A family affair

Multi-generational businesses are storied successes in NNY

The late Mort Backus, second from left, founder of the Mort Backus & Sons Inc. auto dealership, with his four sons, John, Patrick, Paul and Michael, in the 1980s.

By Kyle R. Hayes
NNY Business

For many well-established north country businesses, family means more than the occasional Sunday dinner and birthday party. For family businesses that have been passed down from generation to generation, the relationships built between mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers result in success, overcoming hurdles and optimism for the future.

In examining the innumerable amount of businesses run by families in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, it’s evident that a successful operation run by a single family can overcome just about anything: Recessions, depressions, fires and even the occasional bad idea. However, there’s one thing that all of these businesses have in common, and that’s their not-so-secret way of competing with big box retailers that they call their competition.

What’s the key to a successful business, according to these clans? Living and working among their clientele, knowing their customers by name and measuring up to the values and traditions instilled by the many generations that preceded them.

Sarah T. White Cleaver, Jonathan L. White, Bradford A. White and Roger W. "Ted" White Jr., with their father Roger W. White Sr. The White family owns and operates White's Lumber and Building Supply. Photo by Amanda Morrison.

When George W. White left his homestead in Pamelia in 1892 at the age of 30 to come to Watertown, he wasn’t so sure how successful his new adventure would be.  Mr. White was moving to Watertown to form a hay press business with two business partners.

See, in 1892, the United States was in the beginning of what was to be a deep economic depression that lasted into the 1900s. A forward-thinker, Mr. White was never sure how profitable the manufacture of hay presses would be for himself, hay buyer Henry C. Anthony and Egbert W. Knapp, of the E.W. Knapp Lumber Co. However, in September 1892, the three Watertown businessmen created a partnership, originally named Knapp Lumber Company. From that day forward, Mr. White became an esteemed businessman, renowned for his lumber expertise and awareness for customer needs in a competitive market.

Today, White’s Lumber and Building Supplies is a north country institution, with locations in Watertown, Pulaski, Clayton and Gouverneur.

“I have worked at the company for more than 60 years,” Roger W. White, G.W. White’s grandson, said. “I didn’t even realize we were going into our 120th year in business.”

Roger’s three sons, Bradford, Roger Jr. and Jonathan, and daughter, Sarah Cleaver, now operate the business in their father’s retirement.

“My father taught us to walk around with our eyes open, if there is something that needs to be done, do it,” Mrs. Cleaver said. “We’ve always said that we can shovel the walk or sweep the floors. If an employee sees the owners doing it, they’ll be more inclined to think we can work together and get it done.”

The White family takes that sense of community with their employees and extends it to all facets of the business. Bradford White said that each sibling has their own responsibilities they take care of in the business, but many decisions are made collectively as a family.

Mrs. Cleaver, Bradford and their father each relay a message of thankfulness to the community, whether to longtime customers or those who just moved into town and are looking for a gallon of paint.

“It feels wonderful to have people that have stuck with us for all of these years,” Roger said. “My children and I, we all want to succeed in business and want to help our customers.”

Having been in business 120 years, the White family secret to longevity in business is that is there is no secret.

“Our advantage is we have the owners and staff that are experienced, have worked with us for a long time, and we offer personalized service no matter what you need,” Bradford said. “Many people on our staff have been here for several years. Customers will always see a familiar face.”

As for the next generation of White family waiting in the wings? Well, they’re not quite ready yet.

“My grandchildren will be allowed to make their own decisions,” Roger said. “There is plenty of time for them to make a decision to run the business, but you don’t want to force it on anyone.”

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5