The Boyertown Area Times
Area family-owned businesses thrive for multiple generations
Building on tradition and establishing trust allows local businesses to flourish for generations, owners say
As a mother of two and a business owner, Kristi Gage-Linderman, chief operations officer with staffing solutions firm Gage Personnel, West Reading, Berks County, is a master of the balancing act, just like her mother.
“It wasn’t easy for my mom especially, raising two babies while jumping into the family business,” GageLinderman said, “It’s hard to balance everything, but we’ve brought that mindset into our culture: wanting our employees to know that family comes first.”
Gage-Linderman said that staying true to her company’s foundation and core values, while also evolving to expand training and certification offerings to staff, is how Gage has maintained its success over generations.
“My grandmother started the business, my mother grew the business; I’m here using the same foundation,” Gage-Linderman said, “We feel that we treat our employees like family, we care about our community. Just having that extra care and concern has allowed us to keep that personal touch.”
Keeping a business alive long-term amid an evershifting commercial landscape is a challenge — so much so that the majority of family-owned businesses dissolve before they’re inherited.
Only 40% of first-generation family businesses make the transition to the next generation, according to information from Family Enterprise USA, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy firm.
And the chances of even longer-term survival are even more dire — 13% of family businesses are passed to a third generation, and by the fourth generation, survival rates dip to 4%.
But those grim statistics mean little to the familyowned businesses in Berks County and surrounding areas that have beaten the odds to thrive over multiple generations.
Focus on tradition
For Aaron Weitzenkorn, CEO of Weitzenkorn’s in Phoenixville, Chester County — a clothing store founded in 1864 — staying alive means sticking to the store’s customer-focused tradition.
“We have this motto on the back of a receipt that we used when my grandfather ran the store, back in the ‘50s,” Weitzenkorn said, “It says, ‘We know of one way to do business — to give every customer a square deal.’”
Weitzenkorn said his store’s advantage is the personal touch it offers regulars.
“If you go to a department store, chances are, the salesperson isn’t going to know you,” Weitzenkorn said, “Whereas if you come in here, I’m probably going to know your first name, what kind of fit you like.”
Maintaining a peoplefirst approach is critical for longstanding local businesses that owe much of their success to the trust of the community, Gage-Linderman said.
“I met a woman that said she remembers my mom, back in the 1980s, when (the woman) had a medical episode in one of our offices,” Gage-Linderman said. “The fact that my mom cared enough to follow up with her just stuck with her after all those years. And that’s kind of the value that we want to bring.”
Building a legacy of trust is also essential for customers, who can rest assured that the product is good quality, according to Justin Spannuth, chief operating officer and sixth-generation member of the family that owns and operates Unique Snacks, Reading.
“Being a 100-year-old company, it speaks well to our brand,” Spannuth said, “There are a lot of pop up brands, they have an idea and some marketing dollars, they throw it on the shelf … every time a buyer has to put that on the shelf, they’re taking a risk. With our legacy, the buyer knows there is virtually no risk
putting us on the shelf.”
Some flexibility is important for family businesses as well, especially when circumstances change, according to Gage-Linderman.
“With the 2008 recession and the pandemic,
it’s forced us to change the way we do things, but in a good way,” Gage-Linderman said. “It’s allowed us to pivot from historically being known as a temp agency to training our staff in different areas of expertise.”
She said that other than the mandatory lockdown, Gage remained open for much of the pandemic out of commitment to serving the community.
“We’ve got folks walking in our office every day that need assistance with our career search,” GageLindermann said. “Our biggest push right now is letting people know that we’re here for real career connections.”
Challenges of family ownership
Handing a business down through the generations can pose challenges, too, according to Clark Dhein, a second-generation manager of Makissic Inc., a Chester Countybased landscaping equipment manufacturer.
“There’s always a little bit of, ‘What’s the new generation going to change?’” Dhein said, “That seems to be the standard, with a new generation coming with new drives and new experiences.”
Dhein said part of the challenge can also be the perception that important roles within a company are inherited, not earned.
He said the solution to
that perception is to earn respect by focusing on maintaining a high-quality product, demonstrating a belief in the company and encouraging a family atmosphere among employees.
“You have your real family and your work family,” Dhein said. “We don’t always get along, we sometimes argue, but we do it for the benefit of the company, because we believe in what we do.”
Gage-Linderman said working closely alongside family members can cause issues when personalities clash, but those issues can be solved with steady communication
“A lot of family businesses can’t even sit around a conference table together,” Gage-Linderman said, “The fact that we can talk and plan and build and discuss even what it means to be an owner, it does bring more stress, but we each have each other to rely on as well.”
She said Gage is fortunate to have a dedicated
management team and a foundation of tenured employees, many of whom have been with the company for decades.
Joey Jurgielewicz III, a fourth-generation duck farmer with Joe Jurgielewicz and Sons Ltd., Tilden Township, Berks County, said he and two of his brothers work in the business but in separate roles.
“My brother Jimmy is a veterinarian, I’m in the sales end, and my brother Michael is in marketing,” Jurgielewicz said, “We definitely have our own niche in our niche market, and that’s kind of a part of survival for us … having that common goal, and knowing when to wear the duck farmer hat, and when to wear the family hat.”
The next generation
Keeping the business alive across decades doesn’t always mean the next generation is going
to take over, however.
Jurgielewicz and other family business owners said they planned on leaving the option for professional involvement open to their kids — but as a possibility, not an expectation.
“I’d say like my father put it with myself and my brothers, the option is always to come and work at the duck farm, but there’s always the option to go and do bigger and better things if the opportunity arises,” Jurgielewicz said, “I wouldn’t put any pressure on my kids.”
Still, passion for the business is what drew Jurgielewicz to the job, and he sees the same passion brewing in his three children, ages 6, 4 and 2.
“They love everything about the ducks,” Jurgielewicz said, “It’s a weekly tradition of coming to the farm, walking around and being part of the atmosphere.”