2008 Family Business Awards
Combining family and business successfully is more art than science, and even under the best of circumstances it can be tricky. Yet this year’s group of Family Business Awards winners shows how well the combination can work.
The 2008 recipients were selected by the Cox Family Enterprise Center at Kennesaw State University; the recognition program is sponsored by the center and Georgia Trend. Awards are presented in large, medium and small categories; the Century Award goes to a family business that has been in operation more than 100 years.
This year’s large business category winner is Bogart’s burton + Burton, specializing in gift products. Auto parts company Pull-A-Part, based in Atlanta, is the top medium-sized business; and Parker’s Heating & Air Conditioning in Americus is the winner in the small category. Jesup’s Harris Ace Hardware & Building Supply is the Century Award winner.
The winners share a real appreciation for both customers and employees – and an understanding of their own strengths.
“This business is built on taking care of people,” says Wes Wheeler of Parker’s Heating & Air Conditioning. “I’d estimate 90 percent of our time is in serving the customer’s immediate needs, like servicing an air conditioning unit in the summertime. When the air conditioning is out, they want to see you now, not tomorrow.”
“I’ve always thought our biggest asset was our people,” says burton+Burton’s Michael Burton, son of the company’s founder. He believes the 364 employees – many of whom have worked there for 20-plus years – “make” the company. “They take our customer service to the next level,” he says.
Pull-A-Part’s Ross Kogon recalls, “My grandfather used to say the role of management was to kick the rocks out of the way so employees can walk where we need to go. That’s what our whole business model is based on.”
Tim Harris is proud of his family’s long business history, and he believes diversification has been a big part of its success. “There’s an art in knowing when to get into business, and there’s a greater art in knowing when to get out,” Harris says. – The Editors
burton + BURTON
Changing An Industry
Its website bids visitors, “welcome to our family,” and the same atmosphere pervades burton + Burton’s corporate headquarters, warehouses and main showroom. Smiling employees and warm greetings are the rule, not the exception, at this 26-year-old family-owned business, the largest supplier of balloons and coordinating gift products in the United States.
“I’ve always thought our biggest asset was our people,” says Michael Burton, son of founder, president, and chief operating officer Maxine Burton, and her husband, Bob, who serves as the company’s chief executive officer. Michael, who works in sales, believes the 364 employees who work for the company – many of whom have been there for 20-plus years – “make” the company. “They take our customer service to the next level,” he says.
Customer service is a burton + Burton’s hallmark. In January 2006, the company transitioned from its original name, Flowers, Inc. Balloons, to burton + Burton, a unique styling using lower and upper case ‘Bs’ to signify the company’s past and future.
With customers worldwide, burton + Burton offers more than 15,000 products, many developed and designed by its creative team in Bogart. The company services gift shops, boutiques, hospital gift shops, pharmacies and floral shops via catalogs and website. In addition to the Bogart showroom, there are showrooms in the Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago merchandise marts. It’s an amazing operation and a story of how one determined woman with an idea helped change an industry.
Bob Burton was a partner in Flowers, Inc., a retail/wholesale florist in Athens, in 1982 when he told Maxine of an article he’d read about balloon bouquets delivered by clowns. “At that time, balloon shops were cropping up on every corner,” Maxine says.
She played around with the idea of balloons as a greeting card, even creating her own balloon bouquet packaged in a large wedding bouquet box. “My children loved opening it, seeing the balloons float out,” she says.
Maxine sensed that balloons had a transcendent and inexpensive appeal. She understood the floral market and believed balloons could enhance an arrangement. “It was a win-win,” she says. “Customers liked balloons because it was fun, new and different; store owners liked it because customers did and it was an inexpensive add-on.” Maxine convinced many of their customers that adding balloons would expand their business, adding a twist to what they’d always done; thus, Flowers Inc., Balloons was born.
Maxine says being able to spot trends and being willing to diversify their product line [to include home décor items] has aided the company’s success. Bob agrees, “It’s a constant evolution. It’s a type of fashion industry in that much of how something sells is how it’s presented.”
