April 2015 Cover Story: All in the Family

Keeping family in business as times change

William C. Brown & Son owners Arel B. Brown  and wife, Barbara, in front of their Maytag Home Appliance Center, 5503 Shady Ave., Lowville. The third-generation family business, which specializes in plumbing, heating and air conditioning service and appliance sales, is celebrating its 100th  anniversary this year. Photo by Norm Johnston, NNY Business.

William C. Brown & Son owners Arel B. Brown and wife, Barbara, in front of their Maytag Home Appliance Center, 5503 Shady Ave., Lowville. The third-generation family business, which specializes in plumbing, heating and air conditioning service and appliance sales, is celebrating its 100th
anniversary this year. Photo by Norm Johnston, NNY Business.

For three north country family businesses – one just starting out, another a century old – the recipe for lasting success is simple: communicate openly among partners and welcome customers as family.

By Norah Machia, NNY Business

Of the more than five million family businesses operating in the United States, those that have been in the same family for more than 100 years are few and far between, according to an article in USA Today.

A study conducted at Hope College in Holland, Mich., reported the highest percentage of century-old family businesses are in the manufacturing sector, followed by finance and insurance, and then retail, the newspaper article stated.ルイヴィトン財布メンズ

One of those can be found in Lewis County.

William C. Brown & Son, Lowville, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The business specializes in plumbing, heating and air conditioning service and appliance sales.

How has it survived so many years?

“We’re reliable and trustworthy,” owner Arel B. Brown said. “We try to be accommodating and offer customers reasonable pricing.”

The solid reputation of the business has been a key in its long-term survival, because “word gets around quickly in Lowville. It you’re not trustworthy, you’re going to be short-lived,” Mr. Brown said.

The majority of their customers are repeat ones. One customer stopped in the store several weeks ago to surprise Mr. Brown, and his wife, Barbara, with a cake noting the 100th anniversary of the business.

“Arel has built a reputation of being fair,” said his wife, who serves as business manager. “Plumbing and heating can be tricky, and we may need to go back more than once to the customer’s home. Arel goes out of his way to make sure we’re keeping the customers happy.”

The business employs nine people, and the Browns are proud to point out that the majority of their employees are long-term and dedicated. Two have been there more than 30 years, one for 28 years, one for 22 years, one for 15 years, two for 13 years, one for eight years and one for five years.

“We try to take good care of them,” Mr. Brown said. “We try to do right by them.”

Some of their certified service technicians are so familiar to customers that they have their own following, said Mrs. Brown. Customers often call and ask for particular technicians for service calls.

The business has three departments: service and installation, a plumbing
and heating supply store and a home appliance center. The service department and appliance center are located on 5503 Shady Ave., while the supply store is operated just around the corner on Forest Avenue.

They serve primarily central Lewis County, and provide service calls for customers who purchase appliances at their store. That’s something to consider before buying an appliance online, Mr. Brown said.

“A lot of people who buy appliances online don’t think about what will happen down the road” when their appliances need servicing, he said.

To celebrate their 100th year in business, the Browns are sponsoring raffle drawings each month for $100 gift certificates for those who purchase $100 or more in sales or service.

The business was started in 1915 by Mr. Brown’s grandfather, William C. Brown, as a roofing, heating and plumbing business. It was originally started in Beaver Falls, but was relocated of Lowville after a few years in operation.

William Brown’s sons, Arel J. and Gerald Brown, joined the business after World War II. It was just a few years later that William Brown died in 1949 at the age of 60 after falling off a roof while doing construction work.

Gerald Brown decided to relocate to Lyons Falls in 1950 to start his own plumbing and heating business, so the original company in Lowville continued to be operated by Arel J. Brown. At the time, the company was still offering plumbing, heating and roofing services.

Although Mr. Brown had helped out in his father’s business as a youngster,“I never thought I’d be doing this for a living,” he said.

Instead, he decided to pursue a teaching career. For more than ten years, he taught industrial arts to high school students in the Adirondack Central School District, Boonville.

His brother, Patrick Brown, had joined the family business in 1974. After their father, Arel J. Brown, passed away suddenly in 1978, Mr. Brown left his teaching position in Boonville to help his brother run the family business.

By the early 1980s, “my brother was ready to move on” Mr. Brown said.

Patrick Brown left the family business to pursue his interests in carpentry and boat-building. The business stopped offering roofing services, focusing its attention on expanding its plumbing and heating services.

The retail plumbing and heating supply store was opened in 1982 at the Shady Ave. location, and Maytag laundry appliances were added to their product line. A decade later, the company opened a new supply store in a renovated building just around the corner on Forest Avenue.

The home appliance center was added in 1996 at the Shady Avenue building to include Whirlpool, General Electric, Frigidaire and Speed Queen.

