All in the Family

By Dennis Boone

The role of family business in America’s economy may be changing, but the foundation is solid

Walmart started as a family business. Still is, if you think about it in terms of stock shares controlled by the Walton family (roughly 50 percent). Other family businesses 

include national names like Mars, Inc., and Bechtel, and local companies with revenues in the billions, like Hallmark, H&R Block, J.E. Dunn Construction. All started out as family businesses and have been family-controlled through most of their histories.

They are the exceptions, of course, beating the statistical odds against that level of mega-growth, and against surviving long enough to see even a second generation—only 30 percent make it that far. Those odds get even tougher with succeeding generations: Just 12 percent make it to a third generation, and only 1 in 33 will survive to a fourth generation or beyond.

In recognition of those who have beaten the incredible odds, Ingram’s brings you the stories of eight multigenerational family businesses who have taken very different paths to success—with one very powerful common denominator.


While the long-term odds may be against them, family-owned businesses make contributions to the regional and national economy that are every bit as important as those of Corporate America. Consider:

The nation’s 5.5 million family firms account for more than 80 percent—by some estimates, as much as 90 percent—of all business enterprises in North America.

They generate roughly 55 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, 60 percent of the country’s employment, and produce 78 percent of all new job creation.

Family-owned companies, on average, out-perform non-family firms over the long term, precisely because they can’t afford the risks associated with factors that lead to little more than short-term profits. One example: the CEOs of family firms, on average, earn about 10 percent less than their counterparts at non-family firms.

Even among S&P 500 firms, roughly a third are family businesses or have an average of 18 percent of firm equity controlled by the founding family.

Women are finding increasing opportunities to serve as CEO or president of a family firm, according to Mass Mutual’s American Family Business Survey, with nearly one-fourth serving in those roles now. Even more promising: 31.3 percent of family firms say a woman will be the next top executive, and women hold top management team positions at nearly 60 percent of family companies.

According to Family Enterprise USA, families have controlling interest in 60 percent of all publicly held companies in the U.S.

And, perhaps most significantly for the communities where they operate, 95 percent of family businesses practice philanthropy in some form—cash donations, in-kind contributions, board service and volunteer work.

All of those factors speak to the fundamental difference that the family business structure brings to the economic party. Kirk Ring, director of the Family Business Forum at Wichita State University, said the key difference between public companies and family-owned businesses is twofold: “Usually, there is more than one family member involved in actively managing the business,” he said. “They have not only the capability from an ownership standpoint, but influence over direction of the firm in the future.

“The second part,” Ring said, “is that in most family businesses, there is a strong attention to helping lead the next generation into the business. … That changes your perspective; typically, there is a much more long-term focus. You may think longer about a risky decision if you know it affects your children. I tell them you’re different because your retirement is entwined with your son or daughter’s career.”

The past decade has seen plenty of challenges for family businesses, particularly the smaller ones, or those exposed to higher levels of regulation, such as community banks or health-care providers. But in general, the outlook for family-owned companies is good, Ring says.

One reason for that, he said, has been a revolution in the way trusted advisers, consulting interests, universities and other organizations have realigned operations to focus on just these types of companies. He sees the impact through his work with the forum.

“These firms are starting to take advantage of a lot of information that’s more easily attainable,” Ring said, “information about family-business ownership and management and things you can do to be successful from that ownership standpoint.”

On the academic side, he said, there is an increasing emphasis on research, yielding academic papers, books and organizations like the one he oversees. “And that’s starting to make a significant impact on the way family businesses are handling succession planning and leadership training for the next generation of family members,” Ring said. “We’re also starting to see courses on family business, and in business schools, the introduction of Ph.D. programs with an emphasis on family business.”

All of that is a good thing if it can shore up some of the weaknesses in family business operations. For example, studies that show nearly a third of family-business owners have no estate plan beyond a will. Other factors holding family businesses back, researchers say, are waiting too long to pass control to a successive generation, refusing to change business models to accommodate market trends,

“Family businesses only change when the pain is so great that they can’t stay where they are,” the non-profit business advisory Aileron said in a commentary for Forbes. “It is not only tearing their company apart, but their personal lives as well. When this happens, the family has four choices: 1. Sell the business. 2. Merge the business. 3. Shut the business down. 4. Stay the same.”

