Memoirs

The Greatest Generation

In the past year and a half, I lost three outstanding human beings: my beloved father, Paul Uhlmann, my dear father-in-law, Milton Rock — both patriarchs of our family businesses — and then in April, a close family friend and my brother’s father-in-law, Henry Bloch of H&R Block. All three were in their late 90s. During Henry’s celebration of life at the Nelson Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City, where his Impressionist art collection resides, I reflected on the impactful legacy that these three dynamic, intelligent business icons left for their families, their communities and their industries. No wonder they call their age cohort The Greatest Generation!

All three businessmen were devoted to their families — gathering them frequently, traveling with them, working with them. In fact, when asked, each would say his most important contribution was his family. Numerous opportunities to be together enabled all of us to soak up life lessons and values from these hardworking, innovative, compassionate and courageous men. Not surprisingly, all three served in the Army during World War II and were recognized for their military service.

Patriotism was a key element of their outlook. Henry was decorated for his bravery in 31 flight bombing missions over Germany. My father was recognized for establishing and manning a radio/telecommunications outpost while stationed in the Middle East for four years, and Milt served three years in the Army Air Corps. Certainly, the country owes much to their dedication.

In the business community, these men were exceptionally successful, not just in creating wealth but also in changing the direction of whole industries. Henry created the tax preparation business in 1955 with his brother, Richard. When Henry passed away, the company had 12,000 offices worldwide. Its Kansas City headquarters maintains a museum devoted to Henry and Richard.

After earning two graduate degrees and a Ph.D. in psychology, Milt went on to lead and expand the Hay Group by changing the human resources industry into a respected profession that supported boards’ decision making. When he retired, the Hay Group had offices in 25 countries with over 2,000 consultants.

My father, Paul, was in the grain trading and flour milling business. He had worked with his father and a renowned university’s agriculture department to develop a pest-resistant grain that could produce more flour, thus feeding larger populations. Dad operated our company out of Buffalo, N.Y., and worked closely with George Steinbrenner, transporting grain across the Great Lakes.

These three men were dedicated to philanthropy, particularly giving back to their own communities. Each selected different organizations — primarily education, healthcare, art and faith — to affiliate with and make transformative donations to, but clearly they shared this common value.  

Ellen Perry, a writer on wealth, family and legacy and a senior adviser to Brown Brothers Harriman, says values should be “caught, not taught.” At a recent seminar Family Business hosted with BBH, Ellen described generations learning family values by example. I can honestly say, on behalf of our three families, we were given tremendous examples of lives well-lived. Thank you, Dad, Milt and Henry.

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

Business en famille

For the past 22 years, my husband and I have spent the month of August at our home in the enchanting south of France. Although we do some work over there, thanks to WebEx and the internet, it is truly a place to relax and see old friends. Our high school French returns, but because most of our small village speaks English, it becomes all too easy to lapse back into our native tongue.

One can see why so many artists, like Cézanne, Renoir, Picasso and Miró, came to this area to paint. Something about the shimmering light, the beauty of the terrain and the deep azure of the ocean lends itself to being immortalized on canvas. Of course, the delicious Mediterranean food and French wine add to the flavor. The markets offer a dazzling array of Provençal goods and specialties like olive tapenade, Saussicon, thousands of cheeses and sea salts. I cook at home half the time; on other nights, we sample the huge variety of family-owned restaurants.

It seems everywhere we look, family businesses abound and flourish. These are often fourth-, fifth- and sixth-generation establishments thriving despite complaints about the French labor market. The local boulangerie is buzzing with sons, daughters and cousins selling mouthwatering croissants, pissaladière and baguettes, with more family in the back working the ovens. The seventh-generation Huile d’Olives in Opio has made the best olive oils in our region since 1848. The NextGen has expanded the business, which now also sells an assortment of linens, soaps and candies.

Up the hill in Grasse, Maison Molinard has been passionately dedicated to producing perfumes, soaps and accessories since 1849. Fifth-generation family member Célia Lerouge-Bénard continues to build and expand the company with branches all over the South of France. Nearby is the competing Parfumerie Fragonard, founded in 1926 and currently managed by third-generation Costa sisters Agnès and Françoise. The store includes a museum of Fragonard family artifacts relating to the early manufacturing of perfume.

