Profile

Isabelita “Lita” Abele, the CEO of Woodbury Heights, N.J.-based U.S. Lumber Co., has a simple formula for success: Be persistent, be honest and remember the gatekeeper.

That’s probably because the petite dynamo with the Filipina accent has been mistaken for the gatekeeper at her family’s lumber company, not its CEO.

Abele’s husband, Merrill “Les” Abele, 82, founded the precursor to U.S. Lumber in 1974. About 10 years later, he met Lita at a restaurant in Boston. His eye caught the petite Filipina dining with a girlfriend. Lita Marcelo, who was working as a nanny for a family in Maine, was in Boston for a short vacation. Les and Lita kept looking at each other until, finally, the friend invited him to sit down.

“He called twice a day, sent a dozen roses a week, then visited Maine every other week. He courted me in the Philippine way. He asked my parents’ permission to marry me. And my employer had to approve him!”

Had they not, she might not have married him, Lita says with a laugh. She and Les still regularly visit her former employers — both physicians — and all their children are friends.

Les recognized his wife’s instinctive talent. Lita, who had been a schoolteacher in the Philippines, took to sales like a fish to water. Les wanted her to work alongside him, so he taught her everything else she needed to know about the construction lumber business: the various kinds of woods, the suppliers, pricing, invoicing, collections and so forth.

Lita, now 68, took over as CEO in January 1993, when Les semi-retired. Since then, the company has grown to about $10 million in annual sales. With the exception of its leased truck drivers, all employees are family members. In addition to Lita and Les, who still works part-time, Lita’s daughter Romilett Yulo, 45, is the office manager and her husband, Marvin Yulo, 43, is the yard foreman. Marvin and Romilett’s younger son, Kyle, 17, works at the company after school. Their older son, Brandon, left the business in 2018 to join the Coast Guard — following the example set by his uncle Jeff Yulo, Marvin’s brother, who worked at the yard before joining the Navy.

A nephew and niece also have jobs at the company. Romilett’s brother Ryan Marcelo, 40, was employed there for a time but left 10 years ago.

When Lita took over as CEO, some former employees — all male — bristled.

“I have different rules, and I laid out expectations and they didn’t like it,” she says bluntly.

A woman in a man’s world
In such a strongly male-dominated field as construction, it’s not surprising that customers might assume Lita is the CEO’s assistant, not the CEO.

“My accent is my asset. I used to cry when people would criticize me, but I thought about it and said, ‘OK, how many Americans speak three languages?’ ” Lita, who taught high school history and language in the Philippines, speaks Spanish, English and Tagalog.

“I turned that to advantage and turned my accent into a sales tool. Now when you hear my voice, you always say, ‘That’s Lita from U.S. Lumber!’ ”

She makes it a point not only to visit customers’ job sites, but also to introduce herself to the gatekeepers. Receptionists and assistants call her the “Kisses lady” because of the Hershey’s candy and Filipino treats she brings.

Lita’s skills are part of what grew the small company into a position of leadership among building materials suppliers in the Philadelphia tri-state area, but another factor in its success is her ability to take what normally would be a challenge and turn it into an opportunity. She targets federal, state and municipal projects with diversity requirements to use a certain number of minority- or female-owned contractors. (U.S. Lumber qualifies as both.)

The company has supplied materials for such notable projects as Lincoln Financial Field, where the Philadelphia Eagles play; Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies; some Atlantic City casinos and many of the area’s interstate highways. U.S. Lumber has also been involved in projects for Philadelphia Gas Works and PECO (the area’s power company).

Although diversity requirements might open the door, the company’s reputation for service keeps customers coming back. U.S. Lumber promises 24-hour turnaround for delivery in the tri-state area.

Lita also makes it a point not to put customers into voicemail. “When they call me, I’m always available. When they call Marvin, the yard foreman, he answers. When they text and need lumber tomorrow, it’s there.” Even when the company closes early, phones are forwarded so a human always picks up.

Contemplating the future
Although the company has had very few non-family employees and no outside salespeople since Lita took over, she acknowledges that may someday change.

Romilett prefers to remain in her role as office manager and bookkeeper rather than move into sales. Marvin is starting to accompany Lita on sales calls, but he enjoys being yard foreman.

Lita and Les are comfortable with Romilett and Marvin’s ability to run the company. They often will take a long vacation and leave the two in charge, but it’s clear that Lita is torn about the future. She doesn’t want to force her children into taking over if it’s not what they want, but she does want to see U.S. Lumber continue in the family. At present, only Lita and Les have ownership, she at 51% and he at 49%.

Lita already has quite a legacy to her credit. Having never lost her love for teaching, she’s a contributing author to four business books with a fifth on the way this summer. Both she herself and U.S. Lumber under her leadership have won multiple business awards, including her selection by the Filipina Women’s Network as one of the 100 Most Influential Filipina Women nationwide in 2009 and globally in 2017. She is a frequent participant in panel discussions and presentations and has served the boards of multiple community and business organizations.

Lita has no immediate plans to retire, preferring to live in the moment. As such, there’s no concrete transition plan in place for U.S. Lumber other than the classic “Someday all this will be yours.”