During that time, Mrs. Brown left her position as a vice president in the banking field and joined the family business. She handles the accounting, payroll and bookkeeping duties and jokes that she is “helped by Morris, our human resources manager.”ルイヴィトン財布レディース

Morris is a cat and regular fixture at the business. He was taken in by the Browns after former tenants could no longer care for him. Although Morris has since lost his sight, he knows his way around the business and spends much of his day there.

In fact, Morris was recently identified in a store advertisement as “Morris, the Maytag Cat” and was credited for “nine years of service, public relations, stress relief” and serving as the “team mascot.”

Call the service department and appliance center, 376-2422, or the showroom and sales, 376-8130, to learn more.

From left, Robert Wratten, brother, James, and father James “Jim” Wratten of Wratten Trailer Sales, Adams. Mr. Wratten’s parents, the late Al and Lois Wratten, started the family business in 1959. Photo by Justin Sorensen, NNY Business.

From left, Robert Wratten, brother, James, and father James “Jim” Wratten of Wratten Trailer Sales, Adams. Mr. Wratten’s parents, the late Al and Lois Wratten, started the family business in 1959. Photo by Justin Sorensen, NNY Business.

One of the most important keys for the success of a family business lies in the relationship among members of the business family, according to the Family Business Institute.

The foundation for building good relationships in a family business is open and honest communication, according to its website. Also important are common values, shared visions and expectations, and understanding the roles each person has in the business.

The motto printed on the back of James “Jim” Wratten’s business card reads “Come see the family” at Wratten Trailer Sales, 9209 US Route 11, Adams.

The “business family” consists of Mr. Wratten, the owner, and son, Robert, who is employed full-time, overseeing the service department, and James, an EMT at Fort Drum who helps out part-time with RV deliveries.

Mr. Wratten and his wife, Annabelle, a school-based nurse practitioner, have another son, William David, San Jose, Calif. Mr. Wratten also has a daughter, Tamara McConnell, Pulaski, from a previous marriage.

The family business was started 56 years ago by Mr. Wratten’s parents, the late Al and Lois Wratten.

“They started with five campers on two acres of land,” Mr. Wratten recalled with a smile on his face. “The office was the front seat of their pick-up truck.”

Growing up in a business that specialized in travel trailers benefited the entire family, he said. Mr. Wratten’s parents, and three brothers and one sister, all became “great travelers,” he said.

Some of his fondest memories were the regular trips his family took to their favorite places, such as Daytona Beach, Fla.

“We were taken out of school for a couple weeks, but we took our homework with us,” Mr. Wratten said. “We did it on the beach. My Dad was strict about the homework being done.”

“It was a beautiful lifestyle,” he added. “There aren’t too many states that we hadn’t visited. Our experiences traveling together made us a close family.”

Mr. Wratten and his brother, Frederick “Fred” A. Wratten, joined the family business in 1973. They expanded the location, which is now spread over approximately 30 acres, and includes an average of 80 recreational vehicles for sale and/or rent. A new 6000-square-foot service facility and a 3,000 square-foot accessory store was opened in 2007. In 2012, Mr. Wratten took over the operation of the family business when Frederick “Fred” retired.

The family has also been providing RV storage for its customers since 1959.

Throughout the years, the business has overcome several challenges in the economy, including a gas shortage in the early 1970s, Mr. Wratten said. During that time, a system of odd-even gas rationing was put in place, which allowed vehicles with drivers with licenses plates ending in an odd number to buy gas on odd-numbered days, and others to buy their gas on even-numbered days.

Since people could not fill up their vehicles two days in a row, the Wratten family encouraged customers to “just spend an extra day at the camp ground and enjoy yourself,” Mr. Wratten said.

That was the advantage of recreational vehicles and camping — people didn’t have to drive somewhere every day as part of their vacation, he said.

“Our advice was to just fill it up on the day you leave,” he said.

When the price of gas started rising sharply in the past decade, Mr. Wratten said the trend didn’t stop people from enjoying their time off work. They just didn’t drive as far, he said. For those in the north country, it wasn’t too difficult to find great camping locations within a 100-mile radius, including Lake Ontario, the Adirondacks and Canada.

Another major challenge was the financial crisis that hit the American economy in 2008. It was just prior to that the business stopped selling motor homes and started to focus on just towable recreational vehicles, including “Fifth Wheels” and travel trailers.

“We saw the economy was turning, and we got out of the motor home business,” Mr. Wratten said. “We wanted to survive.”

Mr. Wratten, who started helping out in the family business at age nine, said his “door is always open” to customers, and he greets the majority of them at some point during the sale. The business employs an average of nine people.