One highlight every summer is the Cirque Arlette Gruss, a delightful one-top country circus that travels the region, stopping for two weeks in each town. This well-run circus, featuring acts that include lions, clowns and trained horses, was founded in 1985 by Frenchwoman Arlette Gruss and was taken over for many years by her son Gilbert. Today, Arlette’s granddaughter, Laura-Maria Gruss, runs the big show. The family has tried to keep up with the modern times using technology, lighting and unusual acrobatic feats. The title of their 2017 show was “And We Reinvented the Circus.”

Newspaper articles on the business climate in France lament the tough competition, treacherous labor conditions and lack of innovation and investment. However, “entrepreneur” is a French word meaning “one who starts a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money.” Risk taking is a key element. Obviously, these French families have risked their livelihoods and family reputation by starting and continuing these businesses. Vive la France! Vive les familles!

Copyright 2018 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.

A sad farewell

This spring, I lost my dear 95-year-old father, Paul Uhlmann Jr., the second-generation patriarch of my family business in Kansas City. He was an amazing and quite beloved husband, father and grandfather. Words used by the community to describe my father all had overlapping themes—true gentleman, quick-witted, intelligent, elegant, kind and cultured. He was considered a renaissance man and was known for creating clever poems and songs for his friends and family to commemorate special occasions.

My father was active in the community; he served on numerous cultural and business boards but will most be remembered for his wonderful entertaining with my gracious mother. My parents met on a blind date in 1947 and were married three months later. They were happily married for 52 years until my mother's untimely death in 1999.

An avid reader and lover of history, my father excelled at Dartmouth College, where, as a member of the graduating class of 1942, he enlisted in Officers Training School and was sent to the Middle East for the next four years. A member of the "Greatest Generation" who served as a captain in the Army Air Force, he was asked a few years ago by Dartmouth to document memories of his experience, which were later published in a book, Dartmouth at War. The war had a profound effect on my father that carried over into his daily life. His emphasis on rules, order, compassion and teamwork derived from his military experience.

The scion of an old German grain trading family, my father, after a stint as an investment banker, joined his father and his best friend and brother, Pat, in acquiring Standard Milling Company, makers of Ceresota and Heckers Flour. The family grew the company to include Campfire Marshmellows, Maypo and Wheatena hot cereals, charcoal briquettes and other food products. The milling business took my parents to Buffalo, N.Y., for three months during the summer. I have 30 years of wonderful memories residing on the Canadian side of Lake Erie at Bay Beach, Ontario. Each summer, my father would take us to see the Shakespeare and Shaw Festivals, insisting we read each play prior to seeing it, which certainly highlighted the experience.

My grandfather, my father, his brother and two nephews all worked in the family business in Kansas City. One nephew, who was extremely talented musically, left to pursue those interests. This occurred about the same time my brother, Paul III, entered the business after earning an MBA and working for five years outside the family company. My father and my uncle graciously let their father come to work as often as he wanted up until his death in 1969 at age 86. This unique and generous situation was repeated for my own father after he had handed the reins to my brother 25 years ago. While this experience is not for everyone, being able to come to the office four days a week during the six months he was in town probably kept my father engaged and alive until he peacefully passed away in late March. He will be very much missed by all.

My father was not only a longtime subscriber to Family Business Magazine, but also a tremendous advocate for family business in general. He always felt it better to work for yourself and your family, provided the dynamics are right.

Copyright 2016 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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My family, our farm and future plans

My father worked on the farm for as long as I can remember. He always came home filthy, his faded Wrangler jeans covered in manure, possibly a little blood and always dust. I knew he worked extremely hard. Sitting in church, I would pick at the decade-old calluses that covered his palms. I recognized that he worked to provide for our family of six; we lived comfortably, and I was never denied $20 for the Cinema 5. But not until I was 17 did I fully realize the depth of the family's commitment to the farm.

My family's company, Bar K Cattle, began holding shareholder meetings in late 2011. The company is owned by three of the four Hulstein brothers, Kirk, Kelly and Kraig (my father). They have a total of 11 children; I am the youngest. The meetings at first were relatively informational but quickly turned into business meetings. Most of us were hearing these facts and figures for the first time, but there were a few, like my brother and some cousins, who already worked for the farm.

I learned that "the Brothers," as they would come to be called, had been waiting to begin holding these meetings, but changes in tax laws had forced their hand. It became clear that the Brothers did not want their kids to simply profit off the success of the company; they wanted them involved or, at least, well informed. The most important goal was for us to prepare for the future. As a result we developed a quarterly policy board that would help structure a contingency plan.