The answer may lie with G3. Kyle once jokingly pointed to Lita’s chair and announce his intention to someday sit in it. That may be more prescient than he knows, and Lita laughs that he might someday be his parents’ boss.

“But only if that’s what he wants to do,” says Romilett.  

Hedda Schupak is a frequent contributor to Family Business. 

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.    

$10.00

Shortly after Mardi Gras on Feb. 25, another grand New Orleans tradition begins: the reopening of Hansen’s Sno-Bliz stand, usually around March 1.

A Hansen’s Sno-Bliz is not your average snow cone. It’s an ethereal treat, powdery as Aspen snow, layered with flavors like lavender, satsuma and passionfruit.

“It’s light and fluffy, like an airy gelato,” says Ashley Hansen, 46, the third-generation owner of the business. “If you bite into something crunchy, there’s something wrong with the machine.”

The city has several snowball stands, but only one Sno-Bliz. Ashley’s grandfather, Ernest C. Hansen, invented the motorized ice-shaving machine in 1934.

Back then, snowballs were sold from pushcarts, with vendors using a wooden planer to shave a block of ice. “The vendor would plane the ice in front of you into cardboard trays, and it was filthy,” Ashley says.

Ernest’s wife, Mary, created homemade syrups and made frozen treats using the prototype machine. Hansen’s Sno-Bliz at first operated on the sidewalk outside Mary’s mother’s house. Untouched by human hands, her confection was sanitary. The ice was ground more finely, and the flavorings, made fresh daily, were better. She charged 2 cents, double the going rate at the time.

By the mid-1940s, the Hansens had established a storefront. In 1944, the business moved to its current location.
“My grandfather built the machine, but my grandmother built the business,” Ashley says. Mary remembered each customer’s favorite flavor. The grandchildren of her original customers are Sno-Bliz customers today.

Ashley, who was always very close to her grandparents and began helping them when she was 12, took over the business from them. Neither her father, Gerard (Jerry), nor his brother (Ernest Jr.) worked in the business, though Jerry helped her at a few critical times.

“My grandfather told his sons, ‘I wear blue jeans so that you won’t have to.’ He wanted them to go to college and have professional careers with titles,” Ashley says. Jerry became an attorney and Ernest Jr., a pediatrician.

Ashley is a twin; her sister, Allison Hansen Mullis, works at Bell Helicopter. One young cousin works at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz part-time after school.

Mary never wrote down any of her syrup recipes. As she grew older, it became obvious that dementia was setting in. Ashley would watch her make the syrups, and late at night she and her dad would experiment until they got the flavors right.

“Every morning I would make the syrups, then pick up my grandparents, make sure they were clean, make their breakfast, and bring them over” to the stand, Ashley says. “My grandmother would see the syrup I’d made and think it was all left over from the day before and want to throw it out. I had to convince her that I’d just made it.”
Ernest taught Ashley about mechanics, and to this day she uses — and personally maintains — the second machine he built in 1939.

Since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, “Places that didn’t flood have become more valuable in both a sentimental and economic way,” says Ashley. “Everyone knows what it’s like to lose so many precious things.”

Hansen’s stand, located on the highest point of the city, was not flooded, although its roof was damaged.
The hurricane was just one of the traumatic experiences that befell the family that year.

In March 2005, Ashley’s mother, Marie, a teacher, died suddenly. Ashley’s pet dog died just before Katrina hit.
In the wake of the storm, “Both the house I grew up in and my grandparents’ house across the street had 8 feet of water in them,” Ashley says.

“My grandmother was in the hospital, not doing well. I wanted to evacuate. Dad said no but I said, ‘You’re leaving with me.’ My grandfather would not leave his wife, so we got permission from the hospital to leave him there with a sitter so that he wouldn’t be the hospital’s responsibility.”

By then, the evacuating traffic was already gridlocked. Ashley and Jerry were stuck for more than 11 hours. Eventually, they headed to northern Louisiana, where they stayed at a friend’s house.

“When we heard the levees broke, we just cried.”

They also were frantic about Ernest and Mary. “When the hospitals failed, it was not like a normal medical evacuation,” Ashley says. “We had no idea where they were. We spent days trying to find them.”

At the time, Allison was working at the Pentagon, and her military friends helped to find Ernest and Mary at two different hospitals, two miles apart, in northern Louisiana.

“We snuck my grandfather out to be with his wife till she died, at age 95, after 72 years of marriage,” Ashley says. Ernest died the following March at age 94.

“People left sunflowers, old Polaroids, letters from kids when my grandfather passed. That’s when I realized they were also grandparents for half the city.”

Ashley later married and divorced. Through it all, Sno-Bliz has been her anchor. Now a single mom, she calls taking care of her grandparents and their business her superpower.

Her efforts were honored in 2014, when Sno-Bliz received an America’s Classics Award from the James Beard Foundation. The award honors regional eateries with timeless appeal whose offerings reflect the community they serve.                                                    

Hedda Schupak is a frequent contributor to Family Business. 

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.

$10.00

Alison Gutterman does not like to clean. Some people do, she realizes, but she’s not one of them. That’s funny, because her family owns Jelmar, the Skokie, Ill.-based company behind CLR and RustX cleaners and a dozen others.

