The very idea of a family-owned business conjures up images of a mom-and-pop operation. While that image may be partially accurate, often adding brothers, sisters and nephews into the mix, family-owned businesses today are much more than that. In fact, the collective economic impact of these businesses is astounding. According to the Family Firm Institute, an international professional membership organization dedicated to raising public awareness about trends and developments in the family business field, family-owned businesses account for 60 percent of total United States employment, 78 percent of all new jobs and 65 percent of all wages paid.
But family-owned businesses face unique challenges as well. Succession planning and the inevitable transfer of power from generation to generation seem to be the greatest cause for concern. According to statistics reported by the University of San Diego International Institute for Family-Owned Business (IIFOB), less than 30 percent of all family-owned businesses survive the transfer to the second generation, and less than 10 percent survive to the third generation.
The issue of transition of power is especially worrisome because IIFOB predicts more family business assets will pass to the next generation in the next 20 years than in the entire 20th century combined. In Nevada, many family-owned businesses have thrived from generation to generation, in part due to the favorable business environment and the tenacity of hard-working entrepreneurs.
To celebrate the achievements of some of Nevada’s strongest family-owned businesses, the Nevada Business Journal asked members of the business community to nominate family businesses that not only strengthen the economy, but also serve as an example for their innovation, growth, community contributions and financial stability. Here is a look inside the top six.
Ask any resident of Ely, and they’ll gladly point the way to Economy Drug. For nearly 50 years, the store has played an important role in the health, vitality and heritage of the small Nevada town.
For 47 years, Dale V. Miller was the heart and soul of Economy Drug and a remarkably multi-faceted man — pharmacist, businessman, meteorologist, Navy war veteran and ordained Episcopal priest. Dale originally bought the store in the 1940s with three other pharmacists, all of whom had stores of their own. In essence, Dale operated in partnership with the competition. But by 1955, he was Economy Drug’s sole owner, a role he took very seriously. “He worked every day until he died at age 85,” said Margaret Miller Bath, Dale’s daughter. “It kept him sharp.”
Margaret worked in the store as a child, but went away to college and later held jobs in Denver and Toronto. Between jobs in the late 1970s, she went home to Ely to give her father a break. She never left.
“I think kids from small communities must get out and see the world,” said Margaret, who now runs the store and serves as a pharmacist. “But it always feels good to come home. People here are not strangers, they’re friends.” Her brother, Ray Miller, is co-owner.
Many in the small community consider Economy Drug a friend, too. The store strikes a balance between nostalgia and modern products and pharmacy services. In fact, the store’s vintage soda fountain is an important attraction in White Pine County.
“When we did our remodel in 1990, we realized our soda fountain had to be replaced,” said Margaret. “We looked long and hard, and eventually found a company in Chicago that had a refurbished 1948 soda fountain. It took a lot of time and effort, but we had it shipped here.” The remodel nearly tripled the store’s square footage, and included the addition of turn-of-the-century oak cabinets from the first drugstore in White Pine County.
Like many of the town’s high school students, at one time or another, most of the Miller and Bath children have worked at Economy Drug as soda jerks or pharmacy technicians. “It’s a family joke that, come December 31, nobody goes anywhere until the inventory is done,” said Margaret.
Findlay Automotive Group
For more than four decades, the Findlay name has been synonymous with cars in Southern Nevada. Founded in 1961 by Pete Findlay when he opened Findlay Oldsmobile in Las Vegas, the company has grown to become Nevada’s largest privately-owned automobile dealership group. It includes 13 car dealerships in three states, a motorcycle dealership, an auto collision center and a used-vehicle dealership.
Today, the company is 850 team members strong, including Pete’s son Cliff Findlay, who is the company CEO, and Cliff’s sons Justin and Nathan. Justin is the general manager of Findlay Volkswagen and Nathan serves as a technician at Findlay Subaru. A third son, Robbie Findlay, recently graduated from Brown University and is set to enter the family business in the near future.