The policy board consisted of the three Brothers, familial representatives, a mediator and uncle Kembe, who was the youngest of the original Hulstein brothers. There were eight votes: one for each Hulstein brother, one for each of the three families, as represented by at least two children, and one for the mediator. We decided that for a policy to pass we needed at least six votes. We discussed such things as how a share would be sold, what would happen in the case of a divorce, what the hiring process would be for a shareholder and, most important, what would happen if a Brother died.

The company was structured as a Defective Grantor Trust. As with most farms, we were heavy on assets, like tractors, cattle and land, but short on cash. We wanted to make sure that when a Brother died, his heirs wouldn't lose half their inheritance to the government through taxes. What followed was detailed maneuvering of paperwork and a lot of signing on the dotted line. I was entirely overwhelmed.

But I also felt a swell of pride. My father and his brothers had built a business from the ground up. They were working to make advancements in cattle handling and feeding. They had done all this without being prideful and giving credit to the blessings of God. I wanted to be involved, but my dad knew agriculture wasn't in my heart. He told me he would rather I be happy and not directly involved in the company than miserable and in it. So I followed my gut and moved to California for college, where I am majoring in English.

My involvement with the farm has been largely informational. But my experiences with my family and in the boardroom have given me a confidence to speak openly and calmly about conflicting ideas. Entering into a family business in any way can be terrifying, and the process of moving a business from one generation to the next is difficult. My father always told me that I had a choice; I could choose to be a part of what he had built or build something of my own. Ultimately, I would choose the latter. But the freedom my father gave me in choosing makes me respect and want to honor what he built in a way that I would not have otherwise.

My father's legacy is my own, and though it looks different for me, it has the same origin of commitment, Jesus and a strong gut.

Maggie Hulstein is an undergraduate student at Biola University.

Copyright 2016 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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From father to son: My business story

My father, T.H. (Tom) Mellor, was born in 1896. His father died when he was 3, and his mother died when he was 11.

After leaving school, my father became an apprentice at the local tramways. At the request of the director, he learned to drive (considered dangerous at that time) and became the director's chauffeur.

My father served in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I. After the war he bought an "Irish Sweep" lottery ticket and won 500 pounds, which he used to buy a taxi. He paid a mechanic out of hours to service the taxi. He then took on the mechanic full time and started a repair business, working from a large shed. He acquired a car agency and by 1929 had formed a registered company: Tom Mellor Limited. He became Lord Mayor of the City of Salford in 1962 and was honored by the Queen for monies raised in World War II for prisoners of war and the merchant seamen.

I was born on Oct. 26, 1929, the day of the Wall Street crash. During World War II, I was due to sail on a liner to Canada, away from the bombing, but the previous boat, carrying 300 children, was sunk off southern Ireland by a U-boat. I was sent instead to a boarding school in Cheltenham, in the west country. One of our boarding houses was a barracks for American soldiers waiting for D-Day. At night we could hear Glen Miller, then suddenly silence; they had gone. We knew not where or why, but now we know the name of "Omaha" only too well. A sad thought, as they had been very friendly to us.

I left college in 1947 and was apprenticed at Rolls-Royce Crewe for six months to gain experience. After a brief spell in the office of our business, I took an intermediate degree in business management at Manchester School of Commerce.

By 1951 our family business had become the largest distributor in the U.K. for Jowett Cars. Briggs Motor Bodies, who supplied Jowetts, were taken over by Ford. Overnight Jowetts were out of business. In the next post we received a letter appointing us as Ford distributors.

For my 21st birthday, I was given a 25% shareholding and a year or two later all the remaining shares. This was for two reasons: My father had complete trust in me, and provided he lived for seven years, there would be no taxes payable for inheritance.

On returning from a trip to the States in 1948, my father said, "We must start car rental; it's big in the USA." The petrol (gas) attendant was put in charge of two small cars; by the time I entered the business it was still a sideline with six cars. As the boss's son I was very careful not to make myself a threat to managers. Treading carefully, I made car rental my commitment. It became my obsession.

I built a nationally known brand with 500 rental cars trading as Mellor Hertz Rent A Car; we also offered limousines with uniformed chauffeurs. Hertz eventually asked to buy us out of that side of the business, which they did after three months of negotiation. I was given a four-year contract as manager of Hertz in London. But that's another story!

