Diamonds Are Forever

“I don’t think people tell the stories. I don’t think people ask the stories.”

Illustration by Nate Otto

Jewelry tells a story. For Kathy, the owner of a 90-year-old jewelry store in Berwyn, Illinois, every piece of her jewelry adds up to a larger, richer history about the business that she joined as a 16-year-old part-time employee and ended up running. A lot of small businesses are labors of love, but the story of Kathy and Hursts’ Berwyn Jewelers is a love story in more ways than one.

KATHY: I don’t think people tell the stories. I don’t think people ask the stories. Jewelry tends to pass down from one generation to the other, and the oral history, in my opinion, is important. In the later years of what I’ve been working on, I’ve been trying to tell older people, sit down and take the pieces of jewelry that you have and write oh my God in cursive, write longhand what the story is so that when you pass away, not only will someone inherit a piece of jewelry, but they’ll inherit the story. As you get older, history becomes more important. When you’re younger, history is very unimportant ’cause you have no history to explore.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. We’re doing something a little different this week. We’re bringing you a love story. It’s about a woman named Kathy, and the 90-year-old jewelry store she owns in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.

In 1974, Kathy O’Brien was a high school student in a town just west of Chicago. On the first day of her junior year, her history teacher made an announcement. As Kathy says, a lot of young people aren’t interested in history, but on this day, she was paying attention.

KATHY: At the end of class, he said, if someone’s looking for a part-time job, my brother, my nephew and I have a jewelry store. Here’s the address; you’re more than welcome to come and apply. I was 15 when I came for the interview. I had never been in a jewelry store before. The lady who was there behind the counter—she was cleaning with Windex, she was dressed nicely, she was in a dress. And I thought wow, what a glamorous job.

WAILIN: The store was called Hursts’ Berwyn Jewelers and it had been in the city of Berwyn since 1927. Kathy’s history teacher, Ron Hurst, had worked there part-time when he was younger, along with his brother George, and their father had worked for the original owner as a custodian. In 1966, when the owner died, the Hurst brothers and their nephew bought the store. Kathy started working there part-time during the school year and full-time in the summers. She cleaned, she greeted customers, she learned how to do engraving and how to solder charms on a bracelet. She sold small items under a hundred dollars, things like lockets and cufflinks and key rings. Kathy got to know the jewelry business. And she got to know Ron Hurst, who was divorced and spent weekends with his three children.

KATHY: His oldest was very close in age to me so they would go and do fun things like they’d go to Illinois Beach State Park or they’d go to Great America or they’d go to a museum. So it’s a case of, “Oh okay, so do you want to come along?” And I had a great time, so at that point I got to know his family really well. He was a very generous and gentle man.

When we first started dating, we would go on things like picnics or we would go for walks or things like that. He would read with me.

Well, he bought me a piece of jewelry when I graduated, which was a little diamond ring, which I lied to my parents and told them it came from the store, but it was really from him because I didn’t want my parents to know that I was getting expensive gifts from men. And he gave me a couple of pairs of opal earrings. One of the first presents he gave me was an album called Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which is Mahler—very heavy for an 18-year-old person. I thought, “Holy cow, why did he buy this for me? I don’t get it.” You know, there was 21 years age difference between us. Sometimes the age difference between people takes some bridging.

WAILIN: Working at Hursts’ Berwyn Jewelers was Kathy’s first job besides babysitting, and she never left. She found where she belonged at the store, and with Ron.

KATHY: There used to be a restaurant in Villa Park called Jerry Sharko’s. It was a nice restaurant, served steaks et cetera and he proposed to me on Christmas Eve. I remember the pianist in the corner. The ring that I got was a heart-shaped diamond, which is kind of unusual. It was set in rose gold and green gold, which wasn’t very common back then either. And obviously I loved it and obviously I said yes.

I was brought up very Roman Catholic, eight years of Catholic school, and I was wanting to marry a divorced man. That’s like—that’s just forbidden and my father said to me, he said, “I’m not going to your wedding.” And I said, “Okay, I’m still getting married. That’s your choice.” They were concerned for me. I mean obviously as parents, you’re concerned, is someone taking advantage of you? They were concerned, I’m sure, that I was inheriting a family. When you’re that old and you’re not even sure how to cook your own dinner and do your own laundry, inheriting a family of three children is kind of a big deal, but they had seen the amount of the amount fun I had with Ron.

WAILIN: Kathy’s father did end up blessing the marriage and attending their wedding in June of 1977. Afterward, the couple went on a three-week honeymoon to St. Maarten, which to this day is the longest vacation Kathy’s ever taken. Back at the store, she was now the manager and taking on increasing responsibility.

KATHY: I got to be involved in some of the buying decisions, which heretofore I wasn’t involved in, and oddly enough, old-school jewelers would not tell their employees anything about how much stuff cost. It was a deep, dark secret. And so the men always would always know that. I don’t know that I knew that information until well into my marriage. There was a certain set of letters that would go on tags so that you would know how much you paid for something. And you have to maintain a certain margin to be able to keep the doors open, to pay your employees, to get new product in that’s innovative and creative. And so that was probably the biggest eye opener for me. It’s like, “Holy cow, this is hard work” as far as managing the money aspect of it and choosing the right product mixes.

WAILIN: In 1993, Ron retired from his teaching job and turned his full attention to the store. The rise of the American shopping center had spawned mall jewelers that advertised big discounts. To address the new competition, the Hursts started carrying designer brands that you couldn’t find at the local mall. At an industry trade show in Las Vegas, Kathy and Ron discovered an emerging company called Hearts on Fire that had come up with a new way to cut diamonds.

KATHY: We both looked at the diamonds in person and they were gorgeous. I mean, we had never seen diamonds so beautiful. You could take it and like tweezers or a plunger to hold it, and you could turn it and you could see all the colors of the rainbow just glistening off of it. It was an explosion of light and color. It was just amazing.

WAILIN: The Hursts were so taken with the Hearts on Fire diamonds that they put up $50,000 to become a dealer, the largest amount of money they’d ever had to come up with at one time. Today, Hursts’ Berwyn Jewelers is the longest-running Hearts on Fire dealer in the Chicago area. And on the Hursts’ 25th wedding anniversary, Ron gave Kathy a Hearts on Fire diamond to upgrade from her modest engagement ring.

KATHY: I put it into a designer setting by the name of Simon G. It had baguettes on it. It had had a little bit of yellow gold and some platinum. It was really fancy but simple. It didn’t stick up. It wasn’t like really flashy. But if you looked at the small details, it was just beautiful.

WAILIN: The Hursts’ focus on designer brands transformed the store, which in its earlier days had sold costume jewelry and products like tie tacks and even silverware. Kathy and Ron put a microscope on the counter and started teaching customers about diamonds. And their role as a generational jeweler kept evolving. It was no longer as common for parents to bring their children to Hursts as the family’s de facto store to buy an engagement ring. Kathy was seeing more couples shopping for rings together or customers coming in with Pinterest boards full of ring photos. The store hung a rainbow flag above the door. It was adapting and still had many loyal customers. But in 2014, everything changed.

KATHY: So my husband died of lymphoma, which he had for five years. When he passed away, people thought, “Oh my God, the store’s gonna close” because I was always kind of the day-to-day girl. I was the one who made sure things got done, you know, and Ron was the visionary. So when you lose the visionary in a business, you know, does it go on? So the challenge to me was first of all, will people still come here with just me?

I talked to my business adviser and I said to him, “People keep coming in and they want to ask about Ron and they want to give me condolences,” and it was so fresh. I could remember, I wouldn’t know how to talk to them, so I would sometimes make a joke. It was my way of trying to not becoming too emotionally involved with them at the moment. I said, “How do I handle this? How do I deal with the fact that I’m grieving the person that I’ve known since I was 16, the person I’ve spent my whole life with, that I’ve built a business with, and how do I deal with that?”

I decided that I would write a letter, kind of a love letter to my husband and to what our business had been and my vision of the future, and I sent it to every customer who had done business with me for the last five years. I didn’t care if they were only a battery customer or if they bought a $20,000 diamond ring. I didn’t want them to come in and have that shock hit them and then have to explain it. That made a huge difference for me because that way, I didn’t feel like I had to go through the grief of his passing with each person that I met. That was my best method of moving forward with the business and letting people know that this was basically our child, and since it was our child, of course I wasn’t going to give it up, it was important to me and I wanted to make sure that it survived and thrived without him.

WAILIN: Kathy went back to work. Just a couple months after Ron passed away, she took her daughter to the annual industry show in Las Vegas, the same one where she and Ron had discovered Hearts on Fire all those years ago. Back when the Hursts attended the show together, they’d usually spend $100,000 on products for the store. In 2014, Kathy didn’t know if she wanted to go at all. But her business advisor thought it would be a good idea.

KATHY: And he told me, he said, “Don’t spend any money. He said just go and be with friends. You know, let yourself heal.” And I said okay.

WAILIN: Kathy spent $50,000 on jewelry at the show. She couldn’t resist, and she felt like it was her job to be proactive about finding new products to carry at the store. It had been six years since the recession in 2008, but Kathy was seeing that customers were still hesitant to splurge on luxury items like jewelry.

WAILIN: So I tried to look for things that were affordable, things that were bold, so that you could come out of the kind of hard years, where women’s self purchase was—and pardon my vernacular—women’s self purchase was in the toilet after the market crashed. You know, moms don’t spend on themselves unless they feel that the whole family is doing well. Then you’ve got to change price points. You’ve got to have things that are $50 to $250 and a fairly broad stretch of it so that they feel like they can come into a nice jewelry store and not feel intimidated.

WAILIN: The first year after Ron’s death, the business grew 9 percent. It grew another 9 1/2 percent the year after that. Despite the positive numbers, running the store was becoming a challenge. George, Ron’s brother who also owned the business, had retired some years earlier. Other key people, including Kathy’s business manager and accountant, were planning to retire themselves. Kathy lives 23 miles away from the store and has pets at home that need care. It was getting to be too much.

KATHY: And I’m finding that in order to get the work done the way I expect it to be done, and I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I’m staying here until 10, 11 o’clock at night. I’m up in the morning at 5 in the morning. I go and work out two days a week, so I’m up at 3:30 on those morning days and, you know, there is no life. There’s things that you just have to look at as dominoes going into the future. And my brother-in-law’s 89, I feel that it’s appropriate that he should get some money out of the business. And the only way I can give that to him is by closing.

WAILIN: On The Distance, we usually feature businesses that are still running. Hursts’ Berwyn Jewelers is the first story we’ve done about a business that’s winding down. Closing the shop was a difficult decision for Kathy Hurst. She loves the store. It’s what she built with Ron and shared with him during their life together.

KATHY: It truly is my child. It’s my love child with my husband. But I feel at this point that I’ve honored my commitment to my husband. I’ve done a good job at what I do. I don’t feel that it’s fair to my clients to not do as good of a job. And if I continue to work like 90 hours a week, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for self exploration, for me to grow as an individual. So that’s why I’m leaving my love. That’s why I feel that it’s the right time and I will still be relevant. I will not go home and sit. That’s not who I am.

WAILIN: Kathy doesn’t have a closing date yet. She’s not going to turn off the lights until every client who needs a repair or a new watch battery gets serviced. She’s had some offers to buy the building and acquire the business outright, but she’s not ready to make a decision yet. In the meantime, Kathy has lots of ideas about what to do next. She might become a jewelry appraiser, join the nonprofit sector, or volunteer at a veterans hospital. She’s also thought about getting into grief counseling, since she was so appreciative of the help she got after Ron died.

KATHY: I’m not worried about my future. My future is bright. I’m excited about it. I want to learn new things. I want to explore who the girl is that started when she was 16 and has been a jeweler her whole life. I want to see who she is. I’ve never had the opportunity to know anybody else but her. So it’s my time to explore me and see how I can be relevant in the world going forward.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. You can subscribe to our show on iTunes or wherever you get podcasts, and while you’re there, please leave us a rating or review. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.

Neighborhood Fixture

Illustration by Nate Otto

The Distance is back from our holiday hiatus with new episodes every other Tuesday! Our new story is about a kind of business you might have thought was pretty much extinct: the neighborhood appliance and furniture store.

Kevin Krasney’s grandfather opened Cole’s Appliance and Furniture Co. with a partner on Chicago’s north side in 1946. The business built relationships with landlords and property managers, a customer base that would sustain the store through the rise of big box stores and economic downturns. The Krasneys also put a premium on earning their customers’ loyalty. Kevin has continued this tradition. He’s personally measured a condo to make sure a piece of custom furniture will fit and tracked down a replacement tray for an outdated model of microwave. There is a place for the mom-and-pop appliance store after all, and Cole’s has found it.

Transcript

WAILIN WONG: Kevin Krasney likes antiques. Next to his desk he keeps a vintage seafoam green metal icebox that he found on the side of the road in Michigan during a family trip. He’s thinking of repurposing it as a TV stand. Downstairs, he still uses the same clunky black rotary phone that belonged to his grandfather. It’s hooked up to the fax machine.

KEVIN KRASNEY: I like things that have history. I think that’s what I like about our business. I like that it just has a history and I’m ultimately doing the same thing, and walking the same path, I mean I put the same key in the door that my grandfather used when he opened the store. You know, it was once a silver key that is worn out to be gold.

WAILIN: Kevin Krasney is the third generation owner of Cole’s Appliance and Furniture Company, the neighborhood store his grandfather started with a partner in 1946. And walking that same path means keeping up the level of personal attention that his grandfather established 70 years ago.

KEVIN: I get people who come in here all the time that knew him well. He always built relationships. He always talked. He was genuinely interested into people. He was a good man to own a retail store, you know, he was very kind-hearted.

WAILIN: The neighborhood appliance store has gone extinct in many cities, but on this corner on Chicago’s north side, Cole’s is in the same spot with the same neon sign hanging over the sidewalk. Going the extra mile for customers, and maintaining those relationships over the long-term, is what Kevin believes sets his family business apart from the indifferent big box competitors around him. Like the time three or four years ago, when a customer called late in the day on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to say her stove was broken. Kevin was by himself, with no other workers, and about to head home.

