FAMILY-OWNED BUSINESSES TALK SHOP THIS FATHER’S DAY
According to the Small Business Administration, 90 percent of small businesses in the U.S. are family-owned. That’s why a few weeks ago we celebrated Mother’s Day by talking to mothers at women-owned businesses. Now, with Father’s Day right around the corner, we are shining the spotlight on the “pops” of these mom-and-pop, family-owned businesses by speaking with three businesses across the country and getting their tips for small shop owners. Our interviewees include:
Mike Siena of Gianni’s Cafe in our Shops at Killdeer in Kildeer, Illinois. Gianni’s Cafe is a white tablecloth, casual Italian restaurant owned by Mike Siena, with another location in Palatine, Illinois. For the past decade, the cafe has served some of the freshest seafood, pasta, and other Italian entrees in the Chicagoland area.
Marc Solomon of Solomons Jewelers, a full-service jewelry store located in Kimco’s Manetto Hill Plaza in Plainview, New York. Marc Solomon currently owns the 70-year-old family business, with another location in Albertson, New York. The store has Swedish watchmakers, certified appraisers, designers, and repair experts on staff. Solomons Jewelers has been a Kimco tenant for 37 years!
Chris Larson of Thybony Paint, Wallpaper, Blinds, and Design, located in our Hawthorn Hills Square Shopping Center in Vernon Hills, Illinois. The shop has five locations throughout the Chicago area, three of which are owned by today’s interviewee Chris Larson. William Thybony founded the paint store in 1886 after immigrating to America from Sweden. 129 years later, the store still provides paint and interior design supplies to both commercial and industrial contractors and residential customers.
What gave you the idea to start your own business?
A TABLE WITH A VIEW: Gianni’s Cafe is a white tablecloth, casual Italian restaurant owned by Mike Siena.
Mike Siena: Even though I had a successful career in technology and my wife had a successful career in insurance management, I was always intrigued by the idea of being self-employed. My wife and I had always really appreciated delicious food at good restaurants -- we were foodies way before that was a popular word. One day my father-in-law said he wanted to open a restaurant. He had owned two before and needed someone to finance the opening. We agreed to open it and he would run it for us. Eventually my wife and I both left our careers to do this full time. It's a tough business but also very rewarding. If you're doing a good job, people tell you right away.
Marc Solomon: When I was a little kid, my father had 26 SuperX drugstores in New Jersey and Connecticut and also owned a lock company. When I was 19 years old and home from college, we noticed an empty store in a shopping center that had its windows painted black. When they unlocked the 2,000-square-foot store, we saw jewelry showcases with sand in them. I’ll never forget that – we couldn’t figure out why the previous tenant would have left them that way. But beyond the cases I also quickly noticed how much potential the space had. I told my dad it was a good store location for him, and the rest is history.
I took a leave of absence from my MBA to get into the business and help him. My father was on the Board of the New York State Jewelers of America, which has 48 state affiliates. I went to a couple of meetings with him and became involved. My father was elected President of the New York State Jewelers of America, and then to the Jewelers of America Board of Directors. I got onto the Board of New York State, and eventually was elected President and Chief in 2000. We are the only father-son duo in all 50 states that were both elected double-term presidents of the New York State Jewelers of America.
Chris Larson: Thybony was founded by my great grandfather, William Thybony, in 1886. He emigrated from Sweden as a painting contractor and opened his first location on Chicago Avenue in Chicago. Currently, we are a full-service design center. All of the employees that work for me in my design center are all degreed designers; I don’t think many decorating or paint stores could say that. I have an incredible group of people and we handle everything from the very beginning concept to the laying out of the room… we do it right from beginning to the end, whether it's paint color matching, advice on paint color, finding just the right wallpaper or dressing your windows with blinds, shades, shutters, or custom drapery. My team goes on house calls, they review the home and develop a design plan. We also have home measurement and product installation teams.
PICK YOUR PAINT: Thybony is here to help, whether it's with paint color matching or advice on paint color.
I’m the paint guy and have been for my entire life. I’m 61 years old and I was tinting paint with my dad before I was 10. I actually was in the company before tinting machines were around. We tinted paint with plastic pods that we cut the ends off of, almost like the piping tools you’d use to frost a cake, that’s how you tinted paint! We made formulas with packets of pigment that we carefully mixed with these tools.
We sell an incredible amount of window treatments and wallpaper because there are not a lot of people that can do it. I like that industry a lot, but my favorite products are still the paint coatings because it goes back to the original product that my grandfather founded the store around in 1886.
How many family members work at the business?
Siena: Right now, it's my wife and I along with my sister-in-law who hosts for us part-time. My father-in-law retired a couple years ago. My father also helps out on the accounting and maintenance side.
Solomon: After two years in college, my brother wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. My father and I suggested he go to the Gemological Institute of America in California and learn the business from the ground up, and he did – so he supports us in that way. My sister ended up opening a second store.