My business gave me the opportunity to meet celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. These are a few of the lessons I can recall after a lifetime:

1. Look after your dissatisfied customers. If handled with generosity, they can become your best advertisement.

2. In negotiating finance, do your homework. Ask for 10% or even 20% more than you need. Do not borrow a cent without a good, convincing repayment plan.

3. Do not give your managers a shareholding, but give them an important title and 10% of the annual net departmental profit before tax. If they earn a lot, so will you.

4. In negotiating a big deal, if the prospective buyers make a derisory offer, don't be afraid to walk out. They'll be back.

5. Always pay your bills regularly. A supplier will be willing to do a favor for a good payer.

6. Make sure your insurances are up to date, and read the small print. Question what you are not insured for.

7. Health, business, family, in that order!

Gordon Mellor lives in the south of France, near Cannes.

Copyright 2016 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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Leaving a legacy that lasts forever

Practicing corporate law for 30 years has allowed me not only to combine my passions for business and law, but also to help business owners grow their companies and pass a financial legacy on to their children and grandchildren.

A financial legacy is a wonderful gift, but I have come to realize that it is also vitally important to leave another type of legacy to them, one that will last forever—the story of your life.

In 2004, I had the "crazy" idea to write a book about my life stories for my children, who at the time were four and six years old. It took me more than three years to write my book, entitled Living My Dreams: My Life's Stories for My Children. It was without a doubt one of the most enjoyable, inspiring and worthwhile things I have done in my life.

The sense of wonder and amazement on my children's faces when I gave them the book was priceless. As they have progressed into their teenage years, my book has allowed us to connect on a deeper level as they find greater meaning in my stories. When my eighth-grade daughter tweeted a snapshot of the front and back covers, saying what a great book it is, I knew that I had left my children a lasting legacy.

Talking to business owners, I am continually amazed and inspired by stories of determination, perseverance, growth and success in building something bigger than themselves. These stories would make a powerful gift for the family.

Some owners have done an excellent job of sharing their company's history with their employees. These stories are important, because they instill certain core values that are the foundation of the company. But most of them are missing anecdotes about the personal struggle to get the company off the ground or how the successor generation took the company to new heights. Those stories should be told to prepare future generations to be good stewards of the family business, and to emphasize the values that are important to you.

While writing a book may sound impossible, if you have the passion to leave a legacy for your family, you can do it with a little guidance and some perseverance.

Some initial thoughts

• Stay focused on why you are writing the book and on your love for your family.

• Do not use the book to "settle scores" with others or to name those who have wronged you in the past.

• Decide on the tone of the book (critical, uplifting, encouraging, inspirational?), which stories to tell and which parts of those stories to emphasize

• Be genuine and authentic.

• Don't be afraid to share the failures and challenges in your life. These experiences often encourage the most growth and learning.

• Be patient and persevere. Just as in your business, anything worth doing takes time and effort.

Getting started

There are different ways to approach writing a book of this type. As I planned how my book was going to take shape, I thought about key stories to include and how they would fit into the larger themes I wanted to be part of my legacy.

During this early stage of the writing process, it is helpful to keep a journal (or an electronic tablet) with you. As anecdotes and themes come to mind, you can jot them down to help you focus on the vision for your book. Your consideration of those anecdotes and themes should be guided by the suggestions I have presented here and by your memories of meaningful life experiences (both personal and professional) that have helped to shape your vision and your values.

My own experience with my children has proved that you can have a significant and positive impact by preserving your story and legacy in a book for your children and grandchildren.

There is no time like the present to get started on giving this precious gift to your family. 
 

Steve Scolari (sscolari@stradley.com) is a partner in the Business Department of Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young LLP, resident in their Malvern, Pa., office. He is chair of Stradley's Closely Held/Family Owned Business Practice Area.

Copyright 2015 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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Hometown ties

This issue’s cover story features an old family friend from my hometown of Kansas City. The Tension Corporation and the Berkley family have been outstanding leaders in that community, culturally and civically, since William and Maurice Berkowitz first went into business in 1886.

William Berkowitz’s sons, Walter and E.B., and later two grandsons, Bert and Dick, succeeded him in the business. Currently, Tension is run by Bill Berkley, William Berkowitz’s great-grandson. All of the Berkleys are friends of my extended family. In fact, my neighbor growing up was Dick Berkley, who served as mayor of Kansas City from 1979-1991. It must have been a relief to my parents to have constant police surveillance on the street, but it was a serious deterrent to my high school boyfriends!