Alison knows she isn’t alone in her disdain for removing stains. Not long ago, Jelmar executives discussed how to motivate people to clean. One suggestion was to harness the power of music.

So Jelmar launched its own channel on Spotify, a popular music-streaming service.

“There’s something about a good music beat, an uplifting song, that will encourage me to do things I don’t want to do,” Gutterman says. “We took a survey, and 80% of people [said they] like to listen to music when they clean.”
Playlists cover a number of genres, such as country, Latin pop and rock. Songs include “Dust in the Wind” and “Car Wash.”

Alison’s grandfather Manny Gutterman founded a sales company in 1949. He took other companies’ products and brought them to the retail market (drug and department stores, etc.). By 1967 he decided he wanted to find his own products to sell and launched Jelmar LLC with its first product, Tarn-X tarnish remover. It was one of the first products to label itself “as seen on TV,” with an extended commercial that showed over and over again how the product could bring silver and other metals back to life with just a wipe of the cleaner.

In the 1980s, with Manny’s sons Arthur and Steven on board at the company, the family looked to expand its cleaning line. The result was CLR, so named because it could break through calcium, lime and rust. That line has since grown to more than 10 specialized cleaning products.

The company also sold a few other products over the years, including Hair Wiz, an instrument for home haircuts that crossed a comb and a cutting blade, but Jelmar now focuses on cleaning products.

In 1995, Alison joined the family business, which was being led by her father, Arthur, and her uncle, Steven. Shortly after, Steven left the business to start another with his children and sold his interest to Arthur.

“I had a few jobs after college, and then Mom told Dad to offer me a job. It was not planned,” Alison says. “I always thought I would do something in advertising [or] public relations or go back to school for a law degree.”

She had no training in the company, even in those early years, she says. “But I don’t think my father was necessarily trained, either. I was thrown a lot of projects no one else wanted to do and wasn’t necessarily qualified to do.”

Alison says her mother, who died in 2009, also helped her rise in the company.

“Mom said to my dad, ‘You just need to let go and let Alison lead. Trust that she will be able to lead,” Alison says. She became CEO and president in 2007. Arthur, 82, lives in Florida and serves as an adviser to Alison.

Since taking over, Alison celebrated Jelmar’s 50th anniversary in 2017 and has continued to innovate, working to make CLR cleaners environmentally friendly. Jelmar holds the trademark for the term “greenvenient.”

“The products were not always environmentally safe, and not all are,” Alison says. She adds that the company continues to work with chemists to do even more. Jelmar has been a “Safer Choice” partner to the EPA since 2004 by showing that the ingredients in the company’s products are safer alternatives to their competitors.

But innovation doesn’t guarantee prosperity, Alison says. The company behind CLR is tiny — just 17 people on staff. Jelmar has no lab or chemists of its own, working instead in tandem with developers.

The company’s size is also making it increasingly difficult for it to continue to sell its products in big-box stores, where it competes with large public corporations that produce similar cleaners. Jelmar cannot produce to the same scale. What’s more, it also competes with some chains’ own private-label products.

Alison says she has some ideas on what will happen next at the company, but no concrete plan. Currently, she expects there will be a non-family management team when she is ready to retire.

Her niece Rebecca Dann served as a marketing intern with Jelmar while in college but hasn’t joined the company full time. Rebecca’s mother, Alison’s sister Jamie Hinton, owns a small portion of the business, but has never worked in it. Alison’s daughters, Michaela, 13, and Eliza, 9, are far from joining the company.

Between running Jelmar and being a single mom to two daughters, Alison doesn’t have much time to use her products herself. Even with a great soundtrack, cleaning isn’t a priority for her.

“I have to be honest, I have people who help me with [cleaning],” she says. “You always want to outsource the things someone else can do better. I have outsourced the things I don’t necessarily enjoy doing so I can spend time with my kids.”

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.                        

$10.00

The Zildjian family knows a lot about longevity. In less than four years, the family and their company will celebrate 400 years in the music business. The family, whose company is a fixture on every list of the world’s oldest family businesses, has plenty of experience with succession, disruption and celebrating legacies.

According to the family’s history, their ancestor Avedis I was an alchemist who found that an alloy of copper, tin and silver created a metal with musical properties. Osman II, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, brought Avedis to his palace to make cymbals for the sultan’s elite bands.

The sultan gave Avedis the name “Zildjian,” an Armenian word meaning “son of a cymbal maker.” The alloy remains a family secret.

Avedis was released from the palace in 1623 and given permission to start his own cymbal-making business. The rest is history. A very, very long history.

It would be five generations before the company — and family — would move to the United States.
Avedis Zildjian III immigrated to the U.S. in 1909. He worked at a candy factory and soon owned one of his own. In 1927, Avedis’ uncle Aram, who was running the business in Constantinople, told Avedis it was his turn to take over.

According to the history on the company’s website, Avedis III was reluctant to take on the company, which had never been very profitable. He convinced his uncle to move the business to America in 1929.

