Nurturing the Legacy of Family Businesses
Columbia family business owners open up about challenges and opportunities
One could argue that family-owned businesses, in tandem with the University of Missouri, built the foundation for the Columbia we know today. And according to eight leaders of local family-owned companies, their essential goal is to nurture that legacy and continue growing Columbia. Recently these leaders sat down for the summer CEO Roundtable at The Broadway hotel to answer questions posed by Inside Columbia Publisher Fred Parry on the opportunities and challenges of family-owned businesses.
Consumer confidence is driving a healthy economy in Columbia and mid-Missouri, says Brad Eiffert, whose family has owned Boone County Lumber since setting up shop downtown next to the rail line in 1965.
“The level of activity I’ve seen across the board is a good reflection of confidence,” he says.
“We’ve seen robust activity in commercial and residential remodeling, new construction residential and a lot of multi-family still going on around Columbia.”
The pace is so strong, it’s putting pressure on hiring, according to Eiffert and everyone in the room.
“Almost every business owner I know is spending more time asking ‘How am I going to get it done?’ rather than ‘What am I going to have my people do?’,” Eiffert says.
Scott Atkins is the fourth generation to run Atkins Building Services and Products, which offers a range of services from commercial cleaning to pest management, grounds maintenance and irrigation installation. His great-grandfather, Thomas Atkins Sr., moved to Columbia in 1925 from the family’s Boone County farm, where he had started a successful agricultural chemicals business.
Atkins agrees business in Columbia is going strong.
“The velocity of money seems to have increased,” he says, referring to real estate development and investment. “More deals are getting done, and more people are looking to make deals.”
Commercial and residential construction are both a driving force and a result of the robust business climate.
“We still have a very strong backlog and year ahead of us,” says David Coil, executive vice president of Coil Construction, which his father started in 1975. David Coil started out sweeping floors at 14 and today is several years into a transition plan to take over the family business.
“The challenges are the rise in material costs – steel, lumber and all commodities are on the rise, so trying to keep those projects in budget for folks is challenging,” Coil says. “And finding good help and a good labor pool.”
On the retail side, Don Helmreich of Downtown Appliance Home Center says the construction trends demonstrate the strong local economy and benefit local businesses.
“We’re still doing a lot of remodels and new houses that have $20,000 to $30,000 kitchens,” he says. “We sell some premier brands and we sell a lot of it. But we’re also still selling $500 refrigerators and $300 washers too. Columbia’s just a very good town to have a business in.”
Leading the Legacy
A solid economy and confident consumers provide a rich environment for growing businesses, but family-owned companies have another factor in play: family dynamics. The history and interconnectedness of multiple generations combine in one central theme: legacy.
“It’s not really mine,” Silas Koonse of Koonse Glass says. “It’s the legacy, the people who came before me and people who will come after me, from within my family or not.”
Silas’s grandfather, Mel, started the company in 1967 at its downtown location near the Wabash Station, where it stayed until 2016. After college and stints at State Farm Insurance and Veterans United Home Loans, Silas Koonse saw it as his time to take over the business and make it his own.
But it didn’t exactly happen that way.
“That feeling has changed since coming into it,” he says. “We’ve got guys who’ve worked there 30 years that I knew growing up, and now their sons or wives or daughters work there. It’s more than just my family. It’s something I’m the steward for rather than the owner of.”
The concept of perpetuation is important to Rich Miller, a partner at TIG Advisors, formerly known as The Insurance Group. The earliest iteration of the insurance and risk management company dates back to 1898 and grew over the next 120 years under leadership of the Rollins, Vandiver, Digges, Conley and Trice families. The contributions of Charlie Digges Jr, and Skip Grossnickle have carried on the legacy, passing the torch over time to Skip Grossnickle’s sons-in-law, Jason Swindle and Rich Miller. The next generation joined the company a few years ago when Rich Miller’s son, Justin, joined TIG Advisors. The current partners of TIG Advisors are Skip Grossnickle, Charlie Digges Jr., Rich Miller and Jason Swindle.