Growing up in a town the size of Kansas City means that families in the business community know each other—for generations. Not only is it a pleasure to have that continuity, but everyone looks out for each other. When I was in secondary school, I founded the school’s first weekly newspaper. This involved editing, writing, photography and layout as well as covering printing expenses.

I learned a valuable marketing lesson when my father, whose family company of course advertised, encouraged me to solicit all the family friends who owned local businesses to support this endeavor. Tension was an early and frequent advertiser, and I am pleased that the paper still survives today.

By all measures, the arts and civic institutions benefit from the generosity of family business owners. And this is not true of just the smaller cities. Chicago, New York, San Francisco—all benefit from the largesse of committed business-owning families. This involvement helps the company gain visibility, and the family can take pride in its outreach and support. Family Business’s readers tell us that family legacy, heritage and contributions to the communities where the company does business are critical goals of business ownership.

The Berkley family’s commitments include the Mid America Chapter of the MS Society, the Chamber of Commerce and the Civic Council of Kansas City, the Powell Gardens and various community libraries. Bill Berkley’s wonderful mother, Joan, was particularly involved with the Friends of Alvin Ailey and the Ailey Camp as well as other arts institutions. Sadly, Joan passed away in September, and will be dearly missed in Kansas City. It is not surprising that Bill has carried on the family tradition of community involvement.

After hearing politicians speak about government hand-outs and bail-outs, it’s refreshing to see how family businesses ameliorate the lives of the families who live in their communities. We should all emulate this contribution.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Copyright 2012 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permssion from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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The spice of life

Every business has its special set of challenges, which become even more complicated when the “family factor” is added. When the family business is a restaurant, family members must be able to stand the heat or get out of the kitchen. Our cover story profiles the Bozzi and Ganzi families, who have operated the famed Palm Restaurant Group in a two-family partnership since 1926. Third-generation members Wally Ganzi and Bruce Bozzi Sr. now run the steakhouse chain and are contemplating succession.

Many American cities have restaurants that have been family-run for years, but New Orleans seems to have more than its fair share. During my undergraduate years there, I had the pleasure of knowing a family recognized as “the” restaurant family—the Brennans. The hugely popular Brennan’s Restaurant had been run by members of the founding family until the early ’70s, when there was a painful split among the second generation. Several members kept the original restaurant, while the other half of the family restored and operated the historic, award-winning Commander’s Palace.

I remember being impressed with the family’s tireless dedication as they personally greeted every guest and worked far into the night seven days a week. I marveled at their constant enthusiasm, their attention to detail and the hands-on training of the next generation. Third-generation member Ralph Brennan built his own restaurant empire while working with both his siblings and, so far, one of his children. A consummate restaurateur, Ralph is noted for his past chairmanship of the National Restaurant Association. In 2005, Oprah Winfrey recognized Ralph for his generous financial support of his employees after Hurricane Katrina struck.

Another success story is Antoine’s, a New Orleans landmark since 1840. It is the oldest family-run restaurant in the U.S. and is credited with inventing Oysters Rockefeller. The stories about inheriting your waiter at Antoine’s are true. When I ate there in 1973, I was able to ask for Sydney, who had waited on my New Orleans-born grandmother, Caro!

There is something special about family-run restaurants. In addition to the challenges of setting family employment policies and succession planning, a vital aspect is the hands-on basic training. Many start their children off in the kitchen or the storeroom. Ralph Brennan has fond memories of being “a prep cook boning chickens and peeling shrimp by the thousands.” But with all the extra hours, it’s never easy in the restaurant business to find time to discuss family issues and, more importantly, long-term strategy. One thing is certain: You have to love the food business as much as you love your family!

 

 

 


 

 

 

Copyright 2012 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permssion from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

Sharing the story

Several months ago, an interesting promotion for Ancestry.com crossed my screen, so I decided to sign up and see what more I could learn about my family’s history. My first cousin Robert had been anointed the “family scribe” and for years had been gathering stories and official documents tracing our family’s history in America. However, I wanted to delve even further into our family’s business heritage, so I consulted my 91-year-old father.