Over the years, the company would survive the Great Depression, a fire that de­stroyed the original manufacturing facility in Massachusetts and more. During this time, Avedis revolutionized cymbals by creating and naming the hi-hat, sizzle and crash. These cymbals were thinner than the original design and were embraced by big bands.

Known commonly as Zildjian, The Avedis Zildjian Company manufactures cymbals that have been part of the drum kits of countless musicians, including Sheila E., The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts and The Roots’ Questlove.

“We’re a mature business in a mature industry,” says Cady Ziljian, 40, a 15th-­generation family member who is a director on the company’s board and works part-time in the family office.

The company had to be flexible and adaptable, not just mature, says Craigie Zildjian, Cady’s aunt. For example, while the business had been passed on only to direct male descendants of Avedis I, that changed as the family approached the end of the 20th century. Craigie was the first woman in the family to join the business in 1976. In 1999 she was the first woman to run the company; she retired earlier this year. She now chairs the board of directors.

At this point it would seem the company has a life of its own, but while there is momentum, the Zildjians say brand recognition does not negate disruption. There has been consolidation in the industry, including Zildjian’s recent acquisitions of Mike Balter Mallets and Vic Firth Company, adding drumming accessories to its catalog.
“Technology has definitely disrupted the acoustic in­strument market, but you can never really replace the sound of a drum kit,” Cady says. “You do see technology assist in manufacturing, and that’s been very important in our quality.”

The company has a non-family executive team, aside from Debbie Zildjian, who heads up human resources.
Cady says there is pressure to steward such an iconic brand, but there’s “more pride than pressure…. We all see it as a privilege.”

However, “The brand is a lot bigger than the company” and the family, Craigie says. There are just 10 shareholders. Sisters Craigie and Debbie are G14; Cady, her sister, Emily, and cousin Samantha (all in their 30s) are G15; and there are now five in G16, including the newest addition, Colton, who is only a few months old.

The size of the family is one of the reasons why independent directors have been brought onto the board, which is currently working on a long-term growth strategy.

“Now we have a diversity of thought,” Craigie says. “We need to be more strategic, so we have directors from larger companies.”

The company is onboarding the 15th generation “as 14 winds down a little bit,” Cady says. A family council is in place to encourage shareholders to engage with the business.

“The company had been run a certain way for so long. The company that we have today is not the company my grandfather ran 50 years ago,” Cady says. “You can’t be complacent and think the brand is going to carry the business.”        

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

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Al Maddox Jr. and his siblings are printers in a digital world, but they’re holding on to traditional relationships they’ve made face to face in the Baltimore area.

The family started in the professional printing business in 1907. Founder Gabriel B. Maddox Sr. owed his career to Booker T. Washington and the then-new Tuskegee Institute.

“As a young man, [Gabriel Sr.] was taken under Dr. Washington’s wing. [Washington] saw things in [Gabriel] that gave him an idea of what [Gabriel] could be,” Al Jr. says. Washington sent Gabriel to the Hampton Institute, where he studied printing instruction. When he graduated, Gabriel founded the institute’s first print shop.

Washington wanted Gabriel to train other printing educators, who would prepare Reconstruction-era African Americans for jobs as skilled workers.

When Gabriel left Tuskegee, he moved north, settled in Baltimore and opened Maddox Printing. Gabriel had three sons; the eldest, Gabriel Jr., joined him in the business.

The other two sons, J. Albert (Al) and Francis (Frank), opened their own shop, Time Printers. They worked as printers at Baltimore’s African American newspaper, working opposite shifts to keep the company going until they were solvent five years later.

The brothers were “time” oriented, Al Jr. says. They offered a quicker turnaround for people who needed printed material to be delivered quickly and correctly.

“A lot of people, even up to today, say they think of us because ‘time is of the essence,’ ” he says. “Now more than ever, we’re up against the internet that is available in an instant, but they know if they came to Time Printers, they’ll get what they need.

“That’s a lot to live up to, is it not?”

Maddox Printing no longer exists. When Gabriel Jr. died a decade ago, no family members wanted to take over, so it dissolved. Al and his siblings are continuing the family’s printing legacy at Time Printers. Five of Al Jr.’s six siblings work in the company. Frank’s only son didn’t go into the family business.

Al’s siblings in the business hold a variety of roles: Brenda and Lisa work as customer service representatives and share accounting duties; Lisa is a salesperson as well; Dan is a prepress supervisor; Wayne is a prepress manager who handles the graphics department; Greg is a pressroom supervisor.

The only family member from the fourth generation to join the business thus far is Dan’s daughter, Mona, who is a graphic designer. Al Jr. is unsure if anyone else will join. He and his siblings had experience outside of Time Printers before entering the business, in roles as diverse as insurance and teaching.

In addition to leading Time Printers, Al leads an initiative to educate people on the value of the printing industry.
At the bottom of his emails is a signature: “Print grows trees. Go ahead, print my email. You will read it 10-30% faster and produce 20% less CO2. If you really care about the environment, save energy by turning your computer off tonight. Go to www.printinggrowstrees.com.”