Both Bob and Maxine are actively involved in spotting and buying items. “It’s not an exact science,” Bob says, “but after 26 years of experience you get a sixth sense about what sells.”
Maxine’s parents, Maxie and Emma Lou Hubbard, were instrumental in the company’s startup. Though Maxie is now retired, Emma Lou remains actively involved, managing the company’s warehouse operations. And the third generation came on board six years ago when Bob and Maxine’s now-married daughter, Rachael Dillon, joined the company.
“We talked about expectations beforehand and saw we were on the same page,” says Rachael, who graduated with a degree in education like her mother, teaching for several years before returning to the University of Georgia in 2002 for her master’s in business administration. She joined burton + Burton in 2003 and through the years has worked in different departments, learning the business. She’s currently “shadowing” her mother.
“I’m trying to learn everything that’s in her head,” Rachael says, “even things she doesn’t realize she knows!”
Michael worked for several different companies before joining the family firm in January 2007. Through his past business experience, he knows there’s a different atmosphere at burton + Burton. “It’s a place where people truly care,” he says. “That’s rare in a corporate environment.”
“It’s been a fun run,” Bob says. “When I think about starting something, something that started from one person, and seeing it grow … it’s been pretty amazing. Seeing it succeed, it’s been the American dream.”
An Environmental Mission
When a car has racked up tens of thousands of miles and made its last grocery store run, Pull-A-Part provides a “dignified” last stop before the shredder; a final chance for the car to be useful.
“We find that last bit of economic value and enjoyment for hobbyists and professionals and everything in between,” says Ross Kogon, chief of staff for Pull-A-Part, a do-it-yourself used auto parts business that prides itself on environmental stewardship. Kogon jokingly calls Pull-A-Part the anti-Sanford and Son, with car lots too neat and organized to be mistaken for old-school junkyards. “We’re a retail showroom that happens to be outside.”
Kogon’s family has been in the business of recycling other people’s cast-offs for four generations. Morris Cohen started a scrap metal business in 1908. He bought used appliances, cleaned them up and resold them. By 1917, the company evolved to Central Metals Recycling, and by the 1940s Cohen’s sons, Bernard and Gerald, had joined the business.
By 1997, the family business included Morris Cohen’s grandsons, Alan and Mark Cohen, and grandson-in-law, Marty Kogon. The trio developed the concept for Pull-A-Part. Today, Kogon’s son Ross is chief of staff, and Alan Cohen’s son Gregg is operations coordinator. The company rids cities of abandoned cars, cleans them using environmentally responsible procedures and allows the public easy, affordable access to parts. An engine may sell for $100 and a tire for $15.
Pull-A-Part says it recycles an estimated 60,000 cars a year per city and keeps about 8.64 million pounds of waste out of landfills. The company has 11 locations in Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennes-see, North Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi. Ten additional locations are under construction.
In a traditional salvage business, the goal was to buy cars, take whatever was usable and hand the scraps off to the next guy. But Pull-A-Part is the last stop. There is no next guy.
“We couldn’t pass problems off to ourselves,” Kogon says, “so we handled cars correctly.” That means recycling the battery, the oil, the antifreeze and other fluids before the car is placed on the lot and making sure as much of the car is recycled as possible. “The only waste we have is office trash, and we don’t have much of that.”
As a testament to the company’s longstanding commitment to the environment, Kogon notes that when the original family business vacated its longtime Marietta Street location, the property was immediately developed into apartments. No site cleanup was needed, because the family had taken care of the land.
“Everyone wants to care for the environment, but it takes a level of execution,” he says, adding that the company employs environmental experts to determine best practices.
The business’s founder passed down more than a respect for the environment. He instilled in his children and grandchildren a way of running a business based on respect for customers and employees.
“My grandfather used to say the role of management was to kick the rocks out of the way so employees can walk where we need to go,” Kogon says. “That’s what our whole business model is based on.”