I knew my father’s father came to the U.S. at the turn of the century to join his uncle in Chicago in the grain business. The family had been in the hops business, which included grain trading, in Fuerth, Germany. A few years later, my grandfather, Paul Uhlmann, moved to Kansas City, where he and his son Pat established their own grain business. My grandfather, uncle and, later, my father, expanded the business to include flour milling and food products. All three related colorful stories of growing the business, keeping up with cousins around the globe and life in Kansas City.

Family gatherings provided a perfect forum for these narratives, and they had quite an impact on me. One such story involved my grandfather’s personally signing affadavits for almost 400 refugees to come to America to escape the Holocaust. Our family received thank-you letters for decades, and my grandfather was recognized with the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award.

Over the years, I have passed on several of these family stories to our sons Bill, who joined our family business after completing his J.D./MBA, and Tom, a physician. There are many reasons to hand these stories down. According to Kathryn Levy Feldman, a freelance contributor to Family Business who has also written family business history books, “The tie that binds stories together is the process itself of assembling archives and gathering people to tell the family as well as the company history.”

Feldman wrote a cover story for Family Business Magazine (Spring 2006) that profiled the Rubenstein family of New Orleans, who quickly got their clothing store back in operation after Hurricane Katrina. The family was proud that they were able to track down their employees and offer them their jobs back.

Quite often, such family stories involve life lessons. Future generations of a family in business can receive valuable insights into what drives family executives, what shaped family dynamics, what outside forces intervened and what lessons can be learned from their experiences.

Not all narratives are written down and published as books; many are oral anecdotes and stories that probably become more colorful with each passing generation! Make sure someone in your family is charged with chronicling your family history.

Copyright 2012 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permssion from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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Things men have made

Editor’s Note: Author Mary Collins received a grant from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter at Central Connecticut State University to research and write an essay about her mother’s family’s paper company. Following is an edited excerpt of her essay, which weaves together family memories, observations from a visit to the plant and the author’s views on the U.S. economy.

For five decades I walked past American stores and never paid much attention to the soft blue hue of Tiffany jewelry boxes or the special shine on Russell Stover candy boxes.

I did not know that I was seeing my Uncle Richard’s handiwork.

And that of his brothers Tommy, Roger and Terry or, to reach even farther back, my grandparents George and Elizabeth Sullivan, who started the Sullivan Paper Company in West Springfield, Mass., in 1941. Today the company provides the paper that covers boxes for a host of classic American products as well as the Sally Foster and Genevieve’s gift wrap rolls that PTAs across the country sell for school fund-raisers.

Growing up in Connecticut, I knew my mother’s family had a paper factory, because every Christmas season she’d return from a visit with her brothers laden with huge boxes of gift wrap. I’d trot out my mundane collection of gifts and transform it into a splendiferous pile, the packages covered with images of playful waddling penguins, or wrapped in silver paper embossed with a square design that bent like soft metal and reflected light like the Irish Steuben my mother laid out for holiday dinner. Once we opened all our presents, the living room filled with what I now know is some of the finest paper in the world; it creaked and crinkled when we moved through it.

We were the family with the 60-pound paper holiday.

But the Sullivans are a huge clan; my grandparents had nine children who in turn had another 47, so beyond the dozens of rolls of gift wrap in the basement, I never really registered much about the Sullivan Company. My grandparents felt it was inappropriate for their three daughters to work in the mill, so Shirley, Connie and Sylvia moved on, married, lived in other states and built lives in the service economy, where lawyers, teachers, and doctors roam and no one makes anything that you can hold in your hand.

When my grandfather was a boy at the turn of the 20th century, Americans manufactured more than 80% of all that they consumed, according to the New York Times (“Is Anything Made in the U.S.A. Anymore?” by -Stephen Manning, Feb. 20, 2009). Today just 14% of our GNP comes from manufacturing.

Even more striking is the laissez-faire attitude that the business elite and U.S. government have taken toward this trend. The prevailing view, as former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan quipped, is that manufacturing is “so 19th- and 20th-century,” and our country has moved beyond that (Alan Tonekson, “Up from Globalism,” Harper’s, January 2010). Well, as our current economic problems mount in today’s service-oriented economy, it’s time to rethink the role of manufacturing in our country. I’m referring not to the automotive industry that taxpayers bailed out, but to the small to mid-sized, privately run manufacturers that get little attention from either the national business press or the government and form the economic backbone of many communities.