While he was the chair of a professional association, the Printing Industry of Maryland (now known as the Printing & Graphics Association MidAtlantic), the group launched the website to let people know that print wasn’t a wasteful, unsustainable product, as is often reported. Instead, he hoped to show how concerned the printing industry is about the environment in the present and future.

Paper printing is 95% sustainable, he says. The industry actually plants “far more trees than we use.

“It’s been an uphill climb because there are other situations at work. Recycling is becoming more and more of a challenge, and it does use energy, but it is still an environmentally sound process to recycle paper.”

And while the chants of “save a tree, go paperless,” sound good, corporations may have other incentives to cut printing.

“It keeps them from having to employ people to have things printed,” Al says. “And they don’t have the expense of mailing things to you.”

There’s no doubt that the proliferation of online services has made it easier to do a lot online, including paying bills, which eliminates paper statements, checks and envelopes.

But there are some products that seem irreplaceable, and those often act as introductions for Time Printers, earning the company customer loyalty and repeat business. Those are often the items that mark some of the happiest and most difficult times of people’s lives — a wedding program or a remembrance card distributed at funerals.

People still appreciate such print products, he says.

“One of the rewards we get is the appreciation that people show us when we get what they were looking for on time,” he says. “They come into the plant when they have conferences and seminars for their brochures or workbooks and say, ‘Years ago I came to you because I had a death in the family, and you did such a magnificent job. You put us at ease when there was so much going on at the time.’ ”

He says that’s what makes the family business more of a calling then a money-maker. He strives to help people share their concepts and dreams and make them come to life while honoring the rich history of his family’s printing legacy.

“To whom much is given, much is required,” he says.  

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

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Anyone who enjoys craft cocktails has probably tasted a Fee Brothers product. The  Rochester, N.Y.-based creator of artisan drink mix products has overcome many obstacles in its 155-year history.

Young Owen Fee arrived in America from Ireland in 1835. He opened a butcher shop in Rochester in 1847 and died in 1855, leaving his wife, Margaret, to manage the shop and raise the couple’s five children: four boys and a girl.

By 1864, Margaret and James, the eldest son, had converted the butcher shop to a saloon and delicatessen. James opened a separate grocery and liquor store and, with his three brothers, expanded to a winery and import business.

In 1881, brother Owen Fee Jr. and matriarch Margaret both died. The three remaining brothers — James, John and Joseph — renamed the business. James and John were partners and Joseph was their right-hand man until he died in 1895 at age 45.

“I’m led to believe James needed to borrow money from his brothers and the name became Fee Brothers because they felt a little slighted,” says Joseph (Joe) Fee, 54, one of the two fourth-generation owners. The other is his sister Ellen, 60.

“I’m president, treasurer, sales manager and the guy who climbs under machines when something breaks,” Joe says. “Ellen is vice president and secretary and doesn’t climb under machines unless she can’t avoid it. She does all the R&D on new products, runs the production and makes sure I have product to sell. We like to say she handles everything wet and I handle everything dry.”

In 1908, a fire caused $400,000 of destruction (more than $11 million in 2018 dollars), but six months later the Fees were up and running again.

During Prohibition, second-generation member John Fee Jr. got creative. A malt extract beverage called “Bruno” was labeled with the picture of a bear (i.e., beer) and a warning not to add yeast to the product, as it was likely to ferment. Wink, wink.

The illicit alcohol served in speakeasies often tasted terrible. Fee Brothers began producing flavorings such as Benedictine, Chartreuse and other cordial syrups to make the alcohol palatable. The company had inadvertently found its future.

After Prohibition, Fee Brothers returned to selling alcohol but had to downsize to survive. Several cousins exited, leaving the business to John Jr. and his wife, Blanche. They had two children, John C. Fee III (Jack) and Nancy. John Jr. developed the famous Frothy Mixer that gave a lemon flavor to whiskey sours and Tom Collins drinks, leading to the motto, “Don’t Squeeze, Use Fee’s.”

By 1950, he decided to focus solely on mixers. But he died suddenly a year later at 58, taking the mixer formulas to his grave.

“It wasn’t exactly that they went with him,” says Joe. “He had a recipe book. The procedures were written out, but the actual measurements were still in code. It would say, ‘take a scoop of ixmus.’ What was ixmus? What size scoop? We had his scoops, but didn’t know which one. Was it a rounded scoop or a level scoop? Working from my grandfather’s notes, my father had to re-create the recipes.”

Jack Fee had earned a degree in chemistry and a job at Eastman Kodak. Though he’d worked at Fee Brothers during summers, he knew nothing of production or running a business. His chemist’s training helped him figure out and standardize the recipes, while Blanche and Nancy kept the business going with the help of Blanche’s father.

Joe and Ellen are two of Jack’s eight children. Though their six siblings and many cousins worked summer jobs at Fee Brothers, they’re the only two who made it a career.

“My oldest brother, John, was in the business for about 12 years, but he and my father were like two gears going in the opposite direction,” Joe says. “My father was brilliant at keeping the facility in wonderful condition and setting everything up in logical order, but he didn’t want to make sales calls. He was not a people person. That’s where my brother came in.” John, now 70, left and became a highly successful insurance agent.