KEVIN: I literally pulled up at some lady’s house at 5 o’ clock at night with a range in the back of my car that she bought. Her sons came out, took it out of my car, brought it inside and did it. I went a little out of my way and I did that but this lady was ecstatic. She wanted to tip me and give me money for doing it, but I wasn’t looking to have a hundred dollars to go deliver you a stove. I did it because you just told me you’re cooking for 15 people and your stove is dead and now you’re going to make your turkey on a grill, and I just showed up with a stove and I think there’s the little things that I think my grandfather would have done, and that’s ultimately probably why I did it, having that feeling.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, you’ll learn about the lengths that one small retailer will go to earn its customers’ loyalty, year after year, and why that has meant more than just having the lowest prices. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.

KEVIN: Clients will come to us: “Well, I can buy it online from this company and no sales tax,” and my response is kind of I get it, but if you buy that fridge online, it shows up damaged, but you signed for it and you’re stuck with it. Or the delivery shows up and they can’t carry it into your house—you don’t have someone you call. You don’t have someone you can deal with, you don’t have someone that can work with you to make things happen and that’s I think ultimately where I think people want to deal with a smaller company, and it’s nice to be able to call and deal with the same person you dealt with when you purchased the appliance. Things happen. Not everything is cut and dried and so easy. And a lot of people get very defensive when someone calls them upset or needs more assistance. And ultimately people want to be listened to, they want you to sit there and listen and come up with a solution that’s realistic.

WAILIN: Like Kevin says, things happen, especially in Chicago, where the doorways and stairwells in vintage apartment buildings often just can’t accommodate the deep couches and restaurant-quality stoves that are popular now. Other times, rickety buildings can thwart what should be a simple delivery. When Kevin was in high school, he worked on the truck and experienced these challenges firsthand.

KEVIN: I remember we had a great truck driver back then, that I used to go on the truck with him, and he used to always take me to the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. I remember going up to an old staircase and and I think we were coming down with an appliance and my foot went through the stairs. You know our giant delivery guy up on top, he was just like holding the entire appliance. I think anyone else I would have been crushed by a refrigerator, but he was like holding the entire appliance up there and like slowly got it down. You know, it’s tricky. The city’s always — you never know what you’re walking into.

WAILIN: Another part of Kevin’s job is fielding unusual requests, like a woman who had called him looking for a very specific couch she’d seen online.

KEVIN: It was just a bright pinkish purple fabric on a 25-foot semi-round couch and you know, she was counting off her seats and she was making sure there was enough seats for her cats. It was going to be her and her 18 cats in her home in a giant pink-purple 25-inch piece.

WAILIN: The woman had compiled a list of 20-some furniture stores to call, and Cole’s was the fifth one she had tried. Kevin put her on hold and called the manufacturer’s sales representative to see if anyone in Chicago had the couch in stock. The answer was no, but Kevin had a rounded chair with a similar feel, so he told the woman, come in and try it. If you like it, we’ll order the couch for you. She went ahead with the order and Kevin measured her condo himself to make sure it would fit.

KEVIN: And when I showed up to her house, I was actually kind of like blown away. It was a massive big circle living room that was actually like beautiful and in the end, the piece actually looked really good in the space.

WAILIN: Kevin had only sold that bright pinkish purple fabric one other time before, on a pillow, and it’s since been discontinued.

KEVIN: She had her heart set on it, and I love that, when someone comes in they don’t care what is in style or if everything’s grey or if everything’s this. They want exactly what they want and they get what they want, which I think is what it’s about. I mean, I think that’s why people dress the way they dress or put furniture they way they put it. It makes it who you are.

WAILIN: The line of upholstered furniture that Cole’s carries is manufactured in North Carolina and customers can choose their own configurations and fabrics. The store also does special orders on high end appliances. One time, a family ordered a large, professional refrigerator with custom panels to match the cabinets in their new home.

KEVIN: We went to a house recently that the family with five kids were moving in that night, the builder was behind, but they were coming in from out of state. And we had to install appliances the day they were moving in. Hand carved railings, beautiful wood staircase—the appliances wouldn’t fit up the stairs. My delivery team called me, said “The stuff’s not gonna fit up the stairs.” The customer was freaking out, said “It will,” so they took the box off, showed them how the box wouldn’t even come close to fitting up the stairs, which is a light box, and then I was like, we have to get this done. Stay there, I’ll be over there in a minute. I’m gonna find some way to get it in.

WAILIN: Kevin met his delivery guys at the house and surveyed the scene. The kitchen was on the second floor, and there was no way for the refrigerator and range to go up the stairs. But Kevin had an idea.

KEVIN: I called my stone guy to see. I know he uses cranes a lot and he told me to call his guy and his guy happened to be three blocks from where we were, so I was like, you wanna make some quick money?

WAILIN: Here was Kevin’s idea: Use the crane to hoist the massive fridge up to the third floor, where there was one window that might just be big enough for the appliance to squeeze through. This was their only shot.

KEVIN: It was just a windy day and you had a $12,000 fridge blowing through the sky. I was like watching this thing go over a tree and I was like sweating and then the wind was blowing and I think it like came to the point where I kind of just walked away, walked around the house, looking at their bathroom that got nicely renovated, then went upstairs and was so happy to see us with like a half an inch to spare to pull it through the window. Ultimately I don’t care what you do, just get it into this house and we got everything in with no damage.

WAILIN: And here’s the kicker: Cole’s didn’t charge the customer extra for the delivery. Kevin says it would have cost him more to take the fridge back to the store, since it was a custom-ordered appliance that would have just sat there, unsold, on his showroom floor. And more importantly, Kevin wanted to make some good impressions.

KEVIN: It was a new builder, first time we dealt with him, a new architect, first time we dealt with them. We wanted to show we will make stuff work. I was pretty confident. They price checked that job pretty aggressively, and when I finished I made them aware that no one else would have installed it that day, and they all agreed and they’re very, very loyal customers of ours.

WAILIN: It’s important for Kevin and his father, who still works in the business, to maintain Cole’s reputation as a place that will be there for customers in big and small ways. I learned about Cole’s from a friend who lives nearby and told me she once needed a new tray for her microwave, which she didn’t even buy there. Cole’s doesn’t sell parts, but Kevin helped her out.

KEVIN: I sent my guys over there and they took a quick measurement and we pull out old appliances out of people’s houses a lot, so all they needed was a glass plate that you couldn’t locate anywhere. So my guys just kind of knew: When you find this, pull out this plate, save it for them, so they found one it actually fit perfect. My father has the—I’m trying to think of the word, I’ll probably label it as a disease, where he just doesn’t throw anything away. We just have a lot of stuff, stuff in back rooms, and I go through stuff, and things that we know are usable we’ll keep. Some lady came in the other day and we were able to give her all new burner caps and it was like, we don’t really sell parts, so we just gave them to her. Granted, any other business would be like, “This is in our inventory, let’s put a price on it.” We just don’t necessarily think that way.

WAILIN: It’s those small things that can really multiply goodwill toward a business, and Kevin wants to increase Cole’s presence in the neighborhood. Even though the store has been in the same spot since 1946, a lot of residents don’t know it’s there or don’t know what it sells. When Cole’s recently hosted a neighborhood chamber of commerce event, Kevin ordered food from a restaurant down the street and the delivery guy asked him if he had just opened. And here’s a confession, something that I was too embarrassed to tell Kevin. I lived a couple blocks away from Cole’s for three years and didn’t know it was there.

KEVIN: This neighborhood’s picked up more and more. It’s a really nice neighborhood. We’re having a lot of people that were stopping in to buy a refrigerator and see some of this furniture and were kind of blown away by it and said I’d been passing by for 10 years and I thought everything was used. We like having that corner mom and pop feel. We try to shape ourselves, I guess, of being, like Chicago’s best kept secret.

WAILIN: Even though it seems like Cole’s is hidden in plain sight in its own neighborhood, the store is well-known to people in the housing industry like designers, builders, property managers and landlords. It was a customer base that Kevin’s grandfather established, and during the slow times of the recession, Kevin looked to this group to keep the business going. Landlords weren’t necessarily buying high-end products, but they did need appliances. And Kevin looked for new customers too, getting aggressive on price to draw them in.

KEVIN: Right before the recession, we almost did a massive renovation which would have put us into a lot more money going out, we’re really lucky that we just kept our overhead really low, kept it really lean, like most of that time when business was slow, it was just my father and I in here. If it was a really quiet day, it’s going through old folders from years back to see who are those landlords and property managers and developers we dealt with, and where did they go? Did they go out of business, or did they go somewhere else? And start rebuilding that relationship with a quick phone call. And that’s where I spent a lot more time going after new business and starting a new line with a lot of service companies and, you know, small kitchen rehabbers and people like that, handymen even, and just building those relationships. It was important to us to keep our workers working, you know, it was important to keep our trucks going and things like that as well, so sometimes to cut margin, but still do business to get through. We’ve been very lucky to kind of withstand the test on time in an industry that’s not so common. You don’t see so many corner mom and pop appliance shops. Even if you’re in a small town, you start to see rent-a-centers and you start to see these, you know, Best Buys or things like that jumping in, the big box stores.

WAILIN: It turns out that preserving that mom and pop feel has come pretty naturally to Kevin. Maybe it’s something about putting his grandfather’s key in the door every morning.

KEVIN: It’s surprisingly run not too far different from the way my grandfather ran this business and we have a loyalty in that sense. I think like this business has probably taught me loyalty moreso than anything else. And we’re still using the same print company that’s now a third-generation company that we’ve dealt with forever. We still use the same insurance company that’s third-generation company. You sit there and I get phone calls all day about insurance or anyone trying to sell you things, and it really comes down to the fact that it’s a loyalty thing for us. Even if someone’s going to save me a little bit of money to switch over to them, it’s not the same as doing business with someone that we know, trust, and that ultimately we’re happy to see that their business is still running three generations later.

WAILIN: Kevin thinks a lot of shoppers these days share that mentality and are swinging back back to the old-fashioned way of doing things, seeking out small, local businesses. It’s the way he shops too, as a business owner.

KEVIN: You know, I go to a lot of places because they’re people support us and I want to support their business and watch them stay busy. It’s nice to see that coming back around, you know, seeing people opening up more businesses, seeing young people doing what they want to do. Not try to build a business to sell a business, try to build a business to have something.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. You can subscribe to our show on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, and you can also sign up for our email newsletter at thedistance.com. While you’re at iTunes, if you wanted to leave us a rating or review, we would appreciate it so much. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.

Finding businesses for The Distance

Before The Distance went on a brief hiatus for the holidays, we had produced new episodes for eight straight months. Counting the mini stories that we released between our main ones, that’s 31 episodes covering 17 businesses—from a maple syrup producer to a junk removal company to an embalming fluid manufacturer. The Distance is a small team, just myself and Shaun, and I’m the sole reporter. This means I decide which businesses to feature, and I also do the interviews and write the scripts.

One of the questions I get the most is: “How do you find your businesses?” (They are not, as some people assume, Basecamp customers.) I thought it would be fun to go through every podcast episode and tally the different ways I found those companies. These categories are in no order whatsoever (apologies to Noah Lorang) but you get the idea:


Me: Now that I’ve spent the last three years thinking about long-running businesses, I notice every storefront and truck and door hanger ad that says “Established 1956” or “Family owned and operated since 1974.” Merz Apothecary, a store we profiled in 2015, is located in my old neighborhood and I’d pass by it all the time. I also catch references to interesting businesses in other media. T-shirt screen printer Marathon Sportswear was mentioned in this Chicago Tribune piece about Chicago Cubs apparel. I learned about Phoenix Bean Tofu in a tweet from Eli’s Cheesecake, a company we had featured previously. Another way I find stories is just by following my own curiosity—I go down a lot of research rabbit holes, and sometimes they result in stories. In 2015, with the holidays approaching and Christmas tree lots starting to pop up around my town, I wondered, “Who grows these trees?” My research led me to Richardson Farm and a family that evolved from pig farming to agritourism.

Friends, Coworkers and Professional Acquaintances: Over the holidays, I was delivering a long soliloquy about the minutiae of my job to a friend’s husband when he gently interrupted and said, “Um, I don’t know what you do for a living.” After I told him about The Distance, he thought of a half dozen businesses where he lives (Tallahassee, Fla.) that might fit the show’s parameters. This happens a lot—it’s a fun parlor game to think about your hometown and the cool old businesses you’ve seen there. Silverland Bakery was suggested by someone I knew from a previous job; he happened to visit one weekend, was charmed by the owner and emailed me later. The episode about the Nedra Matteucci Galleries came about via my husband’s college roommate, whose brother is childhood friends with the gallery’s director.

Listeners: Please keep those emails and tweets coming! I really do try to answer every email I get. I log all the suggestions in a Google Doc, a snapshot of which you can see below. Frigid Fluid Co., the embalming fluid manufacturer, and Funks Grove Maple Sirup are examples of businesses I learned about from people who support The Distance. I’m at tips@thedistance.com.

Did you suggest one of these businesses? I didn’t forget!

Businesses: Hearing from the businesses themselves—whether it’s the founder, owner or someone who works there—is always a treat. This is how I got to do stories on fire gear manufacturer LION, Zarzycki Manor Chapels funeral home and Bowlers Journal International.

PR Firms: Yes, I take PR pitches BUT THEY HAVE TO BE GOOD. Before you email me about an entrepreneurial thought leader and social media influencer who would make an amazing guest for The Distance, you should know that WE ARE NOT AN INTERVIEW SHOW and you are DRIVING ME TO USE ALL CAPS. I mean, just do the absolute bare minimum and listen to literally one episode of The Distance so you know what kinds of businesses we feature and so you hear my voice and don’t address your email to “Mr. Wong.” Examples of episodes that resulted from PR pitches are The Bales Girls, about two young sisters who unexpectedly took over their family manufacturing company after their father’s death, and Ancient History, Modern Family, about a business that deals in ancient coins, antiquities and maps. (In the latter case, the pitch was about an upcoming map show, but I went in a different, broader direction for the episode.)

