Saturday, March 13, 2010

Not All 100-Year Companies are Dinosaurs

DeWitt Barrels is a 117-year-old company that just won the Michigan Family-Owned Business of the Year award. In the Grand Rapids Press article announcing the award, president Peter DeWitt (whose great-great-grandfather started the business) says "We looked forward to see trends and adapted and made changes to meet demands.....We wouldn't make it if we stayed the same." DeWitt Barrels has never made barrels - it reconditions them for re-use. Today that mostly means cleaning 55-gallon steel drums for oil and chemical companies rather than wooden barrels.

Though their business has changed over the years, how they run it has not. "There are no shortcuts," says Peter DeWitt. "You follow all the rules, even if it's expensive or you have to work more." This particularly comes into play in the area of environmental care: the company has been a state-designated Clean Corporate Citizen since 1999.

Businesses overall are using barrels less often and the DeWitts have watched many other re-conditioners leave the industry. But Peter DeWitt is confident the company will adapt again and last another generation. "Our father gave the company to us [Peter runs the company with two of his brothers] with the same mandate he had - to build it, take care of it and pass it on. When we pass it on to Jason [Peter's son, who is currently the plant manager] it needs to be in a situation for him to make it grow."

Friday, March 12, 2010

Many Old Companies Are Family Businesses

An article recently appeared in the Muskegon Chronicle about a 100-year-old shoe store in Fremont, Michigan. The owner of Vredeveld Shoes is Lon Vredeveld - the fourth-generation of his family to run the store, which opened in 1909. In the article Vredeveld likens his and other independent stores to dinosaurs for their old-fashioned methods of customer service and community involvement.

But what Vredeveld characterizes as dinosaur behavior may just be a type of business-savvy wisdom passed on through the years. Family Business magazine has been researching old family-owned businesses and their research offers four lessons of survival:
1. Stay small
2. Don't go public
3. Stay out of the big cities
4. Keep the business in the family

Vredeveld says that the poor economy has hurt his store, but he thinks a niche for independent shoe stores like his will remain. "We're not getting to 100 years and stopping," he reports. Though Vredeveld has three grown children, he said he is not sure if any of them will every take over the business. He's hoping there is still plenty of time to figure out the future.

In a recent profile in the Holland Sentinel, Max Lokers (co-owner with his brother Tom of Lokers Shoes) also uses the dinosaur analolgy when describing their family shoe store as a dying breed. "I would call us one of the dinosaur types of businesses.....We're still in our brick-and-mortar building, doing what we've been doing for going on 100 years." However, within the last decade Lokers has added services, including some provided by Max's step-son, and he reports that he and Tom hope to continue selling shoes in downtown Holland for generations to come.

Since they appear to be following the advice given in the Family Business research, perhaps these "dinosaurs" will survive.