I am not an economist. But I am a professional writer who often studies larger cultural trends, and no trend right now seems more relevant to the economy than the closing of thousands of American manufacturers over the last 70 years. The Sullivan Paper Company has bucked the trend and continues to remain a viable business while most other U.S. manufacturing operations have moved to China.

In the summer of 2009, I drove north from Connecticut to West Springfield thinking I would record stories from my aging uncles about the end of their era. What I found instead was a model for a smaller, more nimble future in American manufacturing. I discovered how important it is that the Sally Foster paper roll your third-grader brings home as part of a school fund-raiser is made in America and designed, right down to the sticky closure tab, by an American. There’s a hands-on cleverness involved in the entire process that we simply cannot afford to lose as a culture.

Take U.S. Route 20 West off I-91 North

I’m embarrassed to say I needed directions to the mill, even though it’s located just 30 miles north of where I grew up. Like so many former New England manufacturing towns, the Springfield area remains a blend of the lovely and the worn. I was astounded to learn that the region once supported hundreds of thousands of people who produced clocks, textiles, metal and guns. In the late 19th century, 60% of all goods made in America were made in New England, according to The History of New England, by Candace Floyd (Portland House, 1990). Even more relevant to my story: As late as 1920, nearly half of the shoes made in the U.S. were made in Massachusetts. My grandfather took advantage of that market by making the paper that covered the shoeboxes for trademark brands like Thom McAn Shoes.

Most of the local manufacturers have gone now, except the Sullivan Paper Company, which sits off the West Springfield town green on a side street in a set of nondescript buildings. The only telltale sign that anything interesting is going on: the classic 1950s-style factory logo, designed by my grandmother, on the white sign. The other giveaway: several cars in the lot have plates that read Paper 2, PaperR, Paper 7.

The boss

The no-frills approach on the outside continues on the inside, where my Uncle Richard, the company chairman, sits behind a simple desk shaped like a boat. Everything around him has a spare quality, though he himself has a lot of flash. Even though he is 80 years old, his energy dominates the room and the conversation.

He explains how by the 1950s the four brothers—Richard, Roger, Tommy and Terry—had finished school and military service and worked full-time at the mill for their father. Serendipitously, each brother had a particular skill that the mill needed: Richard, the master salesman; Roger, the engineer and floor manager for the men working the machines; Tommy, another master personnel manager and marketer; Terry, the accountant.

With the light buzz of my video camera as background noise, Richard recounts how he traveled the U.S. in his 1953 Chevy in search of new clients.

“I drove and slept in the car. I’d go and try to talk them into doing business with us. One time I went to Texas and sat down with Lou Ward, who wanted to take over a business but his friend wanted to talk him out of it. He brought us over to this great old house that said ‘Russell Stover’ across the top. Ward said he wanted to make candy not only in Texas but two states.”

Richard smiles at this point as a ripple of playfulness moves across his normally intense face. Russell Stover now does more than $300 million worth of business worldwide in all 50 states and 20 countries.

So this is how he nailed this huge account for the Sullivan Paper Company—over cheese sandwiches with Lou Ward in Texas in the 1950s.

After the interview we crowd into a tight room full of samplers that contain hundreds of paper patterns. Here, in my hand, is what makes the Sullivan Paper Company one of the best in the world at what it does. I begin to flip through them and scan the variety of colors, textures and sheens with my camera lens. There’s an art-gallery quality to it all because the weight of the paper and intensity of the inks yield a glossy, high-end feel.

An assistant brings in a roll of Sally Foster paper. Richard parks himself in a chair and begins to unwrap the plastic around the roll, which has Santa Clauses on it.

“You can use every inch of this,” from the paper to the brown inner tube to the reusable closing sticker on the outside, he explains. As I watch his eyes, I see the passion of a younger man, the same passion that tracked down Lou Ward in Texas. The cleverness of the product is all part of the game for him, all part of the rush of what keeps him in it even as an octogenerian.

At the end of the day, Richard escorts me to the company product display room, which contains an array of items including candy boxes, Estée Lauder perfume boxes and faux wooden frames coated with laminated paper, a trick Richard helped devise. The end product—handsome frames that look like they’re made from mahogany or cherry—is sold at Wal-Mart.

“As one guy once told me,” Richard says, “there are a lot of people with good taste that have no money. If they want the frame of the picture over their bed to match their side table, they can afford to do that with these frames.”

