family business adviser to help us with that.

On a day off I like to… hang out outdoors with my three kids and my wife. We have a vegetable garden, we take walks, and sometimes we go to the museums here in Dallas. We also travel as much as we can.

Philanthropic causes our family supports: We focus on children and mental health. We support the latter through medical facilities and hospitals, but also by donating to those who help the homeless. I sat on the board of the largest homeless shelter in Dallas, and we’re affiliated with Make-A-Wish and the Dallas Red Cross, among others.

I realized I had emerged from my grandfather’s shadow when… I came to the realization that if I was ever going to run the company to the best of my ability, it had to be in a way that was genuine to my beliefs. The first three or four years I ran it the way I thought my grandfather would have run it.

Future succession plans:  I’m 32. I’m hoping I’m around for a while, but I’ve talked to the other shareholders about what my recommendations would be if there were an emergency. We’re trying to work through what role the fourth generation might play, and how we can prepare them to be great shareholders.

Words I live by: Integrity is everything.        

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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At the Helm: G.A. Taylor Fernley

Generation of family ownership: Fifth.

About the company: We’re an association management company with the distinction of having founded the industry in 1886.

Number of employees: We have 10 employees as well as strategic partners.

First job at this company: Assistant to the assistant to the leadership team.

At what age? 26. Still young and finding myself, I painted houses for a year after college. I was one of five sons, and in the early 1970s my father asked me if I wanted to work for the company. He said I’d have to work for another company first, so I joined an industrial supply house for two years. When I started at Fernley & Fernley I drafted letters, worked on special projects, and sat in (quietly) on management meetings. I learned a lot about every part of the company in a short time, otherwise known as “trial by fire.”

Most memorable thing I learned from my father: Never forget the most important part of being in a family business is that you have the opportunity to work twice as hard as anyone else. It was good advice because it’s a 24/7 job.

Best thing about this job: Changing employees’ lives by developing them to go out in the world and contribute to society. When employees leave, some of my colleagues here get upset. However, they should be happy because we have positioned someone to broaden themselves professionally and go out and continue to grow. Support those who depart. Never burn your bridges; keep those relationships going. Some people have come back, a tribute to our organization. 

Our greatest success: The fact that we’ve been in existence for 134 years and we’re still a family business.

Best advice I ever got: “No” is just the first step to “Yes.”

Quote from our company’s mission statement: We ruthlessly adhere to four core values: Integrity and Ethics, Client-centric Philosophy, Thought Leadership and Social Responsibility. 

On my desk: I keep a 3 x 5 card on my desk that says, “The quality of a leader is reflected in the standard they set for themselves.” I can’t expect anyone to maintain a work ethic that I don’t model daily myself.

Best thing about working in a family business: The ability to launch fresh, entrepreneurial ideas unencumbered by a long, drawn-out hierarchical structure. I like it when people throw out ideas and we can implement them in short order.

Advice for other family business leaders: Even though it’s a 24/7 job, never forget — family first, business second.

On a day off I like to … go fly-fishing, play golf  and do yard work. I love yard work because you’re free to think. Fly-fishing and golf are therapeutic. They relax me and give me time to think.

Philanthropic causes our family supports: I’ve served Big Brothers/Big Sisters as president of the local chapter and a national board member, and my wife has been very involved in Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. We’re very active in the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, and I’m on the board of the Philadelphia Police Foundation.

Books I think every family business leader should read: Lincoln on Leadership, by Donald Phillips; Execution, by Larry Bossidy, and Creating Competitive Advantage, by Jaynie Smith.

I realized I had emerged from the previous generation’s when … my parents stopped asking questions about the company at Thanksgiving.

Future succession plans: My son Kyle has been with us 10 years and has largely been running the company for three years. I focus on strategic partnerships and business development and am gradually turning the reins over to Kyle.

Words I live by: In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years. 

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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At the Helm: Chris Thorkelson

Generation of family ownership: Second. Pat Lloyd, my mother’s sister, started the company with her husband, Craig, in 1972.

Company revenues: $150 million.

Number of employees: Just over 200.

First job at this company: At 11, I swept new construction sites and picked up debris. I returned during Christmas break my last year in college and gained a better understanding of the business. After college I became a framer, and moved up to superintendent, project manager, VP of construction, VP of development and then COO.

At what age? I was a framer at 23. I took over from Craig as president and CEO in 2016, when I was 37.

Most memorable thing I learned from my aunt and uncle: To work hard, to be dedicated to communities we do business in and to relationships we have as a company, and to give back.

Best thing about this job: Helping others fulfill visions and dreams — family, employees and the community.

Our greatest success: Our people and our culture, which are one and the same. It’s the makeup of who you are and how you’re perceived to have the ability to build the right team and attract good talent so people consistently have good experiences with your business.

Best advice I ever got: A board member once said that the key ingredient to life’s successes is the lifelong relationships you build. I had just traveled to meet with him, so that resonated with me.

