Paths to Passing the Torch Varies with Family Businesses

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – There are many ways to quantify the impact of family businesses on the economy, nationally and locally. Across the country, family enterprises employ more than half of all workers and make up 90% of all businesses, the Small Business Administration reports.

The Family Business Alliance estimates family-owned businesses contribute 57% of the United States GDP.

But for enterprises that have been passed down through generations, the importance of family involvement in their businesses transcends numbers.

“It’s a tremendous sense of pride with a lot of pressure. I have to carry the torch. It’s on us now,” says Lisa Miller, president of Do-Cut Sales and Service. “We’re well-established and I’m proud of everything we’ve done for the Trumbull-Mahoning-Columbiana area. I’m proud of our customer base and the knowledge our employees provide.”

Each business has it own route to passing that torch.

Miller grew up in the footsteps of her parents and older brothers and sisters, each playing his own role over the years.

Some family enterprises such as Window World of Youngstown are newer, but carry that same sense of pride.

For others, the road to a third generation isn’t planned but plays out over decades, just as it did at LaFrance Cleaners.

After 70 Years, Do-Cut Carries Founder’s Legacy

At Do-Cut Sales and Service, there was rarely a question of whether the Terzigni children would work in the store as they grew up.

“As soon as we could work, we were working. You’d come in and do whatever needed done,” says Miller, the youngest in her family. “The worst thing was parts inventory. It was all manual and it was so tedious, just sitting there with handwritten slips and a card file system.”

Over the years, Miller and her five siblings – along with her mother and father, Tony Terzigni, who started Do-Cut out of the family garage in 1947 – have worked almost every position in the store, from sales to service and parts to management. When Do-Cut manufactured its own lawnmowers, one of Miller’s jobs was installing wheels.

In her office just beyond the showroom at the Warren store, 3375 Youngstown Road SE, Miller pulls scrapbooks from a filing cabinet. They document nearly everything Do-Cut has done since it was founded. Only a few pages separate pictures of baseball teams the store sponsored from a certificate from General Electric thanking the patriarch for input in developing the Elec-Trak, one of the first electric lawnmowers.

“When I look at this, I see the blood, sweat, tears and worry that my parents put into this business. And I see how that’s transcended through each one of us,” Miller says. “There’s a lot to be said for tradition and family values and these scrapbooks are a testament to it.”

Having a family business isn’t for everyone, she continues. It isn’t easy to spend all day, both at work and at home, with the same people. But when everything works, it works well.

“It was good and bad. We had a tremendous amount of respect for one another then there were days where we could wring each other’s necks,” Miller says with a laugh, adding that she wouldn’t trade her experiences for another job.

Tragedy, though, is where family ties proved invaluable for Do-Cut. The company’s Canfield store burned to the ground in September 2011, destroying thousands of dollars worth of equipment and parts. The family banded together, along with employees, and figured out what to do next, leaning on each other for support.

“I can still feel how cold I was on that floor. We’d go down at night or on weekends because when this store was open, we all had to be here,” she says of stocking the store before the HVAC system was installed. “When you’re involved in something from its infancy and it’s reduced to rubble in a matter of hours, it’s a blow. … We’ve increased our online presence and our website, which has made up for losing that store. It’s called grit and you don’t get that as much today.”

As the only family member still involved in Do-Cut, Miller isn’t sure if there will be a third generation. Two business partners are involved in running the stores, but her children have expressed little interest in getting involved. That doesn’t concern her, she says. Over the past 70 years, the sense of family has permeated the company.

“This guy still works with us; he’s the parts manager in the back. Some of these people are still here,” she says, as she shows a photo from the company Christmas party in the late ’80s. “I can’t say yes and I can’t say no. It would be wonderful [to have a third generation] but it depends on who comes down the pipe.”

Three Generations in 14 Years at Window World

Driving by the Window World on Southern Boulevard in Boardman, it looks like any other Window World franchise across the country. Visible are the same blue highlights on the front of the building and the same white script on the sign as the other 200-plus stores.

What’s inside sets it apart.

“I know a lot of the franchisees and I know of only one father-son team,” says Window World of Youngstown founder and co-owner Pat Moran. “There aren’t any I know of that are three generations.”

Moran started the local franchise in 2004 with his father, Fred. Last year, his son, Patrick, became co-owner after working at the company since shortly after it was founded. Today, the Morans operate stores in Boardman, Akron, Toledo, Steubenville and Pittsburgh.

“To have a third generation is great,” says Fred Moran. “My son’s had a lot more experience in the window business that I’ve had, but now with a third generation, it shows people the quality of what we’re doing and the longevity.”