Buffing the frame with his hand, he explains that his employees mailed it back and forth from his house to the company with little protection about a dozen times to test its durability.

As he talks, I think about the endless cycle of ideas and products the company has developed to stay ahead of the curve: When the shoe companies folded in the 1950s, the idea of gift wrapping started to catch on; when the economy slowed and gift purchases dropped off, the faux frames remained popular.

After the Sally Foster demonstration, we head to one of the warehouses where huge rolls of paper stand upright in row upon row of shelves. I pull one roll out at random and read off the name of the customer. Richard knows who they are, how long they’ve bought paper from the company and what’s unique about this new order. He could tell me the detailed back story of any roll in the warehouse.

The back story

In the beginning, there was just one machine and one man—my grandfather, George Sullivan. He lost his first paper business in the Great Depression and spent the next ten years working for another paper company in Rhode Island to support his family of nine children. He hated working for someone else. He knew that to escape, he needed his own printing press, so for years he worked as a consultant on the side and “earned” parts instead of cash. It took him a decade to build the full press in the basement of his rental house, but in 1941 he launched the Sullivan Paper Company for the second time. He set up in a room in West Springfield where an old business colleague gave him free space in exchange for paper.

My grandmother, Elizabeth O’Neil Sullivan, won many art contests as a young adult and studied art in Boston. While spending most of her time taking care of her huge family, she designed the company logo (still used) and some of the earlier papers, and she put together the first samplers.

My mother, Connie Collins Cain, remembers going into fabric stores with her mother who used to troll for pattern ideas there. My grandmother’s adept handling of a huge household and keen artistic eye proved vital to my grandfather’s success.

The money and the government

What elements were in place to help the Sullivans act on their entrepreneurial spirit? Both of my grandparents were smart and talented, with tremendous energy and drive and a remarkable work ethic, but they also needed short-term loans at low interest rates. Uncle Richard and others recounted how a crucial $300 startup loan here and a $1,500 infusion of cash there proved vital to the survival of the company.

All of my uncles acknowledge that the Sullivan Paper Company has benefited immensely from various government investments or regulations. During World War II, for example, just as George Sullivan’s business was finding some legs, the U.S. State Department commissioned his company to produce passport paper. When the Chinese began breaking into the candy box market, the federal government stepped in, found that the Chinese used toxic inks not suited for food products, and ruled that all candy box paper must be made in the U.S.

Bingo.

The future

To keep the company in the family, each brother picked at least one son or daughter to take his place in the mill. Since Uncle Richard has lasted so long at the helm, he’s had ample time to train his successor—his son George Sullivan—and the other five family members who will work with George. They all acknowledge that they lack the personal contacts Richard has built over six decades in the business; when Richard goes, something irreplaceable will go with him.

But Richard has also been smart enough to never make the company about one man. When the recession affected orders, he kept some idle workers on the payroll, because he wanted them there when things got rolling again. Instead of saving money in the short term with cutbacks, he continued to pursue his long-range vision, and he knows he needs his skilled workers to sustain it.

For now, the Sullivan Paper Company remains a privately held, family-run business—the last U.S. manufacturer of fine paper. In the recent recession some core clients, such as the department stores in New York, cut back on orders—they used last year’s Christmas paper instead of ordering a new design, for example. But the company’s range of products continues to sustain it in this tough economy. Production and profits are down, but the presses continue to run.

I believe that the continued success of the company will not depend only on tax breaks, federal regulations and a third generation of hardworking Sullivans. Richard embodies a zeal for all aspects of the business that his sucessors will have to sustain if they hope to survive in the 21st century. His life is the company. As I peered at the patterns in the samplers and, even more impressive, at the boxes and boxes of past patterns in the Sullivan archive, I thought of one of my favorite poems, “Things Men Have Made” by D.H. Lawrence: “Things men have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into/are awake through the years with transferred touch, and go on glowing/for long years.”

When a roll of paper comes off of the Sullivan Paper Company assembly line, it transfers more than money to the company coffers and community; it represents a work ethic, an idea, an American legacy that generations can touch. My Uncle Richard understands that, and the next generation of Sullivans will have to as well, if they hope to thrive.

Mary Collins (collinsmae@ccsu.edu) is a tenured professor of writing at Central Connecticut State University. Her most recent book, American Idle: A Journey Through Our Sedentary Culture, won the 2010 Grand Prize for Nonfiction at the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

 

 

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