After getting the initial idea, the next step is evaluating the potential of that idea and whether it’s worth pursuing a story. That’s a subject for another post! The Distance will be back with new episodes, every other week, on January 17. Be sure to subscribe in iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss our triumphant return!

Clothes Call

Illustration by Nate Otto

Here’s a story for all you Cubs fans out there, or anyone who’s ever wondered: Who makes the championship t-shirts you see players wearing in the locker room right after they win the game?

Marathon Sportswear in Blue Island, Illinois is one of those businesses. The t-shirt screen printing company is located in White Sox territory, but its president, Jim Piko Jr., roots for the Cubs. And when the Cubs won the 2016 World Series, he wasn’t just thrilled as a longtime fan of the team. Marathon, which Jim’s father started in the family garage in 1980, began printing tens of thousands of officially licensed Cubs t-shirts as soon as the team won the championship. It was the equivalent of a farmer’s bumper crop for Jim. Being prepared for that moment took weeks of advance preparation — and years of slowly building a business, one t-shirt at a time.

Transcript

WAILIN WONG: Jim Piko Jr. is the oldest of six children and grew up in a Chicago family whose loyalties were divided between the Cubs and the White Sox. His father, Jim Senior, roots for the Sox. But Jim took after his maternal grandfather, a Cubs fan who lived next door. In the summer, Jim would help out with his father’s t-shirt screen printing business and watch the Cubs with his grandfather.

JIM: We really had a nice relationship. He was a wonderful man. He had a TV out in his garage, which was right next to our garage, so we were printing shirts in our garage and he’d be out working on cars and he was a real fixer upper. But he’d have a TV out there and he’d have the Cubs on every day.

WAILIN: Like many other Cubs fans, Jim spent this year riveted to the TV, watching his team move ever closer to ending the longest championship drought by any major American sports team. So on November 2nd, when the Cubs were playing the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 of the World Series, Jim turned on the game at home. The Cubs led off the first inning with a home run.

ANNOUNCER: That’s in the air to center, back at the wall, and is…gone! What a start…

WAILIN: But Jim was still feeling pretty nervous,

JIM: So I just told my family all right, “I’m going in.”

WAILIN: “Going in” meant driving to the shop where, if the Cubs won that night, he would start printing thousands of officially licensed t-shirts proclaiming the hometown team as World Series champions. Jim Piko Jr. is the president of Marathon Sportswear, the apparel screen printing business in Blue Island, Illinois that his father started with a single machine in the family garage. That was in 1980. Thirty six years later, Jim was on the verge of experiencing a Cubs win not just as a long-suffering fan, but as a business owner with very big and direct stakes in the game.

JIM: It’s pretty crazy, I mean, you’re a big fan, because it’s all the local teams, that’s where you get the printing from, so you’d be nervous if it had nothing to do with your livelihood, but the fact that you have a lot riding on the outcome of the game really adds to the excitement or the anxiety, frankly.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, the story of a business with a unique perspective on the fortunes of its hometown sports teams, and how the Cubs’ historic win was the equivalent of a farmer’s bumper crop for Marathon Sportswear. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.

ANNOUNCER: …drive into left, and it’s gone! Tie game! Rajah Davis, 6–6!

WAILIN: In the eighth inning, with the Cubs ahead 6 to 3, Cleveland scored three runs to tie the game. Jim had been listening on a radio in his office. His brother Dan, who also works at Marathon, was with him and they felt the dread settle in as the game stretched on into the night.

JIM: I was distraught, so I went into the way back of the shop with Dan and we had a job where we had to take neck labels out of shirts, a very menial task, and then we were gonna stamp custom made labels in. So we went back there and sat in the dark back room and we just started tearing labels. They went to extra innings and then the rain delay and I told Dan, “We’re gonna be here until five in the morning and they’re gonna lose and we have all this labor that we’re paying for and we’re gonna be miserable.”

WAILIN: The game was taking place in Cleveland, but Jim was also watching the weather in Chicago and worrying about a storm that was coming in. The forecast was dredging up some very stressful memories from three years earlier. And here’s where we’re going to leave the night of the World Series clincher for a bit, since you already know what happened, and you’re going to hear about what Jim describes as by far the worst 24 hours in the life of Marathon Sportswear. It was June 24th, 2013, and the Chicago Blackhawks were playing the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals.

JIM: Game 6, they were up three to two, so if they won, they’d be Stanley Cup champs. If they lost, it would come back to a Game 7, two nights later. It was a Monday afternoon, I was in here, and I was gonna go home and have some dinner. So I drive home and a storm blows in and I’m a little west of here, the power goes out at my house. So I call back in here, I said, “The power just went out here, big winds, storm is coming through.” About 10 minutes later, power goes out here. So you know, I come back in, there’s no backup generator or anything. We were at the mercy of ComEd, tell our customer, “The power’s out here,” you know, we’ve got tens of thousands of shirts here, ready to print as soon as the game ends if the Blackhawks win. And I’m calling ComEd, calling ComEd, there’s nothing you can do. ComEd had basically said the power was not going to be on for, you know, 12 or 13 more hours.

WAILIN: Jim’s customer was panicking too. The Blackhawks and the Cubs jobs are known in the industry as hot market, and they require a lot of advance preparation. A bigger license company will hire local t-shirt printers like Marathon in the geographies of the final teams. A small amount of shirts are pre-printed and sent to nearby stores in advance of the series clincher. But the bulk of the production starts the second the winner is determined. And on that Monday night in 2013, as Jim was calling around without success to get a backup generator installed, he found himself hoping that the Blackhawks would lose and the series would go to Game 7. With Boston leading 3–2 late into the third period, it looked like things might go his way.

JIM: I care so much about this place that I just have terrible perspective on it all. I know it’s just a t-shirt, but I can’t convince myself that. So the power was not coming back on. I’m beside myself, having a breakdown and game’s going on. So I went out to my car with about two minutes left in the game to call my wife. She was at my in-laws ‘cause their power was on, our power was still out. I was, I had a plan. I said, “I’m gonna just get a room at the local hotel and maybe we dodged a bullet. We’ll get the power back on, the game will be in two days and we’ll see what happens.” Well, as I’m on the phone, the Blackhawks score a goal with like two minutes left to tie it, and I didn’t even know, and my wife said, “I think the Blackhawks just scored.” I was like, “Come on.”

ANNOUNCER: Score! Toews to Bickell, with 1:16 to go in the third!

WAILIN: Tie game, three three. And then, while Jim was still sitting in his car on the phone with his wife…

ANNOUNCER: They score! Bolland! Three to two with less than a minute to go!

JIM: She’s like, “I think they scored twice.” They ended up scoring again 17 seconds later. It’s like the most famous 17 seconds in Blackhawks history. I’m a huge fan, this should be wonderful, they’re gonna win the Stanley Cup, I hear fireworks going off, and I’m just ready—I’m just hysterical about the fact that this has happened.

WAILIN: Jim had to call his customer and tell him that Marathon still had no power. The customer had other contracts with a couple printers in Milwaukee, about a hundred miles away, so Jim’s brothers started driving truckloads of blank t-shirts up to Wisconsin all night long. By 1 pm the next day, the backup generator arrived.

JIM: Switched the power, got everything up and running. Ten minutes after, the power comes back on. The actual power. So we’ve got electricians here and they said, “You’re gonna have to switch it anyway, you might as well switch it now.” So that’s another hour and a half. I’m telling my customer, “We’re almost there, we’re almost there.” He’s yelling. We get the power back on, we start printing at about 3 pm Tuesday afternoon and we printed constantly for him until Friday afternoon, 24 hours a day, and the—my customer contact came in and the owner of the company came in at the end of the week, sat down with me. I don’t know how many hours of sleep I had but it wasn’t many, and he said, “Thanks a lot. We really appreciate the effort you put in after what happened and it turned out to be a huge success.” So that’s my hot market story that is, you know, my precautionary tale because no matter how much control you think you have, you don’t have total control.

WAILIN: So let’s return to November 2nd, 2016. The Cubs are going into extra innings and a rain delay during Game 7 of the World Series. This time around, Jim had a backup generator ready to go if needed. And as with other hot market jobs, he didn’t have the luxury of worrying about whether his advance preparation was going to jinx the team. He needed everything in place. That meant the artwork, the ink, the blank t-shirts and seven of Marathon’s 10 automatic screen printing machines.

ANNOUNCER: It’s over! And the Cubs have finally won it all, 8–7 in 10!

JIM: A couple workers out there wore Sox shirts in here, which was funny but most of the people were really excited. So it was something, you know, you can’t really celebrate, like we can’t because we’re just starting then, you know, our job is just starting. We started probably about midnight or 1 in the morning on Wednesday night and we were done by—we were done with most of it by Friday night at about 7, 8 PM. So we were able to kind of turn it around quickly. We had it on many machines, so it was able to go really fast. I mean, the first 12 hours of printing we had probably done about 30,000 shirts.

WAILIN: Screen printing t-shirts in a sports town like Chicago has been a good business for Jim and his family. In the 36 years since Jim Senior started Marathon, the Bears have won the Super Bowl, the Bulls have won six championships, The White Sox have won the World Series, the Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups and now the Cubs are World Series champs for the first time in 108 years. But Jim can’t plan on that kind of bonanza. Marathon’s bread and butter is printing t-shirts for local races and athletic teams. Something like the Cubs winning the World Series is pure gravy.

JIM: We certainly don’t bank on it because that would really — then we’d really be, uh, a lot closer to bookies than, uh, we want to be, or gamblers. So whatever extra we get from this hot market stuff we kind of just try to incorporate back into the, the overall bottom line of the company.

WAILIN: Jim inherited his sense of caution from his father, who started Marathon to supplement his income as a high school history teacher and football coach. While t-shirt trends have changed in the last three decades, the Pikos still grapple with intense competition, thin margins and a lot of unpredictability.

JIM: His philosophy was that um, nobody’s gonna outwork me. So we’re gonna keep the prices as low as we can, we’re gonna be as competitive as we can, and if I work as hard as I can, that would make up for the couple extra pennies, you know, and the quality would be good and it’s really worked. It’s been a fairly simplistic approach but he started the business in 1980. Interest rates were like 19 percent. He couldn’t borrow any money, but he just went step by step by step and, you know, he would handle one issue at a time and try and grow slowly, and over the course of time it’s really worked.

WAILIN: A few years after Marathon got going, Jim Sr. moved the business into the dank basement of a closed-down funeral home. Jim Jr. would help his dad fold t-shirts in the scary basement. Sometimes he would curl up and take a nap inside a box, nestled in a pile of cotton t-shirts. As Jim said earlier, it’s just a t-shirt, but the humble t-shirt has sustained two generations of his family and counting. Jim Sr. is 70 years old and still comes to work every day. And the thrill of seeing a Marathon shirt out in the world hasn’t gotten old, whether it’s a Cubs player on TV or someone the Pikos met on a vacation in the early days of the business.

JIM: We drove down to Disney World for one of the crazy family trips in the middle of the winter. And we were down there in line for Space Mountain or one of the rides and a couple people in front of us was a shirt that my dad had printed for a local race, you know, in Chicago or somewhere and he was so proud. I mean, he tapped the guy and said, “Where’d you get that shirt?” And “You know, we made that at my company,” so wherever we go now, we’re always looking to see if we can find a Marathon shirt. Every day we come in and we work very hard and it’s—it’s not easy. The margins are thin and it’s just a business where you have to work hard. You’ve got to be there, you’ve got to be hands on, you’ve got to work, so it’s not easy but it’s—it provides us all a living. It provides all our families a living. It provides so many employees a living, and, you know, if you’re willing to come through the door and work hard, you can benefit and it can benefit your whole life.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. We’re going to be taking a short break this month for the holidays, so we’ll be replaying some old favorites for the rest of December and we’ll be back in January with new episodes. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance. Happy holidays and see you in 2017!

Test of Metal

Illustration by Nate Otto

Otto Wiegel founded Wiegel Tool Works the day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. This year, his three grandchildren mark the manufacturing company’s 75th anniversary. The family business, which specializes in precision metal stamping, has survived succession issues and dislocations in the global economy to become somewhat of a rare species: A midwestern American manufacturer in growth mode.

Transcript

(Sound of machinery)

WAILIN WONG: This is the sound of heavy metal. Or more specifically, heavy metal stampers. They’re massive presses clocking in at 200 tons, 400 tons and 450 tons. The largest machine, the 450-ton press, mostly makes a specific copper part that goes into car transmissions. The finished piece fits in your hand, but the machine that makes it is so big it’s rooted five feet underground in a pit that took 38 cement trucks to fill.

RYAN WIEGEL: The reason why we got the 450 is because of the bed size. We never need the tonnage. We might go to a 150 to 200 to 250 tons on a 450-ton press. That’s not much at all. We needed the bed size. The complexity of the tools was required to produce a part, it’ll fit in the size of your hand, but in order to produce the part, you need multiple stages and once you put those multiple stages, you’re gonna need that bed length in order to produce the part.

WAILIN: That’s Ryan Wiegel, who along with his brother and sister own Wiegel Tool Works. Their grandfather, a German immigrant, founded the company on December 6th, 1941, a day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. That uncertain beginning was the first of many events that would threaten the existence of Wiegel Tool Works over the next 75 years, including family succession issues and the most recent recession. Here’s Erica Wiegel.

ERICA WIEGEL: We wanted to get in the recession and get out of it with all our employees. We wanted them to maintain their households, their payments, their cars, their bills and just because the economy was suffering and we were suffering, we wanted to make sure that we came out as well as they did too.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how the Wiegels’ strict financial discipline helped them pursue their vision of what American manufacturing looks like in a post-recession economy. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.