Two of those four options, of course, imperil a business owner’s investment: Closing the business is more proactive than staying the same, but in a failing model, staying the same will produce an identical result.

In family business, as with most anything else, demography is destiny: Most family-owned companies are small businesses, and the greatest portion of those are owned by Baby Boomers, nearly a fourth of whom have already surpassed retirement age. And yet, according to some research, fewer than half those business owners who plan to retire within five years have not done so much as determine a successor. Look-ing even farther down the road, nearly half say they don’t fully understand the tax consequences that could befall their estates.

Overall, though, family businesses are enjoying a time of comparative stability and prosperity, and they tend to be held in higher regard by the public, Ring said.

“There is some sentiment about publicly held companies’ not doing the right thing; you don’t hear that about family-owned businesses,” he said. “They continue to be a point of American pride: It’s a good thing if you can work not only with people you like, but with your family.

“That seems to have a strong pull for a lot of people, and it creates a lot of jobs, which is great. I don’t see that changing.”


All in the Family Images

 Here’s the difference that “family” makes in a family business: For nine grueling years, Jim and Jerry Cosentino beat back one challenge after another to get their grocery store in east Kansas City up and running. They were spurred on by a message from their parents, who had mortgaged their home to help their sons buy that first store: “If you boys don’t make it, we’re on the street.”

What we know today as Cosentino Food Stores started with that lone building on Blue Ridge Boulevard, where the brothers would later bring in siblings Dante, Mary, Mickey and Joyce. Bills would go in one box, Mickey remembers, money would go into another. What was left after the bills were paid supported all of them. “That first day, we made $56,” Jerry says. “We didn’t have a clue about what we were doing. … Boy, it was tough.”

The experience reinforced the value of working with family. It also taught them the priceless nature of relationships, and the importance of kindnesses to be repaid. Early on—when they couldn’t get a federally backed small-business loan, or the time of day from the bankers—a family friend dropped off an envelope with $5,000 in it, along with a message: Pay me back when you can. A supplier extended as much credit as they would need until they were on their feet, and on the same terms.

Those demonstrations of faith in what the family was doing, says vice president John Cosentino, Dante’s son, have contributed to a business model that nearly 70 years later still places a high value on relationships, and on holding nothing back when it comes to customer service.

He’s one of six second-generation Cosentino brothers and  cousins at the helm of a grocery chain that counts 27 stores—soon to be 29—flying the Price Chopper, Apple Market, Sun Fresh or Cosentino’s Market flags. And the box of left-over cash that used to support the siblings is now a payroll account for 3,900 employees around the region, including 19 Cosentinos hailing from three generations.

The sheer number of operations around town belies the hardscrabble nature of the company’s start; the first generation ran the Blue Ridge grocery for a quarter-century, bucking heads with giants like A&P and Safeway, before they mortgaged that store to open a second, in south Kansas City, in the early ’70s. The first Price Chopper concept, which opened in Blue Springs in 1980, spawned a string of enormously successful openings that came in comparatively rapid succession, Dante says.

The first generation can regale you with stories. Like the one about a 12-year-old offering to do anything for a job, to earn private-school tuition. (He finished school, went to work for the Cosentinos and still does, half a century later). Or organizing truckloads of hams and turkeys for donations to holiday food drives.

Arguments? Sure—you can’t be in a family, or in a business relationship, without them. But at the end of the day, they were all having dinner together. Though Jim and Mary have since died, the four remaining siblings keep close to the business—Jerry’s nameplate still adorns his office there, and Dante, still a valued mentor, wisecracks, “I come in at noon and go to lunch at 1.”

But they left a legacy that goes far beyond running a business. Mickey ascribes some of that to values passed down through immigrant grandparents nearly a century ago. John agrees, but sees something else at play—the souls of true entrepreneurs, risking it all.

“They made moves at the right time,” John says of that first generation, “and they took risks with every move they made.”


