Hometown ties

By Caro U. Rock

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