Wiegel Tool Works is based in Wood Dale, Illinois and specializes in precision metal stamping. You can think of metal stamping like punching a shape out of a piece of paper. But instead of paper, the Wiegels use ribbons of copper or brass that are wound on flat spools the size of wagon wheels. And the end result isn’t a simple flat shape like a circle or a heart, but a piece with a complex topography of holes and ridges and peaks. These metal pieces go into things like automobiles, exhaust fans and kitchen appliances. Here’s Aaron Wiegel.

AARON WIEGEL: We’re certainly not a commodity. I mean, stamping right-angle brackets is just not in our DNA over here. We have very, very sophisticated tools. We do take on the tough projects and because of that, we’re not labeled as a commodity and that’s why they’re forced to come to a very select few, you know, vendors that can do what we do.

WAILIN: When Aaron and Ryan’s grandfather, Otto Wiegel, started the company, it was a tool and die maker. It made tools for metal stamping but didn’t do any stamping itself. In 1968, Otto suffered a stroke while his only child, Martin, was serving in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy. Martin was honorably discharged so he could return home and help run the family business. During the 42 years Martin was in charge, Wiegel Tool Works started stamping. It continued making tools, but just for its own stamping jobs.

RYAN: The stamping was where all the money was, so when our accountant joined up with my father back in ‘94, he says, “Marty, you gotta stop building tools for the outside and you’ve gotta focus on stamping,” and from that day forward, we’ve been having a big push for that. Had we not done that today, we would never be the size and potentially would not be in business today because it’s a very, very competitive business.

WAILIN: Otto Wiegel died before any of his grandchildren were born. But his presence loomed large at the factory where the three Wiegel kids played laser tag, rode a dirt bike around the parking lot, sorted metal washers and eventually got to learn how the business worked. They understood from early on how they and the company depended on each other for their well-being. Here’s Erica Wiegel.

ERICA: It would be our birthday time and my dad would ask us, “You know, you’re gonna be 16, do you want a brand new Mustang fully loaded, whatever you want? Or do you want a Green Bruderer machine?” And we decided that we wanted the Bruderer ’cause that machine would make us better, make us money, and it could employ more people and just expand our business.

WAILIN: This emphasis on financial discipline pervaded much of the Wiegels’ upbringing. Martin’s favorite phrase is “cash is king.”

ERICA: We also went on vacations where my dad would give us a certain amount of money for lunchtime and whether we wanted to spend it all on the first day of vacation or let it drag out for the whole seven days, it was our choice, but it was also a way of learning money management.

WAILIN: Otto Wiegel died in 1973. By that time, Martin was running the company, but his mother, Otto’s widow, retained ultimate financial control. When she passed away in 1993, her death set off a chain of events that tested the company’s survival.

RYAN: My dad was really strapped financially. He could not um purchase capital equipment and once ultimately my grandmother passed away and he inherited this money, it was a challenge for him because the transfer did not go well. And because of it, we really struggled for quite a few years.

WAILIN: Ryan is talking about the estate tax, which is a tax on property that transfers from a deceased person to their heirs. The federal estate tax is a contentious political issue, with its opponents calling it the death tax because of how it can debilitate small businesses and farms. Here’s Aaron.

AARON: It is a job and company killer. That second generation taking over is already at a major disadvantage because they have to come up with 55% of what they’re inheriting, which in our line of work, I mean, to pay off 55% of the equity that we just inherited, it’s all tied up in, in capital equipment and buildings and it’s not liquid in cash. So to come up with that money is very difficult and it sets you back for years.

ERICA: The most important thing is that my dad looks at everybody here as their family, their extended family, and if my family was not able to pay off the death taxes, my dad would have to look at 35 people in the face and tell them that they don’t have a job anymore. Now that we’re 170 people, we wouldn’t have the face to tell 170 people because of a death tax, that we can’t support your job anymore.

RYAN: That’s why my father started planning really as soon as my grandmother died and he did not want to have that burden on us, the third generation.

WAILIN: When Martin Wiegel started doing his succession and financial planning, Aaron was only in eighth grade and it was too early to know whether he or one of his siblings would take over the company. But things quickly fell into place. Aaron and Erica studied engineering at the same college, while Ryan spent a high school summer working for an equipment dealer and studied communications. They all wanted to join the family business. In 2010, each of the three siblings became part owners of Wiegel Tool Works. Aaron is the president, Ryan is project coordinator, and Erica sits on the board while running a different metal stamping company that she bought with her own money in 2015.

AARON: Splitting this company between one owner to three owners, which most historical companies when that happens, it usually becomes a disaster because it’s a three-headed monster and if you don’t have the checks and balances and the hierarchy, it could really uh blow up in your face.

ERICA: We grew into this our whole life, so when we did transfer and take over the company, it was nothing new for us. The only thing was it was new for the employees. They didn’t even know that we were owners until months later, we said, “Oh by the way, we are the new owners,” and that’s how well the transition went.

WAILIN: The difficult thing during that period wasn’t managing the transition from Martin to his three children. It was making sure that Wiegel Tool Works could get through the recession. The company’s fortunes were closely tied to those of American car companies, which ended up needing a federal bailout.

AARON: My dad’s been by our side the entire time including today. He doesn’t work full time, but he comes in and does a lot of advising for us. Had he not been there during that time, we would not be sitting here talking right now. Some of the decision making that went on during that time period, I would never have made those calls and would have had the strength to do it because I just thought it was too extreme in some cases, but he certainly made the right decisions to cut things where they needed to be cut and just survive because if you waited a day, it might have been a day too late. It was just survival mode.

WAILIN: The advantage that Wiegel Tool Works had was that it was debt free, and it had a reputation of paying suppliers on time and hitting its production deadlines for customers. So the thinking was that as long as the company could stay afloat, it would outlast competitors with weaker balance sheets and larger debt burdens. But the atmosphere was still uncertain and terrifying. So the Wiegels took an extra step. They printed out their bank statements and brought them to meetings with customers.

AARON: They weren’t allowed to take them, but they were allowed to review them. We were showing that we were a debt-free company, that we were stable and also we had a succession plan already written in place and all lined up, which we executed the following year. They wanted assurance because it was a very, very scary time. I remember running the business and at the same time, when I had time left over, I went on the floor and ran machines. I was running around with forklifts. I mean, you did what you had to do to survive. So you know, visiting customers and seeing the look and scare on their faces that we’re gonna try to award you this business, yet we don’t even know if we’re gonna be open tomorrow, is a very scary uh thought.

WAILIN: I asked Aaron when he felt like the business and the economy had turned a corner. He had an instant response down to the month.

AARON: It was October 2009 (laughs). The government came out with the Cash for Clunkers uh law and that spurred a lot of new purchases of cars when they submitted their old cars, so we were heavily involved with in the American automotive world, the GMs, the Fords, the Chryslers.

WAILIN: Wiegel Tool Works still makes a lot of parts for the automotive industry, but in the last 16 to 17 months, it’s been diversifying into other sectors like LED lighting and construction. Another major priority for the short term is diversifying geographically, which for the Wiegels means opening a second plant in Mexico.

AARON: When my grandfather was running the business, I mean, everything was real local. Today’s markets are real global. We’re supplying parts directly to Japan, to Europe, to Mexico. Um, currently, 45 percent of our products are shipped to Mexico and now we’re seeing a lot of pressure to expand to these areas so that our customers have our capabilities and our production right in their backyard. Customers today just simply do not want to pay for the logistics. They don’t wanna have um waste in their lines, meaning everything has to be lean, so if you are shipping from the United States to Mexico, let’s just say, that’s a five to 10 day transit that is running the clock and taking up their liquid um money, so they want to be right next door. They want to be producing parts at that time and not have a lot of inventory, to keep their money in the bank, I guess. It’s a risk, but a risk that we have to take, given that the global competition and the global customers we’re dealing with today, I mean, my grandfather and my dad’s customers just don’t exist anymore and all those guys were all in the city of Chicago or in the general area. That’s just not the way it’s played anymore.

WAILIN: The nature of the company’s work has changed dramatically too. There’s more automation and robots and real-time monitoring. One stamper has two high-res cameras that inspect parts and ejects defective ones with a blast of air. Aaron says he wants more people to understand how American manufacturing, or at least his corner of it, has evolved into a high-tech and forward-thinking industry.

AARON: If I wasn’t in this industry, I don’t know how I’d even begin to describe what manufacturing would be outside of what I’ve seen in movies. That’s one of the reasons why we’re trying to promote manufacturing as much as possible and try to get rid of that stigmatism that lurks over us, that it’s just a dirty oily grungy type of environment where, you know, you could lose a hand at any moment. You know, you’re not getting oily, you’re not getting dirty, you’re almost at a computer all day long programming these machines to do a lot of this stuff.

WAILIN: Aaron always has to be looking ahead, whether it’s toward a big equipment purchase, opening a Mexican factory or training new generations of tool and die makers. Regardless of what’s next, he wants to be around to make those decisions and protect the family legacy.

AARON: There’s not a day that goes by I don’t get calls or I don’t get a letter from somebody saying that there’s some big overseas company or something local that that wants to acquire you. Now, have we looked at some of these deals? Sure, I mean some of the stuff that we looked at, it’s tough to turn it down but at the same time, we have a legacy here and we’ve got a longstanding tradition and no deal would ever be made unless it’s in the best interest of the family and the company. We’ve got a long rich history and we’ve got a growth trend that’s been currently happening and at this point, uh, there’s really no need to do that unless, uh, it’s going to enhance the overall business—which we would still be involved in.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. Thanks to ErikBison and whydoineedanickname1234567890 for your five-star reviews on iTunes. If you’d like to have your amusingly long user name read on the air, head on over to iTunes and leave us a review. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.

Party in the Front, Business in the Back

Illustration by Nate Otto

When Gary Morrison’s mother and her best friend got into the foil-stamped napkin business in 1979, the two women were just looking for a side project that would make them some extra money. Decades later, Gary is running AR-EN Party Printers, a company that custom prints cocktail napkins, coasters, matchboxes and more. He’s the first person to acknowledge that no one really needs what he’s selling, yet he’s figured out how to make a sustainable business out of disposable personalized favors.

Transcript

WAILIN WONG: Groucho Marx is famously quoted as saying, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Gary Morrison has his own version of that line.

GARY MORRISON: I don’t want to be invited to any party that would have me as a guest.

WAILIN: Despite his best efforts, Gary turns up at a lot of parties. Or more accurately, his products do. Since 1995, Gary has run AR-EN Party Printers, a company that makes personalized items for festive occasions. The business custom prints napkins, matchboxes, gift tags and more, and it specializes in foil stamping, which is applying colored foil to paper or another surface.

GARY: So this machine we just use for printing fancy bags for out of town guests for weddings and stuff like that. We use a thicker plate for this. Andre here is doing coasters, so here he’s finished a job. “Happy 40th Sully.” This is a ribbon machine. It just does ribbon. It prints on the ribbon, so here’s an order, here’s a bunch of ribbon we gotta get done. “Martha and Roy.” This is a great machine.

WAILIN: The products that AR-EN Party Printers makes are essentially disposable frivolities. The welcome bags get left behind at the hotel after they’ve been emptied of snacks. The monogrammed cocktail napkins get crumpled up and thrown away at the end of the evening. But there’s nothing disposable or frivolous about the way Gary Morrison has managed the company through interpersonal conflict, declining sales, the advent of the Internet era and more. And it turns out that persuading people to spend money on fancy napkins is very serious business.

GARY: Most people in the social printing business, they want to be in the invitation business. ’Cause that’s where the real money is. With a wedding, you need an invitation. Do you need napkins, place cards, gift tags, coasters, thank you — you don’t really need any of that stuff. So I’m in the business of selling people things they really don’t need, but I’m in the happiness business because it’s for one of their great events.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how AR-EN Party Printers built something sustainable out of stuff that people really don’t need. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the saner way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/distance.

GARY: These are all windmills. We make these attachments so it becomes a foil stamper, so Jimmy here is running napkins and the reason why it’s called a windmill is ’cause the arm spins around. So when one arm is grabbing the napkin to stamp it, the other arm’s grabbing the napkin that just got stamped and put it down over here. No one has made a machine to stamp napkins that’s better than these machines that they haven’t made in 40 years.

WAILIN: AR-EN Party Printers operates out of a 20,000-square foot facility in Skokie, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago. There’s a manufacturing space, a recently expanded storage area and a bright office where the designers and customer service representatives work. There’s even a yoga room. The company has come a long way since the 1950s, when it was started by a husband and wife out of a basement on Chicago’s northwest side. They named the business RN after the first letters in their names, Roberta and Nathan. In the 1970s, one of their customers was Gary’s mother, Annette, who was the stationery chairwoman at her synagogue and handled orders for bar and bat mitzvahs.

GARY: Someone would come to my—the stationery chairman of the synagogue and said we need napkins, she would place the order with Roberta and Nathan and I think they had two other employees. Nathan dies. Roberta calls my mom and says, “Buy the business. I’ll sell you the business for $15,000.” And my parents did not have $15,000, but they thought they could scrounge up 7,500 bucks and my mom went to her best friend Elaine and said, “Let’s go into business together. Can you cough up 7,500 bucks?” So the two women bought the business for $15,000 and that was probably sometime in 1979.

WAILIN: Annette and Elaine added their first initials to RN and the business became AR-EN Party Printers, spelled A R E N. The way Gary tells the story, the two women weren’t looking to build a huge business. Their children were grown and they just wanted something to do on the side.

GARY: All they wanted to do was work 20 hours a week. They were doing place cards, place cards were big, they had a line of thank you notes that were really lame. It was very bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah-y and probably 90% of what they did were napkins and they did some matches but they didn’t really do coasters or gift tags or stationery. You know, the breadth of of colors and options was, you know, much less.

WAILIN: AR-EN was a wholesale business, meaning its customers were stationery stores and event planners. Annette and Elaine found customers by going to the National Stationery Show, an annual trade show in New York. Gary estimates that the company peaked around $400,000 in sales under his mother and Elaine. But by the early 90s, sales had fallen to $320,000. And running a business together began to drive a wedge between Annette and Elaine.