Quote from our company’s mission statement: Vision and mission, improving quality of life.

On my wall: Pictures of my family. As a family business we want to encourage that look and feel.

One of my greatest accomplishments: The work we do with non-profit organizations.

Best thing about working in a family business: The control around giving back and helping others. It’s not always about the bottom line. It’s also about our family values, high ethical standards, profitability and giving back.

Advice for other family business leaders: Be invested in and intentional about succession planning and the transition of the family business. Also, always remain open to your family members’ thoughts, opinions and ideas.

On a day off I like to … spend time with my family and friends. We love to go to our cabin in Minnesota and welcome friends and relatives all over the Midwest to join us. In winter we like to get out to the Black Hills and ski and snowmobile.

Philanthropic causes our family supports: As many as we can. Some of our larger contributions go to the YMCA, Boys & Girls Club, Children’s Home Society, United Way, Make-A-Wish, Call to Freedom, Hope Coalition, Great Plains Zoo, Glory House, Avera Health, Sanford Health, St. Francis House, Levitt Shell, Inter-Lakes Community Action Partnership, Southeastern Behavioral Health, Dakotabilities, Volunteers of America, Catholic Church/schools, Bishop Dudley House, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Center for Active Generations and EmBe (a Sioux Falls organization that offers programs and services for women and their families).

Book(s) I think every family business leader should read: Books by Michael Porter, such as Competitive Strategy. I also like Understanding Michael Porter, by Joan Megretta.

I realized I had emerged from my uncle’s shadow when … we expanded into multiple states and markets in 2019. We also grew substantially locally. People are seeing our leadership team taking things to the next level. We like to say that Craig didn’t retire, he rewired. We have 130 or 140 different real estate entities, and he still likes to handle the assets, as opposed to operations.

Future succession plans: Before I took over, we had an advisory board, and when I moved up we established a board of directors. They’re keeping our leadership team focused. Everyone on the team has a plan, including me, although my children are both under 10, so it doesn’t include them.

Words I live by: Give and you shall receive.       

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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At the Helm: Patricia Walllwork

Generation of family ownership: Third.

Revenue: More than $135 million.

Number of employees: Over 500.

Years with the company: 16.

First job at this company: In high school, I worked in the plant washing crates and buckets by hand and loading jugs on the line. After college, law school and working as a civil defense attorney, I came back to Milo’s as the vice president and general counsel in 2004.

Most memorable thing I learned from my father: Everyone deserves the same respect, no matter whether they are the janitor or the chairman of the board.

Most memorable thing I learned from my stepmother: In a family business, it’s okay to sometimes have a “hissy fit.”  

Best thing about this job: Having the opportunity to continue our family’s legacy while making the lives of our associates, customers and consumers sweeter one sip at a time. 

Best advice I ever got: What matters is the outcome, not whether you are right. I wish I had learned that at a much younger age.

Quote from our company’s mission statement: Consistently manufacture, market and produce the highest-quality teas and other natural beverages in the world. 

Memento in my office: Shovel from the groundbreaking of our new plant currently being built in Tulsa, Okla. 

One of my greatest accomplishments: The opportunity to build our regional tea company into the fastest growing, #1-selling tea item in the U.S. grocery channel through a highly engaged and dedicated team working in a family culture. Other highlights include building out an independent board of directors and codifying our corporate responsibility programing, including a 1% giving-back promise, diversity and inclusion programming, and being a zero-waste manufacturer.

Best thing about working in a family business: Continuing your grandparents’ and parents’ legacy while layering on the next generation’s vision for the future of the organization. 

Worst thing about working in a family business: Knowing your family’s legacy and that of the hundreds of associates that dedicate themselves to your mission and strategy depend on you.

My advice for other family business leaders: Exceptional governance with a matching cadence is the key to providing non-employee family shareholders the ability to remain engaged, while giving employee-shareholders and the leadership team the roadmap for success for all stakeholders. 

On a day off: Exercise and reading are my daily outlets, but for real decompression I like to travel to far-flung destinations with my family to remind me how big, diverse and exciting the world and life are. 

Philanthropic causes our family supports: Through “Milo’s Makes a Difference” programming, we focus on women/children/education and environmental stewardship. Personally, we support the arts, the humane treatment of animals and causes to break the cycle of poverty.   
 
Books I think every family business leader should read: On the family business front, Keep the Family Baggage Out of the Family Business, by Quentin Fleming. My go-to business books are Good to Great, by Jim Collins; Scaling Up, by Verne Harnish; and The Metronome Effect, by Shannon Byrne Susko, our strategic planning coach. On leadership, I think all the Patrick Lencioni books are great to read with your team. 

Future succession plans: Our G4 are all still quite young, so we are just beginning this important process.

Words I live by: Trust and honest communication are the most important elements of any successful relationship.

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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