“Perpetuation for us is transferring from one generation to the next,” he says. “For us it’s about being open, seeking to understand each other’s perspectives and utilizing everyone’s unique strengths. Relationships and honoring the legacy of what the people prior to us contributed truly matters.”
The idea that a family-owned business is about the future as much as the present was a common theme in comments from the group.
“It’s not about me,” Miller says. “If our business is going to continue the legacy to the next generation, it can’t be about me. It’s much bigger than that.”
Eiffert agrees that the business isn’t about the owner – it’s about relationships and history and the collective big picture.
“You enter into so many relationships. Our longest-term employee at the lumberyard started when I was seven,” he says. “He’s out at the lumberyard working today.”
Those long-standing relationships are everything, but he says he didn’t get that right away when he joined the family business when he joined the family business after returning from nine years in the Air Force.
At that time, Eiffert says he was naïve and didn’t understand the complexities of his family businesss. “You don’t realize the richness of being involved in something that’s been there years before and a part of a community like Columbia.”
The day-to-day of any business inevitably evolves across generations, as technology advances and economies shift. The group agreed some of the biggest changes they’ve experienced have been in leadership styles and technology.
Joe Bechtold’s dad, Bob, started out in the sod business in the ’60s. In 1978, he bought a small gas station that would later become Midway Travel Plaza and continued acquiring properties and expanding the business from there. Today the business includes the truck stop as well as an antique mall and consignment furniture store.
What’s the biggest difference between Joe and his dad, in terms of business?
“He could drive a tractor, that’s the first thing,” Joe says.
Growing up on a farm gave his dad a wide range of general knowledge and skills, including building and site work. It also had a major hand in shaping his management style.
“He had a very tight grasp on everything and had a lot of trouble letting go of control,” Bechtold says. “He was super involved down to the point he was driving the tractor even when we had paid a construction company to come in and do it. He wanted to have his hands in everything.”
Bechtold says that’s truly their biggest difference – he cedes control to his managers more than the elder Bechtold ever did.
Celeste Hardnock has owned and run the downtown women’s clothing boutique My Sister’s Circus for 40 years, and her daughter, Stella, joined her along the way. Hardnock says she leans toward the control side of that equation.
“I was already open 25 years when my daughter came in, so there’s a certain way I like to do things,” she says.
Dryer’s Shoe Store is another family-owned retail business downtown, started 63 years ago by Newton Riley. Today, the third generation is at the helm. Justin Riley says some things have changed, but they’ve also tried to preserve the best things about how previous generations did business.
“We try to keep the same feel we had for years and not lose that touch, because that’s what people really like, but also adapt to change,” he says.
The shoe business has no shortage of competition, from both brick-and-mortar and online retailers. Riley is doing what he can to bridge the proverbial generation gap and continue the store’s success.
“I was lucky enough that I ran the business for several years before taking over ownership, so I’ves been setting up things the way I think they should be,” Riley says. “It’s a difficult task to bridge the gap of the younger generation and doing what a lot of us have done for years. It’s walking a tightrope every day trying to figure out how to make everything mesh but stay true to your core.”
Miller says technology advances have changed the nature of the insurance and risk management business, so it’s important to embrace the new skills and perspectives the younger generation bring on board.
“Bringing in the type of person that is fluent in technology has raised the bar for everyone in our organization,” he says. “They’re going to do things my mind can’t get around. They’re very sharp, very smart, and have great ideas. The future is bright, we just have to embrace it.”
has Business Changed?
Families evolve through generations, and so do industries. Many of the business owners present say pace and meeting customer needs in a world that expects instant gratification are two of the biggest changes they’ve seen unfold.
For Eiffert, the material side of the lumber business hasn’t substantially changed over the years – “forest products only evolve so much” – but the consumer environment and communications have.
“People out in the field don’t make a list, drive two miles and stick a quarter in a phone and get what they want for tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,” he says. “Back then you might order what you need for Wednesday on Monday. But now, guys have cell phones in their nail bags, and they order what they need at 2 o’clock at 9 o’clock.”
The ease of communication creates a much more urgent environment and an expectation of “I want it right now,” he says.