That legacy has enabled Pull-A-Part to grow rapidly and provide consistent customer service from store to store, Kogon says, adding that the Atlanta-based company headquarters serves as a “store support center.”
“We work for the people who run the stores,” he says.
The original founders also imparted to each generation the importance of being involved in the community. Cohen “always ran the business with a long-haul perspective,” Kogon says. “We were always taught to take care of our investment. It’s part of our DNA.”
To that end, each location’s management team has $1,000 a year to donate to a worthwhile community project such as a local football or basketball team. In Birmingham, donations have supported poetry education for inner-city kids.
Additionally, the company has partnered with fire departments to offer their facility and vehicles for jaws-of-life extrication practice. Local K-9 units have used the lots for bomb-sniffing exercises. In Louisville, the company has planted more than 200 trees.
“Our plan for going forth is to try to continue to grow,” Kogon says. “We’re an example of good enterprise and good value, and we’re here for the long haul.”
PARKER’S HEATING & AIR CONDITIONING
Caring For Customers
In 1949 Roy Parker, Jr. and Roy Parker III started a refrigeration service company in Americus. While the younger Parker served in the military in Korea, his father passed away; and by the time Parker returned, the business was near ruin. Rather than leaving the company’s creditors high and dry, Parker spent the next two years building the business and repaying every single debt.
“Many years later [Roy III] told me that act was a great stepping stone,” says Wes Wheeler, Roy’s son-in-law and current president of Parker’s Heating and Air Con-ditioning. “Simply by doing business with integrity, he built respect among businessmen in our region. Our company is still reaping the reward of that act.”
A 59-year-old company, Parker’s Heating & Air Conditioning is in the top 2 percent of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) contractors in southwest Georgia. The company maintained gross sales of $4 to $5 million for the past five years despite slow growth in the region it serves.
“This business is built on taking care of people,” Wheeler says. “I’d estimate 90 percent of our time is in serving the customer’s immediate needs, like servicing an air conditioning unit in the summertime. When the air conditioning is out, they want to see you now, not tomorrow.”
Staying abreast of trends has been a hallmark of Parker’s since the early 1950s, when Roy III learned about a new product called the “total electric heat pump.” It was touted as a way to help keep homes cool in the summer, warm in the winter; and Roy saw the potential. He was convinced the product would be a good add-on to his rebounding refrigeration business as homes and businesses were beginning to install a novel product: central heating and air conditioning. It took several years, but by the mid-1960s Parker’s had become a thriving HVAC company.
Wheeler says it was as the company was growing that Roy felt the need to take “God as his partner.” At that point, Roy pledged to give a tenth of the company’s profits annually to charity. That pledge is kept to this day. As a result, the company gives to more than 25 churches and charities each year.
“Many of the donations are made to Christian organizations, but we also give to the Boy Scouts, historic Rylander Theater and the United Way,” Wheeler says. The company was responsible for building two Habitat for Humanity homes in Americus and has partnered on the construction of 200-plus others. The Wheeler family provides a scholarship for a student in the HVAC program at the South Georgia Technical Institute. Employees and owners support the company’s charitable work with time, talent and financial gifts.
Asked how the notion of “family” is reflected in the corporate culture, Parker’s employees mentioned benefits and health insurance, but they also talked about fish fries, Christmas parties and annual corporate adventure trips. They spoke of managers’ open door policy and a sense of fairness and accountability.
“The goal of Parker’s is to provide each customer the best equipment, knowledge and experience in the HVAC business,” says Alvin Jackson, a Parker’s employee for more than 28 years. “Parker’s will do whatever it takes to obtain this goal, even if this means a little extra work, a little more time, or a loss of profit.”
In the 1990s, during an era of industry-wide consolidation, Wheeler faced a tough choice. “A lot of big groups were looking for successful heating and air contractors,” he recalls. “Fortunately Roy had already brought me in and didn’t feel like he had to consolidate in order to leave day to day operations of the business. It was a fork in the road. Which way do I go?”