“The advantage of a family business is the ability to set forth a company philosophy and to personally see that the philosophy is implemented,” said Cliff. “We have always stressed the importance of treating customers and employees in a fair and honest manner. And since our family members are personally involved in the business, they can make sure this philosophy is always adhered to. I think this is a significant advantage over larger businesses and public companies, where the actual owners of the business are not involved in the daily operations.”
According to Cliff, the disadvantages of a family-owned business are few. But he admits it takes hard work and involves a lot of time and energy. “The demands of the business can make it difficult to spend as much time as desired with family members on leisure activities,” he said. “However, we’ve built a quality team of employees so the businesses run extremely well when we do take some time off for family activities.”
Evidence of the Findlay team’s strength is in its policy of promoting employees from within. Thanks in part to the company’s steady and continuous growth, employees have enjoyed a variety of career opportunities. In fact, the general manager at each Findlay location has worked his or her way up to their position from within.
John Ascuaga’s Nugget
The Ascuaga family’s roots run deep in Sparks, all the way back to 1958, when a young and ambitious John Ascuaga bought the Nugget from another businessman. John not only gave the town its first skyscraper, but he also helped usher in an unprecedented period of economic growth and vitality in what was once a sleepy railroad town.
Today, John Ascuaga’s Nugget is a 1,600-room casino hotel with two 29-story towers, eight restaurants and 110,000 square feet of meeting/convention space. The resort employs 2,000 people, including John’s children Michonne, CEO, and Steven, a member of the executive team. Son John has also worked at the property.
“I think you can trust and count on family members in a completely different way than anyone else,” said Michonne. “There’s a bond and sense of loyalty there. But it can be complicated, too. As tight as you are, emotions are associated with everything.”
For the Ascuagas, running the family business means there isn’t much time off. If there is a special event taking place at the resort, family members work in shifts to make sure one of them is always there. “We pinch-hit for one another,” said Michonne. “You never feel alone, and there is always someone there to back you up.”
Although Michonne now runs the day-to-day operations at the resort, her father still comes to work nearly every day, and is also very active in his ranching business.
“My dad is a very hard worker, and we were raised that way, too,” she said. “But he never coaxed us into working in the family business. He encouraged us to do whatever our passion is, and if it turns out that it’s at the Nugget – great. He always felt it was important that we find our own way. I think he used some reverse psychology on us.”
Michonne admits she never thought she would work for her father “in a million years.” But after college, she found herself back in Reno without a job. “My dad hired me in the meantime so he wouldn’t have to support me,” laughed Michonne. After serving in a variety of capacities over the years, from cage and credit to marketing and convention sales, Michonne worked her way up to CEO, making her one of the few women running a major casino hotel in the state.
“It’s not the position or the title, but what I’m able to do that’s really important,” said Michonne. “It’s a business that I enjoy, and there’s never a dull moment.”
Johnnie Walker RVs
Since 1963, Johnnie Walker RVs has been one of Nevada’s best-known family-owned businesses. From its two locations on Boulder Highway in Las Vegas, the dealership sells new and pre-owned RVs, motor homes, fifth wheels, travel trailers and toy haulers, and offers a full selection of parts, service and customer education.
The company was founded 40 years ago by John Walker Sr., and bought by his son, John Walker Jr., in 1969. Although John Sr. lost his eyesight due to diabetes, he still worked in the dealership answering phones right up until his death in 1986, epitomizing the Walker family work ethic.
After successfully guiding the business for decades, John Jr. remains involved, but now his children, West Walker (president and general manager), Shelly Walker-Johnson (corporate secretary/treasurer and office manager) and Darcy Walker-Fitch (vice president and sales manager), run the business.
“We grew up in the business,” said Darcy. “I think working together helps keep us together — we’re a very tight-knit family, and I think that’s reflected in the way our business is run.”
That strong emphasis on family extends to the Walkers’ 55 employees, with several other family units: two sisters, two brothers, a father and his two children, a husband and wife, and a grandfather and granddaughter. “We feel that hiring family members — not just Walker family members — is a great part of our success,” said Darcy. “And all our other employees are just like family too.”
Darcy admits that now and then there are disadvantages to being part of a family-owned business. There are long hours, and often stress and responsibilities.