All in the Family Images2

There are family businesses, then there’s Sioux Chief, the 58-year-old plumbing-supplies manufacturer. Across its 300,000-square-foot sprawl on 140 acres in Cass County, it boasts an astonishing 25 members of the combined Ismert-Hodes-Neenan clans. One of them, CEO Joe Ismert, is the son of founder Ed Ismert, whose widow, Karosie, still logs time in the office each week.

Joe Ismert—he’s known at the plant as Joe P., or JPI—has largely turned the operational decision-making over to his son, who goes by Joe N. and serves as president. “I should have done something different on that name,” Dad muses, “because when he came to work here 10 years ago, everyone was saying ‘What do we call him? Little Joe? Junior?’’’

That’s probably the biggest challenge to managing what almost amounts to a family reunion every day. In addition to sons Joe and Dominic, who have ownership stakes with their father, four more of Joe P.’s 10 children work there, along with spouses, cousins and in-laws. That wealth of family is a resource that few family businesses can draw on.

“I think it’s been one of our chief strengths,” Joe Ismert said. “A lot of people in three, four, five different families are in various segments of the plumbing industry,” Ismert says. “You see them at Christmas or Easter, too, but at work, you know what kind of person they are, what kind of work ethic they have. It’s a strength, and we’ve hired plenty of them.”

The business went to a second generation in 1977, when Joe Ismert and his older brother, Mike, bought out their Dad. They worked together for nearly 30 years before Mike sold his share and acquired another company.

“It worked really well, but whether we could have done more or grown faster, who’s to say if my older brother had the hammer or more votes, maybe I would have left. Who knows what would have happened?” Ismert says. “Maybe it was my age, maybe it because we were 50-50, but when Mike and I ran the place, we would bump heads quite often,” Ismert says. And yet they were able to turn their shared passion for innovation and invention into a company that operates nationwide, going from 28 employees when they acquired it to more than 500 at its peak.

Mike’s exit prompted his brother to lure Joe N. and Dominic back from careers in information technology and financial services in Minneapolis and New York—it took some doing, he confesses—by making them co-owners with him. The move from brother-and-brother to father-and-sons ownership created a different family dynamic, but not just because of the generational shift involved.

“Oddly, I’ve got majority share now, and basically, what I say can go, but I flipped that and let Joe N. do the steering, and that works,” Ismert says. From his own experience, he offers this guidance to anyone trying to solve the riddle of family ownership: “I would probably suggest that somebody has a hammer—the majority, the final vote—because if it’s all even-even, 50-50, it can be harder to get some things done.”

Overall, his experience has served as a rebuttal to bankers and others who once advised him not to rely too much on family. “I had people caution me in the early days that you shouldn’t hire like that, that having family at the top is going to complicate things: It’s been just the opposite,” Ismert says. “I work with in-laws, cousins, first cousins once removed, nephews, nieces, and even my mother still works here. I think it causes far less problems.”


All in the Family Images3 

When does a family business outgrow its sense of family? If you’re a member of the Armacost clan at Grandview-based Peterson Manufacturing, the answer is: Never.

In a nearly 60-year rise to nine-figure revenues and multiple divisions, the company retains the values that Don Armacost, Sr., infused into it after acquiring what was then a small manufacturer of automotive safety lighting in 1956. “Our father set a culture here, and that is, this is one big family,” says Dave Armacost, vice president. “It still is.”

Of course, it’s easier to retain that sense of family when you’re working with a number of them: His big brother, Don Jr., is the president and CEO; Don’s daughter Kristen Goodson is vice president of product management, Dave’s daughter Erica Armacost is in the human resources office of Maxi-Seal, one of eight operating units, and Kristen’s stepson and her husband also work there.

Founded in 1946, the company originally focused on vehicle lighting in aftermarket settings, then expanded to marine lighting applications, aviation components, plastic mold injection and other products and services. Along the way, the Armacosts have introduced innovations like rust-proof stainless steel housings, virtually indestructible lenses, vibration-resistant sockets and LED systems, just of few of a product line boasting more than 2,000 items. The company also has non-manufacturing operating units that provide corporate air charter services and airplane sales and servicing.