He considered the 38 employees, the company’s heritage and potential legacy and chose to remain family-owned.
“Sustaining a family business beyond three generations is very difficult,” Wheeler says. Fortunately for him, Kevin Reeves, his son-in-law, proved both interested and up to the task of carrying on the family business. “He’s already day dreaming about his son [Will] coming in and working with him,” Wheeler says.
HARRIS ACE HARDWARE AND BUILDING SUPPLY
When Tim Harris goes to the local bank for a business loan, he doesn’t have a hard time making a case. His family’s business survived the boll weevil, the Great Depression, the family-farm collapse of the 1980s and the rise of the big box home improvement store.
A banker once told Harris: “We don’t mind loaning y’all whatever you want, because if you were going to go out of business, you would have done it years ago.”
Instead of folding, Harris ACE Hardware and Building Supply has passed the 100-year mark. No one knows exactly when J.M. “Red” Harris opened the grocery store in K’ville that sold everything from hay rakes to toothpicks, but it is believed the Harris family business got its start in the early 1900s.
The elder Harris died, leaving the business to his 16-year-old son John Henry, who expanded into other fields of retail. Over the years, the Harrises have run grocery stores in Jesup and Brunswick, cotton gins in Jesup, Sylvester and Cordele and a gin and feed mill in Patterson. Other businesses included Wayne Freezer Locker, a slaughterhouse where patrons rented freezer space to store their meat and vegetables from their garden.
“This was much easier than canning,” says Harris, the founder’s great grandson, who is now the company’s president.
Later, Harris’s father, Raymond, turned the freezer into a hardware store and lumberyard. He also opened a chain of steak restaurants with locations in Jesup, Valdosta, Moultrie and Naples, Fla.
The farm supply business closed during the drought and agribusiness crash of the early 1980s, and the restaurants were sold. “To this day our main focus is hardware, lumber and building materials, Harris says. “We have begun building rental apartments, and we continue to add to these endeavors as we move forward.”
Harris cites diversification as a main reason his family has stayed in business for so long. “There’s an art in knowing when to get into business, and there’s a greater art in knowing when to get out,” he says.
Other principles handed down through the generations include not letting the family business become a “haven for underachievers.” As a high school student, Harris was fired from the hardware store by the manager, who was not a relative, for refusing to work late and mop the floors. His father did not overturn the manager’s decision and instead told his son to learn something from the experience.
Over the years, the Harris family business extended credit to townspeople so they could tend their land, plant crops, feed the livestock and care for their children before the crops came in. “We’d give credit based on a signature,” Harris says.
But in the early 1980s, many farmers declared bankruptcy, leaving the farm supply business with more than $1 million in debt. “These farmers are not deadbeats,” Harris says. “They got caught in the tail end of an industry that’s gone.”
Raymond Harris could have declared bankruptcy, but taking the easy way out wasn’t his style, his son says.
Instead, the farm supply store closed and proceeds from the restaurants enabled the business to stay afloat while the company gradually absorbed the losses. Meanwhile, farmers who were able to avoid bankruptcy kept paying on their debt. “That humbled me to the genuine human nature of good people,” Harris says.
By the time Home Depot and Lowe’s came along, Harris ACE Hardware was focused on its commercial customers, such as the plumber who doesn’t have time to wait in line at a large store for a part.
The business now has three locations and generates some $13.5 million annually in sales while employing 50 people full-time, including Harris’s son, Colby, as assistant manager of the Hinesville store. Tim’s brother, Josh, is the company’s sale’s manager, and his brother-in-law, Wesley Wilder, and nephew, Jarred Wilder, are store managers.
Now the family is facing another downturn as the construction industry has slowed. Harris is undaunted, noting his location near the Georgia coast and Florida will ensure a steady stream of customers including government and maintenance workers. “Realizing that shift several years ago has allowed us to grow that part of our business,” he says. “The future for us is very, very bright.”