“I remember when I was 21 years old, all of my friends were going away for spring break,” said Darcy. “Of course, I couldn’t go. Spring break is our busiest time of the year. I guess I grew up a lot quicker and had a lot more responsibility. But I wouldn’t change a thing.”
With three generations of Walkers leading the way, the fourth generation is now emerging. Darcy’s 15-year-old nephew works at the dealership in the summers doing the very same things she and her siblings did as teenagers — cleaning the lots and the trailers. And while her own children are not yet old enough to work, Darcy admits she is already looking ahead.
“I would love for my kids to get into it some day,” she said. “It’s a true family business.”
Few Nevada-based construction companies have the history and name recognition of Kalb Construction. The company was founded in 1963 by the late George F. Kalb, who preferred doing business the old-fashioned way — with integrity and a handshake.
“You didn’t need contracts in those days,” said Steven Kalb, CEO of Kalb Construction. “A client would tell my father what he wanted to build, and my father built it. He didn’t need a contract because his word was his bond.”
While times have changed and a litigious society has made it virtually impossible to build anything without a contract, integrity and honesty are still the cornerstones of the family business, evidenced by the fact that 70 percent of Kalb Construction’s income comes from repeat business.
Among the largest construction companies in Nevada, Kalb Construction specializes in tilt-up construction, design-build and conceptual estimating. In 1999, it was ranked 26th among Las Vegas’ top 100 private companies based on annual revenue and number of employees (more than 75).
The company is led by Steven and his brother, George D. Kalb, who serves as company president. Both brothers have been with the family business since the early 1970s, and both are actively involved in all facets of daily operations.
“Working with my brother is a good thing, because there’s an element of trust you might not have with someone else. You never have to worry about the other guy,” said Steven. “We have individual personalities and approaches, but we complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses well.”
Kalb Construction has enjoyed success through two generations. Now, a third generation is poised to make its mark. George’s son Jeffrey works for the company as a project manager, and Steven’s son Justin is an estimator for Kalb Industries, a sister company that provides repair services for damage caused by fire, smoke, water and wind.
“Dad instilled a sense of values and customer service in George and me, and we’re doing the same with our sons,” said Steven. “Our word is still our bond.”
L.L. Bradford & Company
When he founded his company in 1992, Lance Bradford’s vision was to create a professional accounting firm that not only offered traditional services, but also changed the way people thought about their financial goals. More than a decade later, L.L. Bradford & Company is still delivering on that vision.
The company, which employs 30 professionals, is large enough to offer a full scope of accounting and consulting services, but still prides itself on being small enough to offer personal attention to every client.
At the core of the firm’s success is the dynamic partnership of Lance and his wife, Leilani. As the founding partner, Lance manages the firm with an emphasis on tax consulting and auditing, while Leilani, as administrative partner, focuses on auditing and consulting for non-profit organizations. The partnership has distinct advantages.
“I can assist Lance with issues he has in the office, and he can do the same for me,” said Leilani. “Working in the same industry allows us to have a better understanding of the pressures and challenges that arise each day, which is great for our relationship.”
The Bradfords admit that one disadvantage to having a family-owned business is that they never have a chance to “leave the office behind.” Although they work together, they don’t always see much of each other, because they’re busy representing different clients. As a result, they often discuss business issues at home, which enables them to focus on their clients at the office.
“Work for us is all the time, but we try not to allow business-related matters to interrupt our time with the children,” said Lance. “Leilani spends a lot of time with the kids, and I’m committed to changing my schedule to maximize my time with them, too. We’re still trying to strike a balance between home and work, which I’m sure is common for most entrepreneurs.”
In addition to the Bradfords, the firm boasts yet another family member — Nicole Nicolan, Leilani’s sister. She is a certified public accountant and manages the company’s tax department.
It’s still too soon to know if Lance and Leilani’s children might one day join the family business. They’ve spent some time in the office and already show an interest in and aptitude for math, but the choice will be up to them. “We won’t push them into the firm,” said Leilani.
Congratulations to these outstanding family-owned businesses for their contributions to our state, and best wishes for future success.