A lot of small, locally owned businesses — some of which had been around for decades — fell victim to the relentless downward pull of the last recession. For others, however, the economic slump from which the state is slowly recovering was just another in a series of challenges they have faced and conquered over the years. They have done it through a combination of determination, adaptability, customer loyalty, and — sometimes — a bit of old-fashioned luck.
Here are profiles of three venerable companies that continue to prosper in the 21st century:
Sullivan’s Pharmacy, Roslindale
“If you don’t stay ahead of the game and adapt, you get run over,” said Greg Laham (right), 64, owner of Sullivan’s since 1976.
“I’m constantly looking to fill unmet needs, to be cutting-edge in what I do. I’m always asking myself, ‘Who do I want to be? What do I want to do?’ If I didn’t think that way,” he added, “I would have been eaten up by CVS and Walgreens long ago.”
In the beginning, Laham said, “They were selling more drugs in the street than I had in my store.” But a young city councilor at the time — Thomas M. Menino — worked to clean up the area, he said.
Eventually, Laham reasoned that if he wanted to stick around, he needed to expand his drug business beyond just filling prescriptions for retail customers.
So he got into the lucrative business of providing medications to nursing homes, hospices, and assisted-living residences.
“I also realized that you just can’t live on prescriptions alone,” he said. That’s why he sells and services medical equipment such as hospital beds and wheelchairs.
Laham laments one move — his decision to get into sterile drug compounding.
“I sunk half a million bucks into a state-of-the-art compounding lab. And then right when I finished it and staffed it, that’s when the sterile compounding scandal thing hit. I took a big hit.”
Fortunately, it proved only a temporary setback.
“When I bought Sullivan’s, I didn’t have two sticks to rub together,” he said. “I now got a lot of money and I don’t need any more. I love waking up every morning and coming to work.”
Connelly Hardware, Brookline
Owner Kathleen Connelly Kenney (right), 64, is not surprised that Connelly Hardware, founded in 1951, has been able to withstand competition from the likes of Lowe’s and Home Depot.
“We’re really very focused on customer service — something you certainly don’t get at the big boxes,” she said.
Her son Brendan, who works at the store, added, “People come in here looking for advice, looking for help, asking questions. We’re really an informational resource.”
Kathleen also points to Connelly’s location, in a key shopping area in Brookline, as a reason for its long success. The lack of a rent payment also helps — she owns the property, as well as the space next door, which she rents out to The Washington Square Tavern to generate added revenue.
If you’re looking for a hardware store that is attractive and well-organized, Connelly’s is not it. But to its faithful regulars, the disarray doesn’t seem to matter.
“They offer great service here,” said Brookline resident Ty Rabe. “Last year, we were painting our house and we couldn’t decide what color to paint it. So my wife and I came over and grabbed Kathy and she drove around with us for an hour looking at house colors. Now that’s what I call good service.”
Beach Sales, Revere
Alan Belinfante’s store doesn’t sell swimsuits and sunscreen — it’s all about major appliances and electronics. The small company, which started out in 1947 renting and fixing typewriters, has over the years stood its ground against a parade of big-box discounters, and even the online onslaught of Amazon and other e-retailers.
“It’s a competitive world out there and we’re here to compete,” said Belinfante, who is in his 60s.
Like other independents, one way he does that is by “servicing the customer to death.”
“Our sales people really know their stuff,” he said. “And there’s no ‘no’ — if something goes wrong, for example, we send somebody out right away to fix it.”
Beach Sales’ slogan, which sounds like something from back in the day, gets right to the point: “The right advice and the right price.”
Customer Jane Nalieri of Winthrop has taken that advice for 25 years. One of the store’s sales staff “even fills out my rebates for me,” she said.
But Belinfante does not just rely on being responsive as a strategy for keeping the doors open. Beach Sales is part of a cooperative that buys hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of appliances and electronics every year. That gives it and the other businesses in the cooperative enough buying power to effectively compete with the national chains on price, which these days trumps service for many consumers.
“The big-box retailers certainly know who we are,” he said.
In photo: Howie Freedman assisted a customer at Beach Sales, an electronics and appliance store in Revere owned by his family for decades.