Much of the manufacturing muscle is flexed in a sprawling, 670,000-square-foot facility in Grandview. It houses the corporate offices, plus departments that encompass sales, engineering, research and development, manufacturing and assembly, purchasing, shipping, receiving and warehousing. Overall, Peterson employs more than 650 non-union workers—many of whom are themselves second- and third-generation employees who enjoy both profit-sharing and employee stock ownership plans.

Don, 9 ears Dave’s senior, started with the company at an earlier point in life. He worked his way through night school at UMKC and entertained—briefly—the idea of becoming a lawyer, but the thought of getting to work proved irresistible. Dave dabbled in business ownership with a tropical fish store in Lawrence, where he’d gone to college, before making his way to the family concern. Regardless of the starting point, each was a long way from the corporate suites.

“I did everything but run the punch press,” said Don, whose hours in that summer of 1957 didn’t even generate a line on the payroll report—“I was listed as a ‘miscellaneous expense,’ at 75 cents an hour,” he recalls. Dave counters: “I started at the dirtiest, lowest-paying job we had” in the paint room. “But at least you got to start as a manager,” Don quips.

Their sibling competitiveness carried over into the early years of working together, Don says, with occasional conflicts. “But it was a perfect fit once we aligned our minds right,” he says. And how did
that happen? “I think,” he says, “we just grew up.”

The two share their father’s approach to nurturing the next generation: Don’t push. “He wanted to see the drive, the energy and the desire,” Don says, before on-boarding any of his four children,
and for two Armacost sisters, it wasn’t the right fit.

The sheer size of the company, and the varied responsibilities, prevents the friction found in many smaller family businesses. “Everyone assumes that we interact a lot because we work together,” Goodson says. “But for the most part, we hardly see each other at the office.”

A point of personal pride for Don is that he was able to follow his father as a president of the Transportation Safety Equipment Institute—the first time a second-generation owner had held that role. After two separate terms with TSEI, he saw Kristen achieve the same industry recognition in 2013, making her the first third-generation member to do so.


All in the Family Images4

Aholding company is a bit of a different animal when it comes to family businesses, but that does nothing to  dilute the family component of City Wide Holdings. 

Spawned from the janitorial-services company founded by Frank Oddo in 1961, it has grown into three distinct business units and models, all run by Oddo’s three sons with adjoining headquarters  in an industrial park bordering Interstate 435 in Lenexa.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the Oddo enterprises is how unlike one another their business models are:

  • City Wide Maintenance, the foundational business, was Frank Oddo’s solution for companies that needed janitorial services. It’s been in the hands of son Jeff since 1996, and under his watch has grown into a national franchising behemoth, with 2013 sales of nearly $82 million. Each night, more than 100 million feet of commercial space nationwide is cleaned by a City Wide affiliate or franchisee.
  • In 1966, Frank Oddo ventured into real-estate development, both residential and commercial, with Oddo Development, which has long been under the wing of his oldest son, Rick. The company owns and manages more than 1 million square feet in commercial real estate (buildings that need cleaning services!), and several multi-family residential units and residential communities in the Kansas City area.
  • And, perhaps least like the others, Basys Processing, founded in 2002 by Oddo’s son Brad to process credit-card transactions for community banks and businesses nationwide. That, says Rick, was a move that “took a lot of guts, and a lot of self-confidence, starting his own company outside of one of our original core competencies.”
  • Each of the sons has full control over his own operation, but the ownership is divided three ways, and each brother sits on the boards of the two other companies. Frank still keeps an office and works with his boys under the watchful gaze of many a big-game trophy they’ve bagged together while hunting or deep-sea fishing—
    the Oddos play as hard as they work.

Frank is the  foundation on which that family empire was built, and he draws a parent’s satisfaction in seeing that his sons have gone on to even bigger and better things. And his sons, in turn recognize the source of their success they enjoy today.

“It’s great to have a mentor you know you can trust, who can speak openly to you, who’s been through several of these experiences and has our best interests in mind, and the companies’ best interests in mind,” says Brad, the youngest of the three. Adds Rick: “He’s also seen it all, been through it all—and he’s fun to work with.”