This puts a lot of pressure on businesses to hone in on what customers really want and need and the fastest, most personal way to help meet those needs.
“When the big box stores come into town, and all of us have had to deal with this, you really have to ask yourself: Why would anybody do business with me? What is my value proposition? What do I have to offer?” Eiffert says.
If your product alone isn’t enough to differentiate your business – and he argues that most products aren’t – that leaves the service side where businesses can truly show value.
“At the end of the day, pretty much all of us are in a commodity business,” he says. “Our products are available all over the place, often for the same or less in terms of price. That’s true for glass, appliances, insurance, financial services, you name it. We’re all essentially in the commodity business. The one thing you can do to differentiate yourself is service.”
At Boone County Lumber, that looks like solving problems. When someone came in recently with a 1/8” piece of bent maple plywood from an antique dresser, Eiffert took him back to the office and started making calls. He found someone who could help, and while that didn’t result in a sale for Boone County Lumber, he was happy knowing he solved a problem for someone who didn’t know where to turn.
“There’s no sale on this one, but who knows where it’s going to lead,” he says.
Those personal connections take on even bigger meaning when you consider how much Columbia has grown, Atkins says.
“Columbia at 60,000 people – you tended to know everyone at the grocery store on your side of town and you were a lot more connected to your bubble of people,” he says. “Columbia at 110,000 has a lot different feel, and really there’s 200,000-300,000 coming to shop in Columbia. So we’re communicating and interacting differently as a society than we did as that sleepy midwestern town.”
The retailers in the group also have to contend with online retailers and the broad availability of just about any product. In the early days, it was a different story.
“My grandfather would go into St. Louis with an empty pickup truck, load it full of shoes and bring it back,” Riley says.
For a brick-and-mortar store today, specialization and exclusivity have almost become necessities, along with outstanding personal service. Dryer’s focuses on brands customers can’t find in big box stores or discounted online. Some brands even restrict how many retailers can carry their products within a certain radius.
“In the early ’90s, the comfort shoe business started coming to everyone’s mind, and we jumped on that when a lot of people in our business didn’t,” he says. “We’ve grown in that area and it’s played out well for us.”
And what about the instant gratification customers have come to expect in a two-day-shipping world?
“There’s a lot within our business we haven’t been fazed about because we don’t have the competition outside the internet,” Riley says. “The whole ‘I want it now’ part of society – on Amazon, it’s still two or three days, or you can get it now from me.”
Customer expectations and the speed of business may be different, but so are some of the basics, Helmreich says – right down to the price tags.
“When my dad ran the store, all prices were put on with a grease pencil, and now everything has electronic price tags,” he says. “My daughter can change them from her desk.”
Another big change for Downtown Appliance has been opening for business on Sundays.
“My dad would never be open on Sunday. He liked to fish too much,” he says. “But it would make me so mad to see someone with a washer in the back of their truck [on a Sunday] and I knew they got it at a box store.”
The store is now open all weekend, and Helmreich says Sundays are usually pretty good days because families have limited time to shop and it’s a day they can get out together.
But one thing that hasn’t changed for the better is the parking situation downtown. Hardnock and Helmreich agreed the shortage of parking in front of their stores on Broadway and the longer meter hours have been a deterrent. Helmreich is currently considering moving to a location where they would have dedicated parking and easier accessibility.
“If we do move, I suspect our business will grow that much more,” he says. “I know we’re losing business because people can’t park.”
The Labor Issue
Every business owner present said hiring, retaining and recruiting workers is a big challenge today, in part because of low unemployment in the area.
“At the antique mall and our new consignment furniture store, we have a lot of very qualified people and they enjoy working there,” Bechtold says. “But then for the same dollars, we find it very difficult to find people to work at the truck stop and convenience store. I’ve found it to be industry-specific for us, to a degree.”
To foster retention, he makes a point to recognize tenured employees and managers and treat people fairly.
Finding consistent help in a college town is a challenge all its own, according to Hardnock. She and her daughter both work full time, and she also keeps two part-time employees on board, especially for weekends.