While Window World is a corporation, it’s the franchisees who have control over their stores and decide how to operate them, the co-owners point out. With that kind of setup, customers get a sense that the company is here to stay while also receiving the service of a family-owned business, the Morans agree.

“There are still a lot of ‘Chuck in a truck’ businesses. They don’t have a showroom. They don’t have a location. They have their own contracts and write up their own warranties,” Fred Moran says. “Once they’re gone, so goes the warranty. We’re proud to be part of a large operation that’s still very, very local.”

Pat Moran points to the acquisition of the Toledo store in 2006. The previous owner died suddenly and Window World contacted the Morans to step in to make sure the store stayed open. Had it been an independent store, he says, it most likely would have closed. Instead, it was a steady transition to new ownership.

And while the Window World franchise doesn’t fit the traditional image of a family business, having three generations involved over 14 years has set the same tone as a company that’s been around for 50 years.

“To have the same interest of business, customer service and goals for the company, it’s wonderful to work with somebody who you can trust,” Pat Moran says. “It’s not always about how we can make the most money, but how we can help this customer.”

Adds Patrick Moran, “These two are very intelligent and make great decisions and the best way I learn is from other people. When I can be in here doing this, working hand-in-hand with them to make decisions and looking at the issues, I’m learning and I know we can be successful into the future.”

For the most senior family member, being able to spend time with his son and grandson is important, something that played a role in his coming out of retirement.

“I thought at 65 that I’d retire. But two weeks after retirement, it was a no,” Fred Moran says. “I love it. So many of our family and friends, their kids are halfway across the country and they never see them. I’m fortunate to work with my son and grandson.”

And for all three, having family around to run things brings peace of mind.

“I think it’s more that you can relax and not worry,” Pat Moran says. “A lot of owners want to take vacations, but when they do, things fall apart. You don’t have to worry about that here.”

LaFrance Takes Unlikely Route to Three Generations

In reaching its 73rd anniversary and three generations of family ownership, LaFrance Cleaners took an unlikely route.

Ernest Weiss founded the business in 1944 when he purchased Barton Cleaners on the east side of Youngstown. In 1963, ownership passed to his son, Bernie, who started working at the company somewhat reluctantly, says Stephen Weiss, current owner and Bernie’s son.

“His dad put him to work early and he didn’t want to be here with it,” Weiss says. “He came back and ended up being here and making a bunch of changes. They had to shut down the old plant, change the way they did things and expand really fast.”

Among those changes was the implementation of “package plants” that enabled LaFrance to clean clothes quicker with less labor, which in turn led to expansion into Wooster, Sandusky and Springfield in Ohio and Muncie, Ind.

“My dad’s job was to drive all night, fix the problems the plant manager couldn’t, sleep there and drive to the next place,” he says. “The industry was going to hell at that time and the town was going to hell at that time. He just went into survival mode. My dad got rid of a lot of stuff and opened some new stuff. He was an innovative guy when he was here.”

Although the owner for 17 years, Weiss didn’t grow up in the business. He went to Miami University and earned a baccalaureate in business before moving to Los Angeles to work as a stockbroker. He returned in 1986 and became owner in 2000.

“We were talking and I said I’d come home and just see what happens,” he says. “I always enjoyed running a business. I didn’t know a lot about this business. … I jumped in to be a helping hand and realized that this wasn’t working well. It pushed me.”

Not coming up through the ranks of LaFrance Cleaners, he continues, certainly played a part in him approaching his role not as a third-generation family owner, but as a businessman with a startup. When he first came back, he connected with other people in his industry and examined what other industries were doing to maintain momentum.

“That’s what opened my eyes that there were people who were succeeding in the business outside and that there were other ways to run it. If I had [grown up] here, I probably wouldn’t have tried it,” Weiss says. “The people who succeed get out of their bubble. There’s always some innovation going on somewhere.”

Among what Weiss brought from those meetings was the revival of pickup and delivery.

With two kids in college and another in high school, Weiss says the time hasn’t come for succession planning, but he is taking his father’s approach to getting the next generation involved.

“I don’t want to push them into anything they don’t want to do. But if they say, ‘I want to be in business,’ or ‘I want to try it,’ I wouldn’t talk them out of it,” he says. “I want them to pursue their own path. Pushing people into stuff is a route to unhappiness.”

Despite the two generations who preceded him, Weiss believes that LaFrance is more of a regular business than a family business.

“We’re a business and that was the goal all along. That was my dad’s goal and my granddad’s goal. The family part is a blessing and a curse,” he says. “It amplifies everything because you don’t have as much objectivity.”

Pictured at top: Lisa Miller, the youngest of six children, is president of Do-Cut Sales and Service, which her father started in their garage.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.