“I have maintained my Dad’s business principles in the operation of this business,” he stated on the company website. “We always treat our customer the old fashioned way — fairly and honestly and we continue after you purchase from us. You are not just a number.”

The RV business is “always evolving, always changing,” he said, noting some new travel trailers have features such as outside kitchen setups and flat-screen televisions.

Robert Wratten recalls getting off the school bus and spending his afternoons with his father and grandfather at the family business. He started helping at age 13 by washing trailers.

“I was brought up in the RV industry,” he said.

After graduating from South Jefferson Central School, Robert worked for a local lumber yard, but soon decided to obtain additional training to help in the family’s RV business. He completed a six-month RV Service Academy program in Sarasota, Fla., and then returned to Adams in 1991.

But after a few years, “I decided that I wanted to try something different,” Robert Wratten said.

He found a job with a construction company that built sewage plants along the East Coast, and worked for them for several years. The job involved a lot of traveling.

But Robert Wratten still maintained a passion for the RV industry, and four years ago, he returned home to Adams. He now oversees the service department.

“I really like working with my father, and the service end of the business,” he said. “I’m not a paper pusher.”

Visit www.WrattenRVsales.com or call 232-4535 to learn more.

Audrey Roberts and husband, Jake Roberts, left, with the help of Audrey’s father, Larry Reece, are opening Maple Rock Bed and Breakfast, 719 Old Potsdam/Parishville Road, Potsdam. Photo by Melanie Kimbler-Lago, NNY Business.

Audrey Roberts and husband, Jake Roberts, left, with the help of Audrey’s father, Larry Reece, are opening Maple Rock Bed and Breakfast, 719 Old Potsdam/Parishville Road, Potsdam. Photo by Melanie Kimbler-Lago, NNY Business.

So how does a family business get started?

In order for a family business to get off to a successful start, it’s important to have respect, support and trust from family members, according to the Family Business Institute. These can include a spouse, parents and/or children.

Audrey Roberts’s story starts at the beginning, and illustrates that there are many ways family members can support each other in establishing a business. For example, it’s not unusual for a business owner to receive assistance from relatives, even if they are not working full-time in the endeavor.

Mrs. Roberts, Potsdam, will open Maple Rock Bed & Breakfast this spring in a house that her great-grandfather once owned. The bed and breakfast at 719 Old Potsdam/Parishville Road will accommodate up to 10 guests, and will also be used to offer cooking classes to the guests, as well as the public.

Finishing touches are being done on the five bedrooms, including a ground floor bedroom that will be accessible to those with limited mobility. Although the bed and breakfast won’t be fully operational until late May, Mrs. Roberts plans to start offering cooking classes in mid-April to anyone interested.

The classes will focus on using “local, seasonal ingredients to create a delicious and nutritious meal that easily can be replicated at home,” she said.ルイヴィトン財布新作

Those who participate will be given the recipes as well to try at home. Each class will have a specific focus, such as making sushi or cooking with a partner.

Mrs. Roberts is carrying on a tradition of business ownership in her family, and is receiving support from her parents, Larry C. and Linda T. Reece of Potsdam.

“I am the first in my family to start a bed and breakfast,” Mrs. Roberts said. “My father started his own accounting firm and knows the “ins and outs” of business. He has passed his knowledge onto me and provides financial guidance.”

Her mother has “helped with everything from planning, scheduling appointments to picking out paint colors,” Mrs. Roberts said.

And her husband, Jake, who teaches English full-time at Potsdam High School, has still found time to help his wife with renovating the bed and breakfast.

“My husband has supported me through this crazy endeavor and even tolerated living in my parent’s garage for seven months when we sold our house to start building the bed and breakfast,” Mrs. Roberts said.

The location is just minutes away from several colleges, including SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson University. Mrs. Roberts is hoping to attract visitors who are attending events at nearby colleges, such as alumni weekends or graduations.

After graduating from the University of Vermont with a bachelor’s degree in family consumer sciences, and a minor in nutrition, Mrs. Roberts started teaching in New Hampshire. Five years later, she was laid off due to school budget cuts.

“Just before I discovered I was losing my full time teaching position, my husband and I had discussed creating a five-year plan that would allow me to pursue my dream of running my own business,” she said.

When she told her husband that she had been laid off, he looked at her and said “It looks like our five-year plan is now a five-month plan,” Mrs. Roberts said.

The couple moved into her parent’s garage while working to restore the bed and breakfast, which is located across the street. They have since moved into the building and are completing the renovation work.

Plans also call for her husband to brew craft beers for guests, with future classes in all-grain home brewing.

Visit www.maplerockbandb.com or call 212-4155 to learn more.

Norah Machia is a freelance writer who lives in Watertown. She is a 20-year veteran journalist and former Watertown Daily Times reporter. Contact her at norahmachia@gmail.com.