Joe enjoys meeting bartenders and selling the product. Ellen likes to mix things and wants to go home at night. “Too many family members in a business makes for arguments. My sister and I get along because I don’t want to do her job and she doesn’t want to do mine,” Joe says.

Both have veto power, but Joe says neither of them used it more than once in the 28 years they’ve been partners.

With only 14 employees, many long-term, there’s little formal hierarchy. “My shipping guy has been here more than 20 years,” Joe says. “We told people he’s a foreman, so if he sees people goofing around, he’s welcome to tell them not to.”

Joe and Ellen hope another generation will someday come into the business, but the siblings will make them work for it. “Both Ellen and I have done every job in this place, down to cleaning toilets.”

Their hard work has paid off. Today Fee Brothers offers about 100 products and ships to customers worldwide from a warehouse built in 2014.                         

Hedda Schupak is a frequent contributor to Family Business. She recently profiled Modlich Monuments of Columbus, Ohio.

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

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Delaware is a small state, which makes it easy for people to build reputations — good or bad.

Govatos Chocolates, based in Wilmington,  has a great reputation. Founded in 1894 by a Greek immigrant, the store — which includes a luncheonette — has operated in the same location for more than 100 years.

John Govatos came to the United States and started the chocolate company under the name Queen Elizabeth Chocolates. The store adopted its current name when it moved to its second location, five blocks away, and added a luncheonette. In 1912, it made its final move four blocks from there.

There was a brisk lunch business for many years (Govatos’ website claims it introduced Wilmington to ice cream soda), but that has slowed down. There’s a sentimental attachment to the restaurant, so it stays in operation.

“It’s part of the package,” says Nick Govatos, the third-generation owner of the business. Nick is the principal in the business. His brother, Richard Jr., is the head candymaker.

Nick says while growing up with a name easily recognized in the Wilmington area, he represented his family wherever he went, usually by fielding requests for sweets.

“Every time I went to a friend’s house or a store and they saw my last name, it would be, ‘Did you bring me any chocolates? Go back and get me something!’ “ he recalls.

Nick started stocking the candy displays when he was about 12. He left to attend college, but it wasn’t for him, so he returned to work in the family business.

Ninety percent of the candy for sale in the store is made in-house — on the third floor of the downtown store. Govatos opened a suburban outpost in the 1980s.

Just before Valentine’s Day, the flagship shop was bustling. Nick says February and March are the busiest time of the year for the business.

“We’re in the thick of it,” Nick says. “We’re working on two holidays simultaneously.”

The Valentine’s Day buying season is short, he says, with more than 1,000 chocolate hearts sold over three or four days. Easter buying starts earlier and extends for several weeks.

Part of the candy-making crew fills the chocolates; the rest do the hand molding. There are hollow figures of cowboys on reared-up horses, ducks, crosses, Popeye, bunnies of course — and many that leave an onlooker thinking, “Hmm, I wouldn’t have thought of that one,” like a “Flying V” guitar.

Govatos produces its candy on the third floor of the shop. There is no large-scale refrigeration. The molds are “dependent on the weather for drying,” Nick says. “It’s still old-fashioned.”

The shop runs tight. There isn’t a lot of superfluous stock — if a shape or flavor sells out, it’s finished for the day, maybe two. Some products are put on hiatus for the summer, when fewer people want a candy that can melt in their hands, not in their mouths.

But at Easter, chocolate is king. Govatos offers the classic buttercream, coconut, peanut butter and chocolate filled eggs, but the store also makes some unique flavors, including “Chop Suey” (coconut, cashews, honey, raisins and more) and a black walnut. Both are available in chocolate-covered cups and Easter eggs.

To leave his mark on the shop, candymaker Richard Jr. created the “Snooker,” Govatos’ take on a popular, similar-sounding chocolate bar.

The chocolate making isn’t the only old-school operation at the store. Orders are still taken over the phone; although the store has a website, it doesn’t engage in e-commerce. Callers might receive a busy signal, or maybe no answer at all.

Nick is approaching 50 years in the business; his brother is at about 40. Neither Nick’s daughter, who is just about to enter college, nor his son, who works for a bank, has shown interest in being their dad’s successor.

There is the option of having a non-family member run the place while keeping the company in the family, but Nick hasn’t made any concrete plans.

He says he still has “a lot of gasoline in the engine.”

“It’s been 120 years in business as a family and it hits you hard, it really does,” Nick says. “We have a lot to be thankful for. We’re enjoying what we do.”      

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

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They call the Kentucky Derby “The Run for the Roses,” but the winner gets more than a rose garland and a sizable check at the end of the famous horse race. The owner of the winning horse receives a nearly 2-foot-tall gold trophy.

The trophy was first awarded in 1924, the 50th anniversary of the race. Since that time, just a handful of people have worked on its creation. For 43 years, a single family has been entrusted with making it.

Ross Blackinton originally got the job for his company, New England Sterling, an impressive feat for what was then a young company with a tiny staff.

Ross followed in the footsteps of three generations of silversmiths, starting with his great-grandfather Roswell Blackinton. Roswell taught himself after serving in the Civil War. He established R. Blackinton Company in 1862.