“We have a really hard time hiring employees,” she says. “We try not to hire students because they’re gone a lot and don’t want to work retail the way I want them to work retail.”
One of the gaps in her expectations and the skills of younger workers is the difference in communication styles between generations. Younger generations are so accustomed to technology that, in her experience, their conversation skills suffer. And that’s a problem when customer service and building relationships are necessary ingredients for a successful business.
“You have to have the gift of gab to be in retail,” she says.
Riley also has challenges finding good employees, but in his case, in a store that carries specialty shoe brands, it’s about finding people who are willing to do more than just pull shoe boxes from the back and sell them.
“There’s a misconception for a lot of people about what the job entails,” he says. “People say there’s way more to know than they expected. We have doctors and surgeons refer people to us. We have to know foot anatomy and ailments. That’s what customers expect.”
Labor is also an issue in the skilled trades. When the recession hit in 2008-2009, Coil said they lost a lot of skilled tradesmen who took the opportunity to retire.
“We haven’t seen a resurgence of younger generations stepping up to fill that gap,” he says.
It also makes a difference that younger generations aren’t growing up on farms anymore and are more technology-oriented.
“They want to sit behind computers. We don’t have any problem finding young engineers out of college,” he says. “So I’m going to high schools and tech schools to promote the construction trades as a solid career path.”
As a firm that consults with and serves a lot of local businesses, TIG Advisors has a unique labor challenge.
“A lot of the companies we work with have qualified people, but out of respect, we don’t go after people who work for our clients,” Miller says. “That narrows the pool for us a little bit because many of them are very talented.”
Miller says they currently have a good mix of experienced people, and the company’s growth in recent years is a result of that. But to keep growing, their goal is to get “better before we get bigger.” And better means a deeper bench for leadership succession. Toward that end, they’ve recently added a director of operations and brought a CPA on board.
Advice for other Family-Owned Businesses
One common piece of advice among the group was to keep an eye on the big picture.
“When we took over, we each oversaw one part of the business,” Helmreich says. “Someone asked me if I had any idea how much money we had in the bank. I said no, that’s not my job. That’s my wife’s job.”
When the next generation takes over, he expects they’ll each know – and need to know – every part of the business. Koonse has seen the same dynamic play out at Koonse Glass.
“My dad and uncle each had one side – one had residential and one had commercial, and it was like two separate companies for the longest time,” he says. “My biggest thing when I took over for my dad – I’d done the residential working for him growing up – was learning the other side because it can’t be separated like that.”
Another common theme was earning the respect of your employees, which Coil said can be a challenge.
“There are people working at Coil Construction that have worked there longer than I’ve been alive,” he says. “Gaining respect from co-workers, getting to know them personally as well as professionally, helps gain that trust and develop as a leader.”
Miller learned a similar lesson, having grown up in a family business and now helping lead one.
“I grew up in a family business, and I swore I would never want to work for a family business because I had the ‘I can do it on my own’ mentality,” he says. “That’s the lie I told myself when I was young. What I realized is there’s no free ride, you have to work harder to get the respect of the people you work with.”
But the payoff is huge and provides an entryway for future generations. “It’s an advantage for our families to be involved and have a head start. “Taking care of family is a cornerstone of any successful family-owned business, and that takes intention and effort, Eiffert says.
“It’s a blessing to be part of a family-owned business,” he says. “Family comes in that sentence first. We’ve been through succession, restructuring, and the only thing that carried us through was us saying ‘family is forever.’ This is my job and it’s important, but not as important as family.
“You have to keep all that in perspective,” Eiffert says. “You have to walk through it loving each other and knowing I want to come through this with my family. You see people get lost in it, and I think that’s a shame. Don’t get lost in it.”
One major key to that family focus is communication, and that isn’t easy, Atkins and Bechtold say.
“You know people better, so it’s a different level of communication,” Atkins says. “Everyone has to work hard at communicating.”
For the Bechtold family, the communication approach is brutal honesty and openness, and that’s led to better understanding and the clarity you need to navigate challenges as a family.
“If the proverbial bus hits the owners or there’s fighting with siblings, we have it all laid out on the table, crystal clear,” he says.