GARY: We socialized all the time. Sunday barbecues, going on vacations together, the two couples playing bridge and within a year, the two women never socialized again. So it ruined their relationship and they had a contentious relationship. The two husbands stayed best of friends, but the two women did not, and then there was a huge falling out in 1992.

WAILIN: Elaine left AR-EN, along with the company’s attorney and accountant, who were her daughters. The rupture left Annette scrambling to keep the business going. At that time, Gary was working in radio ad sales.

GARY: I said to my mom, “You know, you need a partner, you’re a cigarette smoker, you lie on the couch, you watch the Cubs, you’re not that healthy,” and my mom said, “I’m gonna go to go to New York for the stationery show. If I pick up 40 new customers, I’ll hire you.” She came back, said “I picked up 40 new customers.” She thought I would hate the job and I knew nothing—I knew nothing about this business. I quit my job and I came onboard and um for the first six months, it was “Don’t touch anything. I’ll do everything.” When I came onboard, my mom would do the inventory on little three by five Rolodex cards and she’d write everything down and we had one computer with a 3.5-inch floppy disk that she bought an accounting program because she lost her accountant and um it was pretty rinky dink. (Laughs) It was pretty rinky dink. So after six months, I said to my mom, “All right Mom, company’s going out of business.”

WAILIN: In Gary’s view, one of the company’s biggest mistakes was that it charged clients extra for designs. The other major problem was its outdated physical catalog.

GARY: I said, “We have to redo the catalog. Yours opens the wrong way, you’ve got matches on bar mitzvah pages, nothing makes sense.” I think it’s gonna cost about $50,000 to do it, we have to hire somebody, and I said, “I’ve got $25,000 to my name. I’ll kick in 25, you kick in 25 and we’ll give it a shot.” And we did that at the end of ‘93 and we rolled it out in ’94 and we went to New York and it was a game changer and the company’s never looked back.

WAILIN: Gary also had an eye on expanding AR-EN’s line of products beyond just napkins and place cards. But he knew this would require his stationery store customers to open another book. If you ever shopped for custom invitations in the pre-Internet age, you might remember flipping through huge binders of samples, mulling over thickness, texture, colors and fonts. The napkins and coasters and gift tags would be a whole separate book.

GARY: So most companies would uh sell invitations and then everything that we sell was just a sidebar, you know, one, two percent of sales. Whereas we took the position that we would expand that market and because we were asking somebody to now open up another book, instead of selling out of the back of the invitation book, which would be a lot easier, you want to sell them out of our book, we gave them better pricing, we gave them better discounts. It’s taken me 23 years to become the most expensive person who’s not only the most expensive person, but doesn’t give the best discount.

WAILIN: In the U.S., spending on weddings is the highest it’s ever been. The average cost of a wedding was over $32,000 in 2015, according to a survey by wedding website The Knot. And couples are spending more money on personal touches like signature cocktails and, yes, customized favors and accessories. This is, after all, the era of witty event hashtags and choosing the perfect Instagram filter for the shot of a napkin that says “Eat, drink and be married.” Some of these trends even befuddle Gary.

GARY: There is a thing called stir sticks, do I have one around here?

WAILIN: A stir stick is a little wooden paddle, about six inches long, that can be stamped on each side. Gary shows me one that has a pink heart on one side and a couple’s names on the other. About a decade ago, Martha Stewart Weddings asked AR-EN Party Printers to stamp some stir sticks that would appear in the magazine.

GARY: So my wife comes in and gives it to me and I’m like, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.” Now there is a joke around here, that when I think something is stupid, it’s a winner and they run with it, and when I say this looks like a great idea, they go okay, that means it’s a bad idea and we’ll never do it. So I had to go source these out, these are from trees in China, I’ve sold millions of these, and I think this is the dumbest thing. You can stir drinks, you can put it inside of a donut, you know, I don’t sell as many as I sell napkins, but we have sold millions of these over the years and I’m always like, stir sticks at a wedding? I don’t want to be invited to a wedding that has stir sticks.

WAILIN: But Gary’s customers have spoken, and they love stir sticks. And customer satisfaction is everything in Gary’s business. A single typo, a wrong color or a stack of napkins that are creased incorrectly can derail someone’s special occasion.

GARY, 52:26–52:31: I’ve ruined parties. We once did a party for Gianni Versace and they wanted uh black foil on these air-laid guest towels in the bathroom so we foil stamped ’em and you have to vigorously wash your hands and you get, the foil will come off, so people are washing their hands, wiping their face and getting foil all over their face at a Versace party. Needless to say, I had to refund the cost to my New York planner. Now we’ve figured out how to get the foil to stay on and you know, it was very embarrassing. We’re in the business of minimizing mistakes, that’s what we do all day long, try to minimize mistakes. People buy us and when they buy from AR-EN, they’re buying me and they’re buying my customer service department. You know, you don’t want anything to go wrong and there’s no time for anything to go wrong, so people trust us.

WAILIN: For most of AR-EN Party Printers’ existence, the company was a wholesale business. That changed in 2003, when Gary noticed that a West Coast stationery dealer had photographed the entire AR-EN catalog and put it on a website. That dealer was becoming one of his biggest customers.

GARY: I’m like, what’s all this about? These orders are coming off the Internet. The Internet? That’s like chat rooms and porn and who buys on the Internet? Okay, people are starting to buy online and not buying at brick and mortar, so if I don’t get some kind of footprint on the Internet, it’s gonna sound a death knell for my operation. Back then, you know, you go onto some website and you click on napkins and then there was a dropdown of all the napkin colors. You couldn’t see anything, you’d just—I want black, I want blue, I want green. And then there was a dropdown of the imprint colors and a dropdown of the type styles, and then two lines for you to type in what you wanted to say and you submitted it and crossed your fingers and hope that you got what you liked. So I’m like, why can’t we, when you pick a blue napkin, the blue napkin shows up? And when they start typing, that would type right on the blue napkin and then they pick their foil, I’m like, nobody does that. Some of the t-shirt companies are doing that, but no one’s doing it.

WAILIN: Gary wanted the AR-EN Party Printers website to do what we now take for granted: instant previews of a customized product. The project eventually grew into a separate website called foryourparty.com, where customers can order napkins and stir sticks and even invitations directly, without going through a stationery dealer. AR-EN also has two stores on Etsy.

GARY: We were the first people to climb Mount Everest. Everybody else has copied us, I mean, we compete against Harvard and Stanford MBAs, you know, Shutterfly, that’s a huge fricking company. We’ve rewritten the site four times in 12 years because you cannot live on your laurels on the Internet or you will be crushed.

WAILIN: Some things, on the other hand, have stayed constant in Gary’s life during his 23 years in the business.

GARY: We always have napkins, and in fact it’s an embarrassment when we run out of napkins at our house. They’re onesies, so if I have a stack, each one says something different. We actually tried to sell them. We were gonna call them Other People’s Parties Napkins. They never sold on the Internet.

WAILIN: Gary’s now thinking about retirement and whether he wants to sell the business. Exiting the company will mark the end of a journey that started with his mother and her best friend buying out her synagogue’s napkin supplier. He bought the business from his mother in 1995 and she died in 1998. She and her friend never repaired their relationship. But their husbands still get together for lunch. It turns out there are happy endings in the happiness business. And Gary wants a good ending for his tenure at AR-EN Party Printers.

GARY: You know, it’s gonna be my last sale so after that, I’m on the beach, you know, I’m getting up when the sun’s high in the sky, I’m gonna work on my back swing, I’m gonna move to California, I’m gonna get a tan. I’m gonna learn how to play video games, I’m gonna do all the things I don’t have time to do. You know, selling a business is not easy. You can really screw it up. So I’m learning, I’m basically over the next 12 months, I’m bringing on more people, I’m gonna give up virtually all my responsibility and my job is going to be to figure out how to maximize the value of this company and take care of my key employees.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. Thanks to Jack Segal for his help with this episode. I wanted to give you an update on a business that we featured on the show back in May, the Willowbrook Ballroom in Willow Springs, Illinois. The building burned down in a fire on Friday. The ballroom was safely evacuated, so there were no injuries, but the historic building is gone. Please keep the owners of the Willowbrook in your thoughts, and if you’d like to go back and listen to our episode on the ballroom, you can find it at thedistance.com or on your podcast app. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.

Home is Where the Hearse Is

Illustration by Nate Otto

Four generations of the Zarzycki family have lived behind or above their funeral home, starting with founder Agnes Zarzycki, the first woman funeral director of Polish descent in Chicago. Today, 101-year-old Zarzycki Manor Chapels is still run by women, who are upholding old traditions — like conducting funeral services in Polish — while bringing in new ideas to keep their business going for the next century.

This is the second profile in our October series about the business of dying. If you missed our last two stories about Frigid Fluid, a company that makes embalming fluid and cemetery equipment, go back and check out our main episode and the accompanying mini episode (where you learn the difference between embalming and taxidermy, among other fun things).


Transcript

CLAUDETTE ZARZYCKI: It was our home and we knew of no other home but living above the funeral home. If we were old enough, we could sit down in the office and answer the telephone, but definitely after the folks would leave from the visitation, we were told to come down and we all had our jobs. One did windows, one did vacuuming, one did bathrooms, and it made it easy because we were done in like a half hour and then we’d just have to go upstairs and you know, go to bed.

WAILIN WONG: Claudette Zarzycki and her two sisters grew up above Zarzycki Manor Chapels, a funeral home that their great grandmother, Agnes Zarzycki, opened in Chicago in 1915. Claudette runs the business today with her sister, Andrea, and her mother, Charmaine. For them, living in such close proximity was the norm. Here’s Charmaine.

CHARMAINE ZARZYCKI: Family-owned businesses always had a residence upstairs and as time went on, some of these people may have moved out and they would have had maybe a student living upstairs or a worker. I find it very convenient because years ago, when I started and that was um, in the early 70s, wakes were going until 10 o’clock. So I mean, you figure, closing up at 10, having to do some clean-up and then traipse to wherever you live in the snow and the rain, you know, it’s a lot more convenient to walk up 16 stairs. I still live above the funeral home and I like it.

CLAUDETTE: Sometimes it wasn’t convenient as kids growing up in the funeral home because people would ring our bell at all sorts of hours at the night, but uh now it’s nice. People use the telephone a lot more.

WAILIN: For the Zarzyckis, the funeral home business has always been about the delicate blend of old traditions and new ideas. Agnes Zarzycki, the founder, was a trailblazer. She was the first woman funeral director of Polish descent in Chicago, and today Zarzycki Manor Chapels is one of a handful of funeral homes in the area that can still conduct a full Polish-language service. Claudette has embraced those cultural roots while also figuring out how to reach customers in an age where the notion of a neighborhood funeral home seems as quaint as living above one.

CLAUDETTE: Sometimes when I meet with families today, they says, you know, “I, I fed you when we came here” because my mom, you know, didn’t have a babysitter because we lived right upstairs. And this woman said, “Yes, you know, your mom brought you down and you were quiet. But then you were starting to fuss and I just held you in my arms and I fed you and everything.” And it was really like—and they were really comforted to see that I was that person and I’m all grown up and now I’m taking care of them.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. This month, we’re doing stories about the business of dying, and today’s episode is about Zarzycki Manor Chapels, a company that’s learned over four generations how to market a service that almost everyone needs but doesn’t want to think about. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the saner way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.

WAILIN: On a weekday evening, a group of mourners have gathered for a wake at Zarzycki Manor Chapels’ Chicago location. They recite a litany in Polish and sing in the distinctive style of the highlands of southern Poland. Claudette knows all the traditional prayers and songs and can lead them herself if there isn’t anyone else who can do it. But she didn’t grow up speaking Polish.

CLAUDETTE: My parents didn’t speak it to us, my grandparents didn’t speak it to us. I grew up in the 70s. My father learned it in school and in church, but they did not speak it at home either. Their attitude at that time was: You are in America. The language here is English. You speak English. Back when my dad was starting, my grandfather says you need to learn all this and he would tell his father, he says, “Oh Pa, by the time I’m your age, there’s not gonna be anybody Polish here, everybody’s gonna be speaking English.” And you know what, it was not like that because in the 80s, the new immigration of Polish people came over. It was a huge influx and our Polish business really started to increase.

WAILIN: Agnes Zarzycki, the founder of Zarzycki Manor Chapels, came to the US from Poland at the age of three. She and her husband, a more recent Polish immigrant, initially operated a horse and carriage livery service that transported people to weddings and funeral homes. Agnes then went to mortuary school and opened the funeral home in 1915. The family lived in the back of the house and the front living room was used for visitations. Agnes had been just one of three women in her graduating class at mortuary school, and at that time, the prevailing belief was that women simply could not handle the physical labor of being a funeral director.

CHARMAINE: My father-in-law says that they always had the inspectors from downtown watching her to see, make sure that she was directing and not having a male do it.

WAILIN: Claudette’s father, Richard, graduated from mortuary school in 1955 and was class president. He joined his parents at the family business and they built their current Chicago location in 1962. Decades later, Richard wanted to expand and oversee a building project of his own. He found a property in the southwestern suburb of Willow Springs that was formerly a store called Hall of a Thousand Bargains, and before that, a picnic grove and dance hall with a coincidental connection to the family’s Polish roots.

CLAUDETTE: Prior to it being Hall of a Thousand Bargains, it was actually Tarnow’s Grove, or Tarnów, as you would say in Polish, and Tarnów is the county that the Zarzycki family comes from, so it’s kind of neat that there is that relationship.

WAILIN: The second location was an important turning point for the business. Not only was it an expansion, but it was also a sign of how the Zarzyckis’ clients and potential clients were starting to disperse geographically, with the children of Polish immigrants leaving the city for the suburbs. But Richard would never see it built.

CHARMAINE: It was something that my husband wanted to, uh, go on with and sadly we had all the plans ready and he passed away, so um, it was a matter of us sitting down together and to see if this is something that Claudette and Andrea wanted to do for the rest of their life because this location would have been enough for me.