When Ross’s father took over the business, Ross entered and found greater interest in the business side of the company. His father sold the business in the mid-1960s. Soon afterward, Ross established his own firm, New England Sterling.

He started as more of a middleman, farming out the spinning and silversmith work, but when he acquired the New York company contracted to make the Kentucky Derby Trophy for Louisville-based jeweler Lemon & Son, Ross was ready for the challenge.

“All the big companies were all, ‘You’re not ready for that,’ “ says Ross’ daughter, Susanne Blackinton-Juaire. “And he was like, ‘Oh yeah?’ “

To prove the naysayers wrong, Ross hired a silversmith, Walter Bigos. Bigos found a spinner, and the company created its first trophy for the Derby in 1975.

In interviews, Ross and Bigos shared some of their early adventures with the trophy. The first year they made it, Ross took it to his golf club, had it filled with beer and passed it around the room so everyone could have a sip.

“That was the last time we did that,” Ross said in the interview with a Louisville, Ky., television station in 2016.

Bigos, who passed about two years ago, said he would keep the trophy next to his bed, except for once when he kept it in his oven.

Crafting the Derby Trophy raised the company’s profile. The trainer, jockey and breeder of the Derby-winning horse each receive silver half-size replicas of the big gold trophy. Blackinton makes all four.

As New England Silverworks grew, Susanne was growing up around the business. She was in awe of the silversmiths and spinners and dreamed of one day creating the trophy.

But her parents had a different plan. They wanted her to be the first one in the family to attend college.

After switching her major from communications to art therapy, Susanne wrote her father a letter, telling him she was wasting her parents’ money in college and that she wanted to work with her hands and become a silversmith.

“I think he understood. And he had four other kids who could go to college,” she says. Susanne started by paying her dues in the pressroom and packing trophies for shipment. She was the first woman in five generations to follow the silversmithing trade.

Bigos was Susanne’s mentor. She refers to him as her greatest inspiration and a father figure whom she hopes to emulate.

Bigos was there not only to witness Susanne’s success in the trade, but also to see her meet and marry her husband, Bill Juaire, who was a spinner at the Silverworks. Susanne, Juaire and Bigos worked as the company’s “hollow goods” division in their own shop. As a spinner, Juaire is the artisan who creates the bowl, pedestal and other non-sculpted parts of the trophy.

Ross sold New England Silverworks in the ’90s. Around 2000, Susanne went to work with her husband at his newly established business, New England Copperworks. They were contracted by the new Silverworks owners for the annual job of building the trophy. During Ross’ and Bigos’ time with the trophy, they worked to make the horse look more like a thoroughbred, with long legs and a longer neck. Now, Susanne sculpts the signature horse and jockey on top.

In another change, Susanne flipped the horseshoe on the front of the cup. The original design, with the opening of the shoe at the bottom, flew in the face of superstition: a downward-facing shoe is said to spill out good luck.

Today, Susanne and Bill spend four to six months on the trophy, never touching it with bare hands. In contrast to the days when it served as a beer mug or could be left at an airport without getting stolen, the trophy now has its own security detail for protection.

And as of 2018, Susanne’s business, now called S.R. Blackinton, has full ownership of the project; its trademark appeared on the trophy for the first time last year.

Currently, none of Susanne’s children are interested in the business. Her 26-year-old daughter has helped with product development, but “has her own path,” Susanne says.    

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

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Cranberries are a staple of the holiday season — jellied in a can, strung with popcorn, juiced into a sparkling punch.
For the Haines family, the fruit is their bread and butter. The family’s 128-year-old New Jersey farm produces more than 30 million pounds of cranberries annually.

Fourth-generation member Bill Haines Jr., 65, is CEO of Pine Island Cranberry Co. Three of his five children also work in the business.

The Haines family has grown cranberries since 1890, when Bill’s great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran, teacher, attorney and businessman, bought 50 acres on which to start his business. Today, the farm is the largest grower in the state, with 1,400 acres of cranberry bogs and about 14,000 additional acres to protect the bogs.

Bill’s daughter Stefanie Haines, 46, joined the farm full-time as social media coordinator in 2007 and launched the company’s website in 2012. She started out working in the farm during the summers through high school and filled in at the office during college breaks.

Her brothers Tug, 40, and Mike, 29, also work in the family business. Mike, who is manager of the farm, clearly remembers his first job there: putting together the boxes that held the pints of blueberries, a crop grown on the farm until 2009. He earned five cents a box. When he graduated from that position, he sorted the berries in the packinghouse, packed them into pints, packed the pints into boxes and stacked the boxes on pallets to be shipped.

After graduating from Fordham University, where he studied Latin and Greek translation (“I don’t regret studying it; I don’t know if it comes in handy particularly”), Mike pursued agriculture — specifically cranberry cultivation — outside the family business. He worked with cranberry propagator Abbott Lee and learned about new hybrid varieties in development at Rutgers University.

When Mike started looking for a new job, his father asked him to join Pine Island.

“I’m really glad I gave it a chance,” Mike says. He had hesitated right after college because he felt intimidated by the legacy of the family and the company.