Deftly balancing the autonomous control of daily operations with the longer-term shared interests, the foursome meets once a month for updates on progress toward annual goals and toward a shared 10-year vision for where the enterprise should be going. All take part in major discussions about matters like annual budgeting, for example.

A distinctive feature of the brothers’ relationships with one another runs back to a competitiveness that was present even in childhood. “We always had the contests—most push-ups, the most juggling, the biggest fish, whatever it was,” Rick says. Says their Dad: “I didn’t demand it;  I think God gave it to them.”

That competitiveness drives the businesses forward, the brothers say, because none wants to be seen riding the coat-tails of the others. “The common goal is to improve the family as a whole,” says Rick, and Brad finishes the thought, saying “We truly are three different companies pulling together. … We all want to show the others we’re the best.”


All in the Family Images5

Call it Red Privitera’s Rule of 14: When his four children reached that age, they were introduced to the world of electrical contracting by starting where a lot of second-generation employees start: In the field, the warehouse or the back office. But when it came time to turn the reins over to them in 1994, two decades after he’d acquired Mark One Electric, their father did it in a way a lot of other first-generation owners don’t—and his vision set them up for their own success.

“What’s unique about our business is that our parents were forward-thinking enough to allow the only daughter to lead the company with the three brothers, at a time when my dad could have continued to work,” says Rosana Privitera-Biondo, the company’s president. “He chose to let go and to let us stand up.”

She’s the company’s president, and brothers, Joe, Carl Jr. and Tony hold roles as vice presidents. Together, and with the efforts of the entire Mark One employee team,  they have turned it into one of the largest electrical contractors in the city, with more than 300 employees and a project resume that includes some of the defining corporate buildings and signature cultural facilities in the region—the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the Sprint Center, renovations of both stadiums at the Harry S. Truman Sports Complex, and headquarters buildings for J.E. Dunn Construction, Applebee’s and the Ameristar and Argosy casinos, and soon for Cerner Corp.’s massive campus being built in south Kansas City.

The way Carl Privitera, Sr. envisioned that succession, Rosie says, allowed her and her brothers to develop their own identities and define their own power centers within the administrative structure. Rosie is the final decision maker on all issues .

“As the leader, my style is to empower each brother so they can manage their respective team and be responsible, as in all good corporate structures” she says. “They report to me, but everybody has his own power with limits, which is important in a family business.” Defined zones of control, she said, along with defined responsibilities, help the family stay united.

“Having people who are part of your bloodline, you understand them because you’ve known them all your life,” she said. “It makes that situation a bit more unique and easier: You already know how each thinks because you grew up together. It makes a huge difference, versus having an outsider on your team, where you don’t know how they think.”

That thinking has helped drive the company forward, Rosie says, by promoting innovation. One of the biggest changes from the model the four children took over was entry into the field of utility work, a significant new source of revenue. Even now, she says, the company is working with a consultant on a tech upgrade, making more functions cloud-based. “Our people in the field are going to be able to log in remotely to do payroll, do reports, and connect with us in a faster way,” she says. “It’s some tech we’ve been wanting to do forever, and now we’re there with products that are right, people with the right mindset, and it’s more economical to do.”

Today, a third generation is starting to fill the company ranks, with Joe’s sons Carl III and Alex.

One other thing Carl and Josephine did before handing the keys over has also contributed to the company’s success: “The biggest advantage we have,” Rosie says, “is that both parents said two things to us: Go to work every day and work hard, and get along with your family members, because that’s what we expect of you, and we will tolerate no less.”


All in the Family Images6

Young Gary Gradinger had a newly minted MBA, a job offer in Boston and career out there somewhere, just waiting for him. When he told his father he was heading east, Dad 

congratulated him—then said he was going to sell Golden Star, at the time a 60-year-old family business specializing in polishes and cleaning products.

“I said, ‘You’re going to do WHAT?!” Gradinger recalls. His dad had a willing buyer, but Gary countered it, and scrapped plans to leave Kansas City. “It’s difficult to explain—it was something about how the business had endured,” Gradinger says. “The realization it was all going to be over— and that I could do something about it—convinced me that this was something I should do.”