WAILIN: Richard Zarzycki died in 2006. In 2007, Charmaine, Claudette and Andrea broke ground on the new location, which opened a year later. By then, Claudette had already been a full-time funeral director for nine years. She had gone to mortuary school right out of college at her parents’ request, then worked in marketing for a greeting card company and Hyatt Hotels before returning to the family business. By the time Richard passed away, Claudette had been taking on more responsibilities as a funeral director. But nothing could fully prepare her for the death of her father.

CLAUDETTE: The day he passed away, it was overnight on a Friday night going into a Saturday, and we had a funeral and it was too late to try and get somebody to do and everything. None of us slept and I had to direct it, but I would always remember my dad was saying—he was a very practical person and he says, “Life goes on.” And that was it. So when you own the business, you just can’t slouch on the couch and close the door and say, “My dad died, I, I’m not doing anything.” Nope, I had to, we all had to, to work. Probably that was my most difficult service that I ever had to do, but I just kept hearing him say that in his voice: “Life goes on, got to do the work, got to do it.”

We knew what my dad wanted. Everything was put into place and we knew that it was approaching but it’s still—it was hard. I think I had a very difficult time because I worked with my dad and I was proud to work with him. He would come on all the funerals with me and it was nice because he would always step back. He would let me take the rein and stuff and I always felt like wow, you know, thanks Dad, for doing that.

We had a friend of ours who’s a director. He directed the funeral because obviously we weren’t directing, but I said the final prayers at the casket and then at the cemetery there’s a special song that my dad taught me, part of the Polish service and it’s called—in English it’s called the Angelis, but in Polish it’s called the Aniol Pański and it’s the story of when Angel Gabriel came down to Mary to tell her that she would be carrying the son of God. There’s three verses of it and in between it’s the Hail Mary song, and he says, he goes, “This you must sing at every funeral, Polish funeral,” so I sang that at the cemetery at Resurrection Mausoleum.

WAILIN: The job of a funeral director requires organization, salesmanship and the ability to handle fast-moving logistics, all while dealing with grief-stricken clients who are spending potentially thousands of dollars during a vulnerable time. David Nixon, a funeral home consultant based in Springfield, Illinois, says over 80 percent of funeral homes are family-owned.

DAVID NIXON: Frankly, for many, especially smaller funeral homes, it’s a 24/7, 365 job. If someone passes away in the middle of the night, they have to be able to take care of that, to go to the hospital or go to the home and pick up the loved one and take them to the funeral home and prepare them. Many of the younger generation saw the sacrifices. And there were sacrifices: family get-togethers that they were called away on, holidays that they missed and they don’t want to be in that role. It takes that special kind of person to deal with death on a daily basis and to deal with all the nuances involved and so it’s almost like a religious calling for some.

WAILIN: These days, as people move further away from the places where they grew up, finding new clients is a challenge. Claudette’s hosted events at the suburban location to draw in people from the community, like a yearly holiday remembrance service that’s open to the public. But most of the funeral home’s marketing has moved online.

CHARMAINE: When you think back years ago, where you were in a neighborhood, where people could walk to your place and everybody would go to their neighborhood funeral home, that was your marketing. You joined the clubs, you joined the various organizations and you met your people there.

CLAUDETTE: It’s challenging now because first of all, people don’t go to church that much anymore. So you’re advertising in church bulletins—it’s going to the same people all the time, so you’re not really gaining new customers. The Elks, the Moose Clubs and everything, they’re all suffering. So we’ve had to kind of reinvent the way we meet people. Social marketing is really, you know, where it is, so making sure that you’re present on all of them: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google.

CHARMAINE: That was hard for me when my daughter told me, “That’s what we’re gonna do.” I says, “Nobody’s gonna Google us and come to us through a Google, you know.” But believe it or not, some do. I can count like on two hands already how many funeral arrangements we’ve made via the computer and I have not met the family yet.

WAILIN: David Nixon, the funeral home consultant, said the industry is expecting a huge increase in the number of deaths between now and 2050 as the Baby Boomer generation passes away. Given current trends, most of them will probably be cremated, which only generates about half the revenue of a burial. But there’s still going to be a big need for funeral services in the coming decades, which means businesses like Zarzycki Manor Chapels have to be prepared — whether it means encouraging people to pre-plan their funerals, or just being visible so customers can find them.

CLAUDETTE: We don’t go out there and market people and we don’t force people to do it and everything. People got to do it on their own time. It takes a lot of courage for somebody to call me on the telephone or to walk in the door and they say, “I want to plan my funeral.” It takes a lot of courage for somebody to do that because it’s like the last, the last thing that you can do. But as I tell a lot of people, you prepare for to get married. You prepare to have a baby. You prepare for those children to go to college. And what’s the big one that you hear all the time on the news and on the radio and on the TV commercials? Is prepare for retirement. I can’t tell you how many people that I have serviced that have never made it to retirement. They have never collected their first Social Security check or they never saw their daughter walk down the aisle or their first grandchild, and it’s, it’s inevitable.

WAILIN: Four generations of Zarzyckis have answered the doorbell or phone in the middle of the night, comforted grieving clients and led roomfuls of mourners in the Hail Mary in Polish. Charmaine was a schoolteacher who spent a year in Japan before becoming a funeral director, and Claudette left a corporate marketing job where she visited brand new hotels around the US and the Caribbean. But neither of those professions had the same pull as funeral directing.

CHARMAINE: I love this job. I love it and um I don’t think I would ever go back to teaching after all the years I spent here.

CLAUDETTE: I don’t look back. I love dealing with the people, meeting new people, I love helping people in a very sad situation and guiding them through it. It’s fun. It’s not something that probably anybody would like to say, that you think “Wow, being a funeral director is fun,” but it is. It’s a pleasure to be able to help somebody in such a very sad time in their life and be able to somehow get them through the next week or the next couple of weeks to help them to move on.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. You can sign up for our newsletter and find old episodes at thedistance.com, and you can also follow us on Twitter at @distancemag, that’s @distancemag. And if you could take a second to rate and review us on iTunes, that would be amazing. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.

Job Preservation

Illustration by Nate Otto

The modern practice of embalming started in the U.S. during the Civil War, and Brian Yeazel’s family got into the embalming fluid business a few decades later. Frigid Fluid, the company his great great uncle founded in 1892, is also the inventor of the automatic casket lowering device. Brian, who took over in 2013, has discovered that even a business based on life’s only certainty — death — isn’t nearly as steady and predictable as it may seem to outsiders.

This is the first of a short series we’re doing this month about the business of dying. Make sure you’re subscribed to The Distance via iTunes, Google Play Music or your favorite podcatcher so you get our new episodes as soon as they’re released! (Next week, we’ll have a mini episode about, among other things, the difference between embalming and taxidermy.)

Transcript

WAILIN WONG: If you took a casual glance at Brian Yeazel’s company website, you might think he was selling artisanal cold pressed juices. The website has a clean, modern layout, showing pictures of white-capped bottles filled with liquid in different shades of orange and pink.

BRIAN YEAZEL: Coloration is really important, I think, the brightness of the bottles, the presentation of the bottles is important. We are one of the smaller players. We’re more of a regional, but we’re trying to break in to be a national and compete with some of the larger companies. Coming from that angle, we are able to kinda be a little more daring, maybe take a little—some more risks. We were one of the first ones to really start marketing our embalming fluids, coming up with some like trademarked statements and uh some real branding of the fluid. Not a lot of our competitors were doing that.

WAILIN: Brian Yeazel doesn’t make artisanal cold pressed juices. His company, Frigid Fluid, has been manufacturing embalming fluid since his great great uncle founded the business in 1892. In 1916, Frigid Fluid invented the automatic casket lowering device, which was used in the burials of presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

BRIAN: There were other lowering devices. They were like crank driven. And we were the ones who invented the first automatic casket lowering device and that’s gravity-based. That’s where you’re able to put the casket or coffin onto straps or webbing, how it’s done today, release a brake and have it go down automatically um so we’re the ones that invented, invented that, and that’s the one that really caught on.

WAILIN: You know that cliche about how nothing’s certain except for death and taxes? As the current presidential election has made apparent, even taxes are no certainty. So we’re left with death. But in what’s known as the deathcare industry, you still can’t take anything for granted. Brian learned this firsthand when he joined the family business in the middle of the recession.

BRIAN: A lot of people are like, “Oh, it’s a business that, you know, is consistent all the time, right? It never gets affected by um the swings in the economy.” But no, that’s not true.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. We’re kicking off a month of stories about the business of dying. First up: The story of Frigid Fluid, and how Brian Yeazel is injecting fresh thinking into a 124-year-old family run business and giving it new life after the economic downturn. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the saner way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.

BRIAN: Adelbert R. Krum was the original founder. He’s the one who started Frigid Fluid Company. He started in 1892, it was called Chicago Chemical Company. He ended up riding a horse and buggy in Chicago, and he’s handing off his wares and his elixirs, essentially dropping off in the Chicago area, and that’s how the story goes.

WAILIN: About a decade into the company’s existence, it was making eight different kinds of embalming fluid. The most popular one was a general purpose arterial fluid called Frigid, and the Krums renamed the business after their top seller. A version of the Frigid is still sold today under the name 36 plus and it remains the company’s best seller. Frigid Fluid currently makes 25 kinds of fluid, which embalmers use to preserve a body and restore its natural skin tone.

BRIAN: Most people don’t see a deceased body on its own, especially after a couple days. It’s fascinating how they take a body that is decrepit sunken in and really doesn’t have many lifelike features at all and through the course of a few hours and our product gets pumped in and out of the body and it really does make a noticeable change. All of a sudden, the body is full, it’s lifelike and it makes a big difference, it really does.

WAILIN: Brian has found that it’s difficult to get embalmers to switch fluid brands, so he’s had to think creatively to reach new customers. Frigid donates products to local mortuary schools, hoping to breed familiarity with students that might later become professional embalmers. And Brian’s put effort into marketing and branding, treating his embalming fluids more like a mainstream consumer product. Part of this is making the packaging more appealing — hence the attractive bottles and bright colors.

BRIAN: That’s something that I think being a younger person in the industry, we’ve kind of pioneered. But yeah, we do try to spruce it up because ultimately it is a consumer product. The embalmer has to make a decision. We decided to bring a lot of color into it. Coloration is very important to the embalmer.

WAILIN: Frigid’s manufacturing facility is in the Chicago suburb of Northlake, just a few miles south of O’Hare International Airport. When Brian was 13 and growing up in Michigan, he came to Chicago for a visit and his uncle, who was running the company at the time, invited him to spend a week at the factory.

BRIAN: I was actually bottling fluid in the back, in the heat of like the middle of July. I remember like it was yesterday because I was sweating. It was probably around 89 degrees, one of those hot, humid Chicago summers and I was working my first week but I was so excited to have the opportunity to be in the shop and be part of the company here and afterwards I think actually I made like 200 bucks or something. I think I bought my first Walkman, so (laughs).

WAILIN: During subsequent summers, Brian returned to the family business and got hands-on experience with every part of the company.

BRIAN: I worked on the machinery, I assembled the lowering devices. I did some of the metal polishing, the finishing, I essentially did everything except for the sewing work, although I did manufacture some straps and I worked on the stamping machine. I was able to learn a lot at a young age and I was just like a sponge back then.

WAILIN: Frigid may have started as an embalming fluid company, but about 70 percent of its business is actually in cemetery equipment like the casket lowering devices and a mobile cart called the Streamliner, which Brian’s grandfather patented in 1959. There are three models of the lowering device, each rated for a different amount of weight.

BRIAN: There are a little over a hundred pieces that go into making one, and we do source from outside places some parts, but I think a big, big thing that we’re proud of, like I said, is the fact that every single piece is touched here. All of the lowering devices are still hand assembled. My guys have, I think, a combined 50 years experience, so it’s something that we’re really proud of.

WAILIN: Frigid sells the lowering devices to cemeteries in the U.S. and over 16 countries. A large cemetery that handles multiple burials in a day may have eight to 10 lowering devices, and the equipment is built to last at least a decade of rough use.

BRIAN: They’re thrown in a truck, thrown on the ground and they needed to be really durable. The lowering device will last anywhere from 15 to 25 years if you take care of it, and we’ve had some that even last longer, especially in some of the smaller like municipal cemeteries that maybe do, let’s say, five burials a month or something like that.

WAILIN: Do you sometimes feel like the Maytag man, if like one of these lasts over a decade, right? Then it seems like it creates kind of an interesting business challenge. You can’t just wait like 25 years for the phone to ring again, right?

BRIAN: Yes, exactly. It’s definitely part of it and I think previous to my management they kind of just sat back and let the orders come in, and it’s very easy to do that. It’s kind of how the business works. There’s a cycle of about, my uncle told me, it’s about every six to eight years there’s kind of an uptick of equipment purchases but outside of that we’re right around the same amount every year.

WAILIN: Frigid has found ways to grow its business despite a long replacement cycle for its equipment and a rise in cremations in the U.S. The company sells parts and repair services; it makes a lowering device for urns; and it’s landed new customers overseas, exporting to predominantly Catholic countries where burial is still preferred over cremation. Another option that’s always lurking in the background, although Brian isn’t very enthusiastic about it, is outsourcing.

BRIAN: It sounds nice in the fact that oh, the labor’s so much cheaper, but I think there are a lot of tradeoffs, especially for a product like ours. I like having control. I like knowing when a product’s made, uh I can see where it’s mixed, I can see how it’s assembled, and like I said, the device has about a hundred parts that go into it. There have been Chinese knockoffs of our product. In a way that’s kind of a rite of passage for any good product, right? (laughs) So there has been a Chinese knockoff. It’s nowhere close to as good. Yeah, it’s tempting, you know, that’s what every manufacturer I’m sure deals with but I think for us, the tradeoff would be way too big to be able to move it overseas.

WAILIN: The outsourcing question is just one of the many thorny issues Brian is tackling as the fifth generation of his family to run Frigid. He came back to the business at one of the worst times imaginable, in the middle of the recession. In 2008, Brian was two years out of college and had been laid off from the law firm where he’d been working. He started part time at Frigid from his home in Michigan, putting his college accounting degree to use.

