Family ties pay in business

Michael Rainville employs his sister, wife, mother, and grandmother at Maple Landmark, a wooden toy company based in Vermont.
Michael Rainville employs his sister, wife, mother, and grandmother at Maple Landmark, a wooden toy company based in Vermont.Toby Talbot/Associated Press

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — If you want to go into business during tough economic times, you might want to do it with family.

At Sokol Blosser winery in Dayton, Ore., siblings Alex and Alison Sokol Blosser took over as co-presidents of their parents’ business just as the economy went downhill in 2008.

They had been selling most of their high-end wine in restaurants, but when the recession hit, people stopped eating out as much. So they had to shift a lot of their business to retail, which took time and effort. Revenue and profitability took a hit.

‘‘We had to spend a lot more money in marketing and sales, so we just poured money into that so profitability was what really got squeezed,’’ said Alex Sokol Blosser. What kept them going is that the siblings see themselves as stewards, rather than owners, of the business that their parents started in the 1970s .

They have short-term goals that they want to meet, but they are looking at the business as one they want to pass on to their own children, if they’re interested.


‘‘This is a marathon, not a sprint,’’ he said. ‘‘When the times got tough, we realized, you know, it’s OK if we take a hit to profitability because we know we’re going to come back.’’

Some family businesses are more resilient during downturns because of that ­focus on the long term as well as a commitment to their customers, and employees and careful spending, said Pramodita Sharma, a University of Vermont business school professor, and editor of the Family Business Review, a scholarly journal.

‘‘They work not only for the current generation of the family but also the future,’’ Sharma said.

According to the Family Business Institute, 90 percent of US businesses are family owned. Some giants got their start as family businesses including retailer Walmart and automaker Ford.


Maple Landmark, a wooden toy company in Vermont started by Michael Rainville, now employs his sister, his wife, his mother, and his grandmother, as well as his sons.

Rainville is willing to work long hours and do whatever it takes to keep the business going. When business softened after 2001, they bought a similar Vermont company so they could offer a broader array of toys. But between 2002 and 2007 they were lucky if they grew at all and ended up smaller by about 15 percent.

Rainville said he didn’t have any more tricks to pull out his bag so they focused on being more efficient.

The familiarity of family can also have drawbacks. Any drama or tension among siblings or parents needs to be checked at the door, which is something the Sokol Blosser family learned from a business coach and from family business counseling .

Like the Sokol Blossers, brothers Charles and Arthur Anton also grew up in the family business, Anton Cleaners, based in Tewksbury, Mass. Their grandfather started the business nearly 100 years ago.

When the economy soured, people were dry cleaning their clothes less often. But like the Rainvilles and Sokol Blossers they didn’t resort to laying off employees. They cut back hours.

They strategize regularly about where they want to be and their five-year plan, said Arthur Anton Jr., chief operating officer. ‘‘I think a lot of people in our business don’t look at that,” he said. ‘‘They’re just day-to-day operators who don’t look to the big picture or the future.’’