“It’s a lot to live up to sometimes,” he says. “People speak so highly of my father and grandfather and the two generations before that.”

Mike focuses on crop management and long-term planning at Pine Island. In the off-season, farmers determine whether to prune excess vegetation or to add sand to the flooded bogs to freshen the ground under the water that will be dry again by planting season.

He’ll also decide if any of the plants need to be replaced. Some on the farm have been in the ground as long as 70 years, but now new varieties can produce double or triple the yield of older varieties in the same acreage.

Stefanie says after the harvest, there are plenty of fresh cranberries in the family’s refrigerators, but the fruit grown for commercial use is delivered to an Ocean Spray receiving station in Chatsworth, N.J., where they are processed into products such as dried craisins and cranberry sauce. The family joined the Ocean Spray cranberry farm cooperative in the 1930s.

At that time, the cranberries were harvested on dry land with scoops and buckets. In the 1960s, the Haines family introduced wet harvest to New Jersey. Most of the berries in the industry are now harvested by flooding bogs and allowing the cranberries to float to the top, where they are skimmed off.

In 1993, Bill cofounded a cranberry-growing venture in Chile. He has served as president of Cranberries Austral Chile since 2008. That farm reaps about 1,500 tons of berries annually.

The Haines Family Foundation was established in 1996. Bill’s sister, Holly, left the cranberry business to run the foundation.
The family continues to invest in both Pine Island and the company in Chile. Bill has talked about succession for “a long time” but is in no rush to retire, Mike says.

Over the long history of the farm, the family has learned to “work hard and always reinvest in the business,” Mike says.

“It might be easy to shortchange something in the present, but we’re always investing to make the farm better. [The farm’s] not a static thing; it’ll always be changing.”  

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Salt water taffy and caramel popcorn are timeless treats to enjoy on a classic U.S. beach vacation. For more than 100 years, Dolle’s on the Ocean City, Md., boardwalk has been providing these tasty souvenirs and more for tourists and locals.

Rudolph Dolle Sr. and his young son, Rudolph Jr., sought a seaside location for their hand-carved carousel in 1906. They fell in love with Ocean City, and the father bought a property on the boardwalk.

After a few years on the boardwalk, Rudolph Sr. bought a taffy stand next door to the carousel and started stretching the sugary treats. The family operated both attractions until the carousel succumbed to a fire that destroyed most of downtown Ocean City in 1925.

“What we make is the New Jersey-style taffy,” says Anna Dolle Bushnell. “It’s not the real soft nougat. It’s firmer because it’s pulled.”

Taffy was a perfect beach snack in the days before refrigeration because, unlike chocolate, it’s sturdy and doesn’t melt.

As refrigeration took off, Rudolph Jr. added chocolate to the menu. He ran the store until his passing in 1968. Then Anna’s aunt, Evelyn Gunby, ran the business until her brother, Rudolph “Bunky” Dolle (Anna’s father) joined her in the early ’70s after returning from the Navy. Bunky and his wife, Pam, took full ownership in 1978 when his sister passed away.

Anna, 39, and her brother, Andrew Dolle, 36, are the fourth-generation owner-operators of Dolle’s Candyland, the original store, plus three other locations in Ocean City. (Dolle’s in Rehoboth, Del., is a separate company that was bought by a partner in 1956.) Bunky, now 69, semi-retired in 2000. Pam retired when Anna and Andrew took the helm. When Anna was a child, she’d climb into a cardboard box under the taffy-pulling machine and play with Barbie dolls. Now her 13-year-old daughter, Hailey, accompanies her to the office occasionally. Her 10-year-
old son, Brody, started making candy last year.

“Last summer he started making chocolates,” she says. “He was too short to see over the counter.” That’s not the only way Brody has contributed. He’s also the auteur of a short stop-motion video featuring candy corn, which can be seen on Dolle’s Facebook page. The candy company has embraced the digital revolution.

“Dad would love to be here; his passion is still here,” Bushnell says. “But it’s such a different beast in so many different facets.” Anna says the goal of the Facebook videos is to keep the family business in the forefront of fans’ minds. “That’s what works now,” she says. She stars in online videos showcasing products, set in the kitchen of the upstairs office.

“Everything goes so fast now,” she says. “It’s a challenge to keep up with keeping your brand out there, keeping your story out there.” The company’s wholesale business, under the name A&A, has expanded a great deal.
Sometimes, customers complain about the time it takes to receive an order. “People see a website and the packaging and think it’s a corporation,” Anna says. “When we get the order, we have to make the candy. There’s a little bit of a disconnect. There’s an Amazon way of thinking.

"It’s challenged us and keeps us on our toes.”

Taffy making hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years, which is why the process takes time. Employees use antique machinery and must consider both the temperature and humidity every day before starting a batch.

“You can’t go on the internet and teach yourself how to make taffy,” Anna says. “You have to have a certain know-how.”

When Anna was growing up, her family was too busy working to spend much time at the beach in Maryland, but they did take some time in the off-season to relax in the sun.

“We went to Florida,” Bushnell says. “That’s where my dad went in the wintertime when he was growing up — Delray Beach. As we got older, we went on cruises and stuff like that.” FB

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