So he bought the stakes of his father and a cousin in the late 1960s, and built a company with sales and distribution in more than 30 countries, manufacturing plants in Atchison and in Vancouver, Wash., supply-chain partners in China, and headquarters in Overland Park.

Golden Star was founded by Gradinger’s grandfather, Emil, a Standard Oil employee. He became silent partner  in 1908 with R.W. Morris, who had perfected a polish that could prevent corrosion on the steel on a new-fangled means of transportation—the automobile. The timing was fortuitous: Ford Motor Co. was rolling out its first Model T that same year.

The ownership structure endured for a couple of decades, but I was clear that the founders’ 50-50 split wasn’t promoting growth. “During the Depression, it kind of stalemated,” Gradinger says. “Basically, there was no leadership, and my grandfather was not actively involved in the business.” The other family, looking for a way out, turned to Gradinger’s father to take over. “He said ‘Yes, I’m interested, but I need equity,’” and the family’s controlling interest was in place.

Although it took 35 years to grasp, Gradinger says, “one tenet that has prevailed is the belief that majority ownership need be very active in the business. Beyond that, the realization that we’re standing on some exceedingly strong shoulders, and that it’s OK to bet the farm—as long as the risks are well calculated and the buy-in is absolute—has served us well. And we’ve definitely found a sound modicum of fun and laughter keeps things real and in perspective.”

Various partners and relations have come on board with small equity stakes, and their descendants continue to hold a piece of the company, but it’s largely a Gradinger operation. The fourth generation—Gary’s daughter, Gretchen—is a lawyer who gave up practice in Chicago to come back to the family business, where she’s now chief compliance officer and corporate counsel.

In addition, the Julo family has served three generations, starting with Earl C. Julo, who died last December. His sons, Earl D. and Ray serve as co-President/Director and chief operations officer, and a son-in-law, Fred Smith, and grandsons Kyle Julo and Frank Smith work there. Steve Lewis, co-President/Director, has worked there more than 30 years, and his daughter, Antoinette, is now there, as well. And Gradinger’s cousin, Bill, an executive vice president, has been a fixture for more than 40 years.

What does the Golden Star succession plan look like? “Everything I ever picked up and read said you build a business to sell it,” Gradinger says. “We look at each other and ask, why? You’ve got tax hurdles and other obstacles with that, so our plans are basically, as long as there is interest and involvement with the family, we’d just love to see it keep on going. At some point, and I probably won’t even be around for it, someone will say we’ve run our course and it’s time to fold our cards. But right now, among the Julo, Lewis and Gradinger families, we want to see if we can perpetuate the business.”


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The roots of Universal Construction go back to 1887, but 44 years passed before Archie W. Smith founded the company as it is structured today. And in the long span since, the ownership changed just twice: The first was when Archie Smith III assumed control in 1979; the next came after his death in 2013, at the age of 93, when it passed to his daughter, Cynthia.

As the newest entry into the Women-Owned Business Club—or soon-to-be-newest, as Kansas continues to process the application for that status—the Lenexa-based contractor could see new opportunities to supplement its niche building schools, hospitals, government offices, detention centers and other buildings that accommodate large populations.

Its expertise lies in general contraction construction management, preconstruction services and construction forensics. And its geographic footprint covers primarily Kansas and western Missouri, but through its history, it has done work across the United States.

The move to women-owned status was part of a succession plan envisioned long ago, says president Steve Smith, who wears the Smith name, but became a member of the construction dynasty by circumstance—through his marriage to Cynthia.

“There has always been a very clear plan laid out in advance as to how the ownership structure will be handed down from generation to generation,” he says. “We are now into our fifth generation and every family member, regardless of education, started out in the field pushing a broom. All members have had to work their way up within the organization, proving they were capable of moving into leadership positions.”

Already, it’s clear that the time will come when his son, Archie Smith V, will assume the leadership of the organization. What’s not exactly known yet, Steve says, is how the actual ownership will be dispersed among the next generation.