BRIAN: I was just doing their internal financials. I did financial analysis, like quarterly, and would help them out with other, I did like coding for the website and just like random things that I could do from home.

WAILIN: By 2009, Brian was full time and Frigid was feeling the effects of the recession.

BRIAN: We had a good year in ’08 and then all of a sudden, just the brakes put on and at the end of ’09, I think we had lost about 25 percent of our sales.

WAILIN: You might remember that casket lowering devices already have a long replacement cycle. The downturn in the economy prompted Brian’s customers to put off buying new equipment. There was something else going on too that hurt much of the deathcare industry. When the recession cut into people’s incomes and retirement savings, they stopped making pre-need purchases — that’s when you arrange and pay for burial services in advance. That affected cemeteries, which are Brian’s customers.

BRIAN: They made a lot of their operating income based on interest that they would make off of their investments from their pre-need purchases. They’re getting interest on that, and when that all went away, all of a sudden a lot of the free flow cash that normally props up the industry um was taken away, so the fluid was still consistent because, you know, people were still embalming bodies, but the capital purchase side, like a lot of hearse manufacturers, tent suppliers, any of the equipment suppliers really got hit hard in the industry so yeah, we had a couple really bad years.

WAILIN: By that time, Brian’s wife, Elizabeth Yeazel, was working in the Frigid office. She remembers how difficult it was.

ELIZABETH: There were definitely days when—especially in the summer when we are traditionally, we’re slower in the summer anyway, and then with the recession, there were times when we’d just look at the phone and wait for it to ring, you know.

BRIAN: I came in and I was the one kinda waving my hands saying, “Here are the financials, we need to make some changes and we need to do it fast.” And it was very obvious in 2009, 2010 that these things needed to be done and they needed to be done quickly.

WAILIN: Brian was in a tough spot. He was new to the business, just a few years out of college, and calling for hard decisions to be made around letting go of employees, including family members. He convinced his uncle to hire a turnaround consultant, and he found other ways to cut back.

BRIAN: When I came in full-time, I started doing purchasing, and on top of me having a history of machinery in the back and building things and kinda understanding how the business works, when I was doing purchasing, I ended up figuring out all the materials. That was a big part of the whole turnaround and me saying, “Hey, you know, why does this piece of aluminum cost this much? The market says it should costs this much. What supplier are we buying from?” Oh, we’ve been buying from the same person for 15 years? Okay yeah, let’s try to find somebody new. I ultimately played a big role in saying, “Hey, if we don’t do this like, the company’s not gonna last much longer,” so I think I lost about 10 years of my life (laughs) with the stress. Oh my God, it was—it was bad.

WAILIN: By 2012, the company had stabilized and Brian had come out of the experience with a crash course in management. He had started attending industry trade shows again and was serving as the de facto face of the company. And he knew his uncle was ready to retire. So he approached his uncle about taking over. He became president and CEO in 2013, and one of his cousins was named vice president.

BRIAN: I think it’s something I’ll never forget is a meeting that I had in my office with my cousin and my uncle. I normally don’t assert myself that much. I mean, I do because I manage the place, but it was a situation where I specifically recall saying I knew for a fact that I needed to step up and say that I wanted to be the one who did it because I knew with passion that I was the best person for the job. I knew what it meant to have people’s livelihoods under my control. It’s daunting, I mean it really was (laughs), for somebody my age, for what I was doing uh but I was fully confident that I was the one who was best for the job. And there was kind of this out of body moment where you know, it kind of came out of me. Ultimately it worked out and now we’re here, you know, three, four years later, and we’ve had multiple years, uh year over year growth, company’s doing really great now, I’m really proud of the people that we have here.

WAILIN: People like Santiago Alvarado, who’s the plant foreman and has been at Frigid Fluid for 43 years.

SANTIAGO: My name is Santiago Alvarado. I am from Mexico. I arrive here in November 17, 1973. I arrive six o’clock in the morning and I start working at Frigid like at 8 o’clock, same day. I like working this place, you know, I never move to another place. And uh this good because it like family, family business, they honest and the employees that they have family working here. You know, I working for Brian, father, grandfather, grandpa, father, you know? Because I had long time here and uh I think I am good, they not throw me out (laughs).

WAILIN: Death might be a constant, but Brian’s corner of the deathcare industry is always changing. His equipment customers are looking for the casket lowering devices to get lighter, stronger and safer all the time. Brian worked with one of Frigid’s engineers to come up with a device that’s 25 percent lighter than its previous version. It’s called the Imperial two point oh, a name that’s meant to evoke the tech world. It’s part of Brian’s broader efforts to put some fresh branding on an old family business in a conservative industry.

BRIAN: Being a little younger and having the Internet and technology side and that education, I think that’s helped us have an edge. Um, I don’t think it’s gonna last forever because people are gonna catch up, but right now we’ve been able to bring on a lot of new customers, and just the drive that came from my experience in the recession. I look at it as a big advantage for me, having gone through that. I’m much more fiscally responsible because of it. It taught me a lot really quickly as far what to do and what not to do in the business and what to really value and how to continue pushing and not, you know, sit back on your laurels of what people have done before us.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. Thanks to Joel Kamstra for his help with this episode. This was the first of a short series we’re doing about the business of dying, so be sure to subscribe so you get new episodes when we release them. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.

The house that Russell built

Illustration by Nate Otto

The housing crisis wiped out half of the homebuilders in the U.S. This is the story of one that survived, but emerged from the recession to find both itself and its industry drastically changed. Ron Russell Sr. founded R. Russell Builders in 1956, and the company found success in converting large tracts of raw farmland in Chicago’s western suburbs into tidy subdivisions. His son, Ron Russell Jr., was at the helm of the family business when the crisis hit, and he’s charting a course for R. Russell Builders in a housing market that’s still chastened from the recession.

Transcript

WAILIN: In the fall of 2008, this was what was happening in the U.S. economy. Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy. The government had authorized the $700 billion bailout of the financial industry. The stock market was in free fall. And the bottom had fallen out of the housing market, with property values collapsing and millions of homes falling into foreclosure.

RON RUSSELL, JR.: The most wrenching part of all of that is to see, you know, a family business that we’ve grown from very modest beginnings to something that was very strong and very healthy. At our peak in probably ‘05, we were doing over $18 million worth of revenue and to see that just go to zero is, is very difficult.

WAILIN: That’s Ron Russell Jr., the president and co-owner of R. Russell Builders, a company his father started in 1956. They’ve built nearly 1,200 homes in the last 60 years, mostly in the western suburbs of Chicago. Their tidy subdivisions embodied a certain version of the American dream — not just for homeowners, but for self-made entrepreneurs like the Russells.

RON JR.: I knew I wanted to build houses. It’s fun (laughs) and it’s enjoyable and it’s very rewarding, um, not just, you know, financially but just the satisfaction of building someone’s home that they’ll live in every day and enjoy and entrust their family to and will provide for a healthy atmosphere for them.

WAILIN: Those dreams turned to ash during the housing crisis. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of homebuilders in the U.S. fell by half. R. Russell Builders made it, but it carries wounds that are still raw, seven years after the official end of the recession. And it’s not the same company it was in 2006. This is a story of true business survival and what it means to find your way out of the dark. That’s coming up on The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 helps small businesses owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents, and files all share one home. Check out Basecamp for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.

RON RUSSELL, SR.: I built, uh, my first house when I was between my first and second year of high school.

WAILIN: That’s Ron Russell Sr., who is 82 years old. His father built houses on the side and Ron would go with him, pounding nails and cutting wood for a dollar an hour. That first house he built on his own had two bedrooms and a one-car garage. His father gave him the lot.

RON SR.: After I got it built, I can’t believe but there was a couple that they didn’t want to buy it. They wanted to rent it and I got $500 a month rent for that, and that was uh, 1950 is when I built my first house.

WAILIN: After college, Ron Sr. taught high school wood shop for a few years, but left that career to build houses full time. He and his wife had five kids. Ron Junior was the fourth and the only son. All the children were expected to work at R. Russell Builders, although Ron Jr. was the one who really took to the business.

RON JR.: We have photos of me in concrete boots when I was six or seven. But uh (laughs) you know, the real expectancy was probably, you know, starting at 10 and definitely by the time I was 12. In fact, I can remember on my birthday—he said on my 12th birthday, “Well from now on, it’s no bed of roses.” (laughs) And uh so I didn’t know what that meant. There’s a little bit of nervousness (laughs) in my psyche I think after that, but I soon found out that, you know, I was expected to be, you know, working if I didn’t have a very good and valid reason for school or sports.

WAILIN: Ron Jr. built his first house in 1981, between his freshman and sophomore year of college. He graduated in 1984 and became business partners with his father a couple years after that. It was a good time to join R. Russell Builders. Sales were on the upswing and there was raw farmland available for new developments.

RON JR.: We immediately doubled in volume at that point and then picked up steam from there for sure. When I joined forces with my father and since then, we’ve really pursued a model of purchasing the raw land, developing the raw land and building every house in that subdivision ourselves. That’s worked very well because any money that’s available to be made from the land development we secured that as well.

RON SR.: I learned, early in the building business, that if I could buy land and make a subdivision, I could make money on the land as well as the house that we put on it, and that was a wonderful way that the Lord let us work for many years and made an awful lot of money.

WAILIN: The Russells found large tracts of open land in the western suburbs and built the kind of immaculate, uniform subdivisions that were in demand. When I drove out to the R. Russell Builders office, I passed alternating patches of cornfields and suburban strip malls until I got to a development called Campton Trails. It’s a 100-acre subdivision with 44 homes. Ron Jr. uses the basement of his Campton Trails model home as his office. The house has four bedrooms, four and a half baths, American cherry hardwood floors, intricate wood trim and three fireplaces, including a see-through one in the master bedroom.

RON JR.: We built homes across all different price points, um, multimillion dollar homes all the way down into, you know, the high 200s, um, but this home, originally the price tag was like 895. Uh, we have a price on it now of 750. But when you come in the door, what’s interesting is that post that you see, the wood in the inlay of that post is, uh, uh West African babinga. It comes from Kenya and um if you’ve heard of the artist Ansel Adams? The great black and white photographer, um, that wood actually came from a very famous photograph of his of three babinga trees in Kenya that had to be removed for a highway that the government was building, so that’s kind of neat and the rest is birdseye maple.

WAILIN: The model home is large and luxurious, and during the early 2000s, it seemed like there would be no end to the housing boom. R. Russell Builders was building almost a house a week and selling 35 to 40 houses in a year. Ron Sr. retired, more or less, in 2004. Around that time, the company stopped borrowing money, a decision that would provide a shred of a silver lining in the years to come.

RON SR.: One thing that we have done is only used our own money. And so when things get bad, and the houses aren’t selling, we don’t have to pay banks, uh, for the use of money and my son has done a wonderful job but hasn’t been able to sell a house for about four years.

RON JR.: We’re very conservative, maybe too conservative a company. We don’t use third-party financing any longer. That does limit our expandability or the business model that you might learn in business school to leverage to the hilt and go for the brass ring and, grow, grow, grow, um, but being a closely held private corporation, that’s not been our goal. Profitability is our goal with obviously an excellent product that, um, we love seeing families buy and live in, has been our goal.

WAILIN: But in 2006, Ron Jr. found himself with a lot of land and zero people wanting to buy a home.

RON JR.: Unfortunately in 2006, we had loaded up on quite a bit of land. In fact, we have nearly all the properties we still owned at that time, holding out hope that the day would change.

WAILIN: Ron Jr. is really hard on himself about what he could have done differently during the early years of the financial crisis. He blames himself for not trying to unload his inventory sooner, but he also knows that that kind of fire sale might have spelled disaster for the company.

RON JR.: I have such an aversion to selling something at a loss that I’m very bad at selling at a loss. I don’t have practice in that, and yet that’s where I find myself, if I wanted to sell any of the remaining homes that we do have or properties we do have, it would be at a loss and I haven’t quite learned how to do that well.

WAILIN: As the crisis deepened, Ron Jr. had to make tough decisions about personnel. Working with people is his favorite part of the business, whether it’s subcontractors, suppliers, customers or employees. This made the cutbacks especially tough. Today, he has just two workers. One is a bookkeeper and the other joined R. Russell Builders as a 16-year-old laborer and has now been with the company for 28 years.

RON JR.: We had at least three or four other people that had been with us for decades and for all of us to come together to the realization that you know, this isn’t working anymore, the numbers don’t uh work or add up, and having to help them find new employment and transition them into something that would provide for their families, that hurt, and that was difficult and it wasn’t done without tears.

WAILIN: R. Russell Builders tried building homes at lower price points, but found that they were constantly undercut by older homes being sold by Baby Boomers who had bought them in the 70s or 80s. Meanwhile, the company still owed taxes on its properties. It helped that R. Russell Builders was debt-free, but Ron Jr. needed to make money and his detached single family homes weren’t selling. He started looking at distressed properties. He bought some unfinished condos out of foreclosure, completed the interiors and sold those. He bought other single-family homes to rehab and resell, and dabbled in rentals too.

RON JR.: We’ve morphed into, for a time, a remodeling and kitchen and bath and basement remodels and uh porches and decks, you know, whatever it took to pay the, you know, the property tax bills that just keep on coming, they’re stubborn things. We’ve had to do what we’ve needed to. This last year has been very good and profitable, but it came because we bought something at someone else’s demise, you know, something out of foreclosure, and that’s what I foresee to be, um, the future for us, is we’ll have to pursue those distressed properties. To find those and build off of those is the only way I see to be profitable in this market, even still.

WAILIN: It’s not the future that the Russells envisioned for their family business. But the housing market isn’t the same as it was nine years ago, and neither is R. Russell Builders. Prices in the region have been slower to recover than Ron Jr; hoped they would be, and Illinois’ population is declining. Young people seem more cautious now and prefer to rent or buy smaller homes. Ron Jr. knows he has to adapt to this new reality, one where he might have to unload the properties he’s been sitting on at a loss and look into buying more distressed assets, or move away from the stately single-family homes that have defined the company since its founding.