Larson: Currently my cousin Jim Thybony and I are the only family members in our 129-year-old company -- he has two stores in the north side of Chicago. I’d say 15-20 family members have been part of the business over the years, but our parents, aunts, uncles, and other generations of employees that had a lot to do with our business have passed away in the last few years.
What are the advantages/disadvantages of having a family business?
Siena: Well, there are a lot of advantages. You are working with people you completely trust. They are your eyes and ears when you are not there. And that trust and insight cannot be understated. You have people working with you that care about you and your business. We have a couple non-family members that we trust at this level as well. We're fortunate in that respect.
One disadvantage is that you are working with family, which means business is part of every conversation at holiday celebrations, dinner, etc.
Solomon: You can really rely on family members to be there for you. In this industry, we’re not the kind of store that leaves our merchandise laying out on the racks. When I go home on Friday night I don’t just walk out and lock the door. We have three giant safes and we have to take everything out and put it all back in every single day. We have to know our merchandise and trust each other.
Another advantage of having a family business is that we touch so many people within the communities that we serve and also the communities that we live in. I’m on three local charity boards and live in one part of Long Island, my brother lives in another, and my sister lives in another. We are personable people and belong to different temples, so we have relationships everywhere within the community.
I love being in a family business and seeing my family every day. It’s good to work with everybody and bounce ideas off one another, it’s a precious moment to have. My 85-year-old father still comes in a couple of days a week, and my 82-year-old mother still comes in and keeps an eye on the bookkeeper to make sure that the taxes are maintained and everything is legitimate. They are still very active. In the jewelry industry, a family business is the best jewel you could ever have because the people you love and know are the people you work with every day.
Larson: There is security with having a company for 129 years. The good times are great. The bad times are tough. Everybody that’s been in any kind of family business for many years understands this. For example, we went through the Great Depression and the Great Recessions and all the different, difficult things that occurred. In a family business, there isn’t a whole lot of appreciation because it’s up to you to make it or break it.
How do you attract customers to your location?
Siena: Being a family-owned business means you wear many hats. Attracting customers is one of my wife's hats. She utilizes social media, works with news publications, and organizes events such as cooking classes to attract customers. Our greatest strength has always been word of mouth. With my technology background, I also help out with the graphic design elements of marketing.
Solomon: We are very big into marketing, alongside our Facebook and other social media accounts. I also send out our own Solomon’s books and magazines.
Nineteen years ago I grandfathered an annual table book called Great Restaurants of Long Island, which we have three pages in and that you can buy in Barnes & Nobles and Fairway. It’s a beautiful thick magazine, which people give as gifts or get for their homes -- so that’s great visibility.
I’m also very big into email blasts. I am in Newsday’s Sunday Bridal Edition, which is then distributed in all the bridal magazines. And then to follow that up, I do a tremendous amount of trunk shows where I get the bridal and watch designers to come from all over and they actually appear in our stores. They’re a great draw.
Larson: Because of our longevity in the business, our customers are largely familiar with our stores. We do have several multi-generational customers -- grandpas that have known us for years, parents, and now all of their kids. Our company is also involved in many forms of social media. Our website engages our customers with product information, promotions, and decorating ideas.
What tools and resources were helpful to you when you were opening your business?
Siena: We actually bootstrapped the business ourselves. We relied heavily on my father-in-law in the beginning. He taught us most of what we needed on the operations side and was an invaluable resource. We relied on my financial and technology knowledge for the office side of things. My wife has always been very good with people and she worked the social scene to build relationships.
Larson: First and foremost, you must love people. Anybody that is in any type of a retail business is dealing with the public. Over the years, I’ve seen people who possess every possible degree in every possible background, but they don’t have communications skills and they really don’t enjoy working with people. The key to longevity in a business is developing a relationship with your customer that goes further than selling them a gallon of paint. You know a little bit about their families, a little bit about their interests, and once you are able to develop the relationship, they will go out of their way to come to your store, rather than go to a competitor. And then, of course, you must provide the very best products, excellent customer service, and expert advice.
Do you have any tips for other people looking to open their own small business?
Siena: It's not a panacea. You may not like your company, your boss, your career, but your company and boss handle a lot of things for you that you probably have never even thought about before. All the stuff that is even less rewarding than what you're currently doing. You live and breathe your business. Be prepared for this. You will need money, you will need to know how to pay taxes, it helps to be handy if you're going to have equipment, or technology savvy if you're going to have computers. You will be doing it all in the beginning. Those are the downsides.
But all that being said, it is like raising a child and I find the rewards to be emotional as well as financial. There is great pride in creating something. There is a kinship I've seen many times between business owners, just as with parents. Many times you share your war stories -- your successes, and your failures. The hope is that you have more successes than failures. Finally, I would say, “Do it.” Follow your dreams. Take the chance. It will change how you view the world.
This has been an installment of StoreFront, an interview series with leaders of successful retail businesses. For more interviews, visit the StoreFront page. To learn how you can be featured, email us. We’d love to hear from you.