But articulating the plan, and announcing it years in advance, has helped pave the way for the most recent transition, he said, with all seven Smith family members buying in. That includes Archie IV, Cynthia’s brother; and fifth-generation members David Saheb and Cameron Smith, Joel Smith and Archie V.

In between those rare shifts in control, the company has prospered by defining responsibilities. “Getting them involved with all aspects of operation and giving each member a clear outline as to what their role and duties are,” says Steve Smith, has been the defining strategy. “We make it clear that their input is well received and appreciated, regardless of the outcome.”

It’s important, he said, that the leadership provide each member of the family with a clear understanding of the company’s overall vision—and how each fits into it.

Successful family businesses, he said, “provide leadership through example and allow members to learn from their mistakes knowing they have your trust.” They also point out that any family differences must be put aside and there must be an “all-in” commitment to doing what is in the best interest of the company.

“We all understand the meaning of unconditional love,” he said. But “in a family business it’s Unconditional Trust, Unconditional Loyalty and Unconditional Commitment.”

Those are not words ginned up by image consultants or the HR office; they are values that are foundational to the company’s identity. “It was,” Smith says, “a corporate culture that was handed down to us.”


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Bichelmeyer Meats became a corporate entity nearly 70 years ago, but the roots of what makes the company successful today go back much further. Mathias Bichelmeyer brought a butcher’s skills to Kansas City in 1880, and passed them down to his son, George, and then to a third generation in John, 

who started the company in 1946. Today, John’s sons Joe and Jim, along with Joe’s son Matt, share ownership of the thriving shop that has survived by embracing the changes going on around them—and by doing some innovating of their own.

“We started to become more vertically integrated in the mid-’70s” after John Bichelmeyer sold the company to three sons, Joe says. “We started the livestock operation, we send those animals to the finishers, buy them back, harvest them, dry-age the beef and butcher them for sale.”

The ranch near Williamsburg, Kan., includes about 500 breeding cows, supplying the bulk of the 500 to 700 animals butchered each year, supplemented by 400-500 custom processing jobs for customers who raise their own beef, and hogs purchased for slaughter.

That process, Bichelmeyer says, gives his staff an understanding of the product line from calving to meat case. It’s a level of familiarity unknown to most retailers, and a quality that’s integral to the shop’s commitment to customer service. But it’s the only change the brothers have made over the years.

The area around the store, a short stampede from Kansas City’s West Bottoms, has been changing for more than a generation, and the descendants of Eastern European packinghouse workers have been replaced by a new labor force of Hispanics and Asians with different cultural tastes.

In response, the shop has broadened its product line, hosts a taco bar each Saturday through mid-afternoon, and conducts a food court offering tamales and other Mexican fare. The food may have taken on new forms, but the service behind it is still grounded in the advice John gave his sons years ago: “You’re running an all-nations meat market,” he told them.

The addition of a large-scale brewery in Kansas City created a win-win for both the butcher shop and Boulevard Brewing Co.—the Bichelmeyers buy spent grain from Boulevard and use it for for feed prior to slaughter. “It gives the animals a little beer buzz,”Joe says, which is important, because a relaxed animal yields more tender meat at slaughter.

In addition, the market offers custom processing of big game, aging and smoking services, and produces its own sausage varieties, jerky and other specialty products. And really—where else are you going to go to get fresh pig snout?

“Basically,” Joe says, “we will do whatever it takes to survive and thrive.” To do that in a world of giant warehouse-style retailers, the focus must be on excellence, freshness and unsurpassed customer service. But that formula works: The cattle operation has yielded reserve grand champion honors in two of the three years the American Royal has sponsored its steak competition.

“We only know what’s exclusive to us,” Joe says. “We don’t seek advice about how to run this; Dad was our counselor. We have his experience, plus what we’ve grown into that we know.”

Some years back, their brother Jerry sold his interests back to them, but Joe and Jim “have been at it so long we think alike now,” Joe says. And the key to making it work is the same advice he would give anyone in a family-business setting.

“Listen to one another—really listen—and understand each other’s thoughts,” Joe says. “Then go in the direction that best meets the company’s needs for growth.”