RON JR.: Baby Boomers still are a large population boon and all the homes that they’ve owned, I’m one of them, are large and more quality featured than the type of homes that I see in demand in today’s market, so I think it’s different, as it should be and we should expect it to be and, uh, we need to morph and change to meet that market if, um, we’re to continue, yeah. It used to be you could purchase farmland at a reasonable rate, develop it, build the homes on it and be profitable, um, on the end. The cost of farmland has gone up since, the cost of building materials has gone up since, the cost of labor has gone up since, but the price of, the final price of the product has come down so there’s no incentive to do it the way we’ve done it for years and years, so we’re having to pick through and find the opportunities where they may lie. In fact, we do have a 12-home duplex development that all the final engineering papers are on my desk. So that’s what our next project likely will be.

WAILIN: The housing crisis and its aftermath have been a period of self-reflection for the Russells, especially Ron Jr. He knows it’s no small feat that R. Russell Builders is still standing after the recession wiped out half of the country’s homebuilding industry. The recession stripped everything bare and took the business back to basics. There’s been a kind of bittersweetness in that too. Not too far from the model home where Ron Jr. has his basement office, there’s a blue house that he remembers framing many years ago, just a one-off suburban home that’s not part of any subdivision. You can almost see it from the window. These days, he’s back to working with his hands again.

RON JR.: We have survived, and during the past 8, 9 years, ever since the burst of the housing bubble, we’ve been open and we’ve serviced our customers, our previous homeowners, stood behind our warranties, you know, and assisted those people. The best days I ever had is when I’m actually working with the tools. That’s almost therapeutic as compared to working at the office and pushing the enormous amount of paper and administrative necessities that go on in constructing a home. That’s definitely rewarding and because of the pullback and because of needing to economize, I get to use the tools a lot more often (laughs) so that is pleasurable.

WAILIN: The very fact of R. Russell Builders’ survival is a selling point for new customers. Ron Jr. keeps a running list at his desk of all the homes in the company’s 60-year history. It’s nearing 1,200 and he’s continuing to will that number forward.

RON JR.: It does give people confidence that this isn’t our first rodeo, the building of their home, that their home is built with some experience by people who not only have done it before but are familiar in how each trade is supposed to be done, proper methods and techniques and that corners aren’t being cut because we also live in and among our developments and our customers. They’re our neighbors. So we build our homes as though we’re going to put our family in them or knowing that they’re going to be our neighbors, so if you want to sleep well at night, you do a good job.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. Big thanks to Bunny Mirrilees for her help with this story. If you like The Distance, you can show your support by subscribing on iTunes, Google Play Music or wherever you get your podcasts. Rating and reviewing us on iTunes also goes a long way towards getting us noticed so more people can discover the show. And you can always send suggestions for businesses to feature by emailing us at tips@thedistance.com or tweeting us @distancemag, that’s @distancemag. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try the brand new Basecamp 3 for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.

Grateful Heads

Illustration by Nate Otto

LaMichael Langford grew up watching his uncle run a barber shop and would sneak in his friends to cut their hair. LaMichael eventually took over the business that his uncle opened in 1964, and Langford’s Barber Shop has been a constant in an Atlanta neighborhood that’s seen significant demographic shifts over the decades. Throughout all the changes, Langford’s has been there — both for its customers and for its longtime employees.

We accept people that come in this door as employees as family from day one. You are family. If I eat, you eat, okay? If I cut a hundred dollar worth of hair and you haven’t cut none today, the next one that come in the door is yours..

This episode is special because it was reported by Esther Lee, a writer in Atlanta who recently joined Basecamp as a member of the support team. We’re grateful she was able to produce this story for us. Take a listen!

Transcript

WAILIN: LaMichael Langford has been cutting hair since he was a teenager under the care of his uncle, Willie David Langford Sr., who raised him like a son. Willie opened Langford’s Barber Shop in Atlanta in 1964.

LAMICHAEL: He brought me in as a young kid, 12 years old, shining shoes. And I took up the compassion of wanting to cut hair watching him and at the age of 14, I began to cut hair when he wasn’t at the shop. A lot of friends in the neighborhood, I’d sneak them in the shop and use his clippers and cut their hair until one day, he caught me and asked me, is that what I want to do. I told him, “I love it,” so at the age of 15, he signed me up for barber college. I went to Murphy High School during the day; Brown’s Barber College in the evenings and on Saturdays.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how LaMichael Langford carries on a family-owned barber shop that has remained a landmark in a changing neighborhood for over 50 years. This story is very special because it was reported by Esther Lee, a member of the Basecamp support team who’s a writer in Atlanta. She’s the one who did all the interviews. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 helps small businesses owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents, and files all share one home. And now your first Basecamp project is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

LAMICHAEL: As far back as I can remember, seven, eight years old, Kirkwood was an all-white community; Edgewood was all black community.

WAILIN: Langford’s Barber Shop first opened in the neighborhood of Edgewood. When LaMichael was still a child, Kirkwood’s demographics began to shift from white working-class residents to mostly black residents. This was the result of federal urban renewal policies that demolished housing in Atlanta’s poorest neighborhoods, forcing displaced residents to move to more affordable neighborhoods like Kirkwood. Willie Langford had his eye on Kirkwood too, although for different reasons.

LAMICHAEL: When I turned like 9 or 10, things began to change in the Kirkwood community. Blacks started buying homes; blacks started opening up businesses, and my uncle always have said, “One day I’m going to move to Kirkwood to a bigger establishment.” It wasn’t about urban renewal coming through at that particular time. It was about expanding.

WAILIN: Willie Langford moved the business to Kirkwood in 1972. Three years later, he knocked down an interior wall and expanded the barber shop from three chairs to a space that could fit 15. They hired their fourth barber, Stanley Kellam, who would serve as the first in a long history of devoted employees at Langford’s.

STANLEY: Just me and Don and Mike — we the only master barbers up here. Me and Mike, we’re here the longest. That’s like my brother from another mother. We started when we were about 19. Now we both are 60. It’s the only thing I’ve been doing for the last 40 years, so.

LAMICHAEL: The majority of our employees — they last. Stanley has been here over forty years. Jack been here thirty years. Lolita — known as Red — she’s been here 24 years. Taqusia’s been here 27 years. She’s a beautician. Don’s been here 20 years.

WAILIN: Langford’s builds long-term relationships with its employees, treating them like family. This same sense of compassion was extended to LaMichael when he experienced personal struggles earlier in his life.

LAMICHAEL: My uncle died in ’94 and when he passed away, my oldest sister, Cynthia, she stepped in. I was going through some stuff. When I was 24 years old, I was addicted to drugs. My family, where I come from, we’ve never been alcoholics, drug addicts, so it really threw my family for a loop to know that I had started using cocaine. I wasn’t raised like that. I always praying families and always had been church oriented. People come in today that I left out there on the street that still gets high. I got 20 years clean. This September 3rd, I will be 21 years clean and sober.

WAILIN: After his recovery, LaMichael joined his sister, Cynthia, to become co-owners, carrying on their uncle’s legacy.

LAMICHAEL: She stepped in and made sure that the business would stand and I came back into the business and she turned the management back over to me. And with her guidance and leadership as the entrepreneur in business and with my management skill, it really works out. It works out. Once you figure out where a person going, you can help them get there. So we accept people that come in this door as employees as family from day one. You are family. If I eat, you eat, okay? If I cut a hundred dollar worth of hair and you haven’t cut none today, the next one that come in the door is yours.

WAILIN: Although Langford’s started out as a men’s barbershop, it expanded to women’s hair in the late ’80s. Around that time, Taqusia Gibson was hired as a hairstylist and beautician to cater to women clients.

TAQUSIA: It was dark, gloomy and it was a standard barbershop just for men, hair all over the floor. It was rough, it was rough, but we did it, but we did it. When the men saw that there were actually going to be women coming here, they were quickly acceptable to the change. Yeah, they wanted a change, they wanted a change of scenery. So we kind of brought in the fact that we should have styling chairs, shampoo bowls. We added onto the shop until finally they gave us the back part and made an addition so that now we have a hair salon actually in the back.

LAMICHAEL: Beauty salons — that’s a place where women can go and vent and relax, get their hair done. I sit back here in my office and I hear stuff from the women’ mouths and I go home and use it on my wife, you know what I’m saying? I be like, “Okay, I’m learning something.” If you listen, you learn a lot of things about what people really want and need. If you listen.

WAILIN: For master barber Stanley Kellam, the beauty salon and barber shop offered different benefits.

STANLEY: I met my first wife up here. I got three children. In all, I got eight. Majority of the time, met all my wives up here. It’s just a beautiful thing when you meet people up here.

WAILIN: Barbers and beauticians are typically paid one of three ways. They can work on salary, split a commission with the business owner, or work as an independent contractor by renting a chair. Langford’s uses this third option. LaMichael calls it booth rental and collects rent on a weekly basis, although he gives his employees flexibility if they have slow weeks and have trouble coming up with the fee.

LAMICHAEL: You got to take a loss in order to have a gain. If you take a loss from people that work for you, over a period of time, that going to come back double because they see you helping them. So if their heart is in the right place, they’re going to do the right thing and that’s basically what keep a small business — especially barber shops — going. Don’t put too much pressure on your employees about paying their booth rent. You know, people that work here, a lot of them say, “You know, I never worked at a shop where peoples let me go another week without paying my booth rent. Whether I made the money or not, they want their money.”

TAQUSIA: I think the people that have been here this long, that’s why, ’cause we kinda stuck with it through the good and the bad. It’s like a marriage. It’s work, but you have to stick with it.

WAILIN: The sense of connection and longevity that LaMichael cultivates with his employees extends to their clients.

LAMICHAEL: On Saturday mornings, we used to have what we call the breakfast club. It was like 18 of us. Six barbers and the rest were clients. We would take turns buying breakfasts for the breakfast club and we sit down, laugh, talk, you know, we would say our morning prayer. It had gotten to the point where it got so big where one man couldn’t go buy twenty-two breakfasts], so what we would do, we would ask each individual to bring their own sandwich and we all fellowship and eat together.

TAQUSIA: The barber shop is typically the neighborhood place where people come together, not only to get a haircut because we have men that have no intention on getting haircuts, but they come in here just to talk. There’s everything going on here, from politics to sports. There are lawyers, doctors, dentists, judges, politicians, electricians, anything, any topic is brought up here and it’s talked about.

WAILIN: Langford’s has also extended its haircutting services to clients of all ages.

LAMICHAEL: Okay, I’m going to put it to you straight. Forty percent of our business is our kids. We specialize in kids’ haircuts. If you don’t want to cut kids’ hair — those kids are going to get grown one day. They’re going to have kids. We’re working with four to five generations here at Langford’s. Four to five generations! That’s what happens when you do the right thing in business.

WAILIN: Master barber Stanley Kellam has three children with his first wife, who he met at Langford’s. He’s a father to eight children in all, the youngest of whom is now 20.

STANLEY: Me being a father of eight, I love children, so I see a lot of children out here without fathers. I just happen to notice them and they call me Uncle Stan and they come in here sometimes. I give them a free haircut or something like that because, you know, the father might not be around.

WAILIN: LaMichael takes to heart the idea of a business sticking with customers throughout their lives, from their first haircut to the literal grave. When Hosea Williams, a prominent civil rights activist who was a member of Martin Luther King Jr’s inner circle, died in 2000, LaMichael went to the funeral home to cut his hair for the last time.

LAMICHAEL: We had Reverend Hosea Williams. I cut his hair after he was deceased because my dad — my uncle — used to cut his hair on the regular every week. And when he passed away, his daughter said, “Well, Mike, you know what the deal is. My dad don’t want nobody else touching his head, but you guys at Langford’s.” She said, “So if you wouldn’t mind, could you do that for me?” And I took care of my boy. I took care of Hosea. I’ve cut hair at quite a few funeral homes, you know. Most of them be clients of ours, our clients’ parents — fathers might pass away.

WAILIN: The street where Langford’s is located was renamed Hosea Williams Drive in honor of the civil rights leader. Over the years, LaMichael has seen other barbershops and small businesses on the street close. Langford’s has been able to hang on, even through the latest recession.

LAMICHAEL: Economy crashed so bad that if a man work every day or he don’t work, or just his wife working, that’s a whole another paycheck out of their household. So if a man’s light bill is due and he only have $45, which you think he’s gonna do — pay his light bill or get a haircut? Businesses closed right here in Kirkwood before my eyes. We have had at least five barbershops open at one time on Hosea Williams alone since we’ve been here and before we got here, but we’re still standing and that’s only because the grace of God and how you treat people.

WAILIN: The demographics of Kirkwood have also started to change. Forty years after Willie Langford moved his barber shop to the neighborhood, LaMichael is seeing many of his black clients move out of the area.

LAMICHAEL: Then they had a transformation of the community. Well, you know, a lot of white people started moving back into the community, which is fine. Our business picked up 30 percent, with a lot of white clients, you know. You know we don’t care about your race here at Langford’s as long as you’re respectful. As long as you respect the barber shop, my barbers and the rest of my clients and your money green, we love you! We love you! We’re going to love you!

WAILIN: For Langford’s, retaining a sense of authenticity has gone hand in hand with being open to change. LaMichael and his sister Cynthia talk almost daily and attend church together every Sunday. His Christian faith, along with his faith in the business and what his uncle established, have sustained him and kept him focused for over fifty years.

LAMICHAEL: Times have changed. A lot of peoples have changed, but what you believe in should stay the same. Now I don’t change this aspect of the business to go with the flow because the flow going to eventually change. We here at Langford’s we stay who we are, okay? We’re just an old-fashioned, down home, old-school, country barber shop. Langford’s not moving. We like rock ’n roll. We here to stay.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner, Wailin Wong, and for this episode, Esther Lee. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. You can find our show on Google Play and on iTunes, where we’d love it if you rated and reviewed us. You can also sign up for our newsletter at thedistance.com or follow us on Twitter at distancemag, that’s @distancemag. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.