Business awards honors 20 family-owned businesses

By Danielle Brody

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Michael Harney, vice president and tea taster at Harney & Sons Teas, said he went from working his first year without a salary to running the business with his brother. They maintain their late father’s tradition of offering tea from around the world, great customer service and reasonable prices, he said.

“For us taking care of the customers is very important,” Harney said. “We go out of our way to make sure they customer is very happy. I’d like to think we do a better job than a large corporation.”

Harney said the company, based in Millerton, N.Y., was started by his father in Salisbury, Conn. The tea is now drunk in all seven continents. Harney’s wife runs the Millerton shop and his son runs the company’s store in SoHo.

Harney opened the program at Westfair Communication’s annual award ceremony honoring 20 family businesses from Westchester and Fairfield counties on February 25. About 250 attendees, including past winners, came to celebrate at 1133 Westchester Ave. in White Plains.

The event sponsors included gold sponsor Entergy, silver sponsor Sterling National Bank and bronze sponsors Ben’s Deli, Citrin Cooperman and Indeed. Supporters include Buzz Creators, The Bristal Assisted Living, Val’s Putnam Wines & Liquors, New York Life Insurance Co. and A.G. Williams Painting Co., a 2015 winner.

Bryan Mellick, the president and CEO of Norwalk-based Hatch & Bailey Co., a building supply distributor with a second location in Stamford, said he started as an “outsider” as a non-relative working at a family-owned business founded in 1872. Now an “insider,” he said he gets to be part of something enduring and see the impact of his contributions.

“My favorite thing about our companies is despite being so different, we are all bound by a common passion and we all face tough challenges,” Mellick said. “In order to overcome these challenges, we need to innovate.”

Families recognized at Westfair Communications’ annual awards ceremony spoke about transformation and how new generations, technology and family traditions have been factors in their success.

The four judges, Anthony Davidson, dean of the Manhattanville School of Business; Marcia O’Kane, president and CEO, Greenwich Chamber of Commerce; Pete Gioia, vice president and economist with the Connecticut Business & Industry Association and David Gittings, COO of Relevant Brands Group, announced the winners that were chosen from more than 60 nominations.

FAIRFIELD COUNTY

Similarly to Harney, Thomas McKiernan, director of ABERCROMBIE BURNS MCKIERNAN & CO. INSURANCE INC. in Darien, said when his three sons joined the business, he started their salaries at $10,000 less than any other employee to ensure there was no nepotism. By now, they have earned their way and they are the owners of the business, he said. He thanked his own mentors, his family, and the accounting firm, law firm and his bank, Sterling National Bank, for helping him plan for succession.

Regina and Michael Kirshbaum, founders of AGABHUMI, a store selling clothing, jewelry and accessories from Bali in Stamford and Barbados, spoke of some of the challenges in business.

“When we first started, the web was a whisper in the fashion world, now it’s a shout,” Regina said. She said they found their business’ voice online through video and still manage the day-to-day creative challenge in picking unique, fashion-forward items.

Jerry Bosak Jr. shared the stage with father Jerry Bosak Sr. to accept the award for BOSAK FUNERAL HOME, based in Stamford. He expressed gratitude to his father and to his team. He said although the company utilizes social media and the Internet to market the business, “You cannot replace the old bedrock values of integrity, relationships and just common core values.”

George Pusser, president and principal of CORNERSTONE CONTRACTING, based in Cos Cob, said technology has been the biggest transformation for his third-generation business. It allows staff to more easily communicate with architects and designers. He also thanked his family for joining him.

“You can choose your friends, you can’t choose your family, but you can choose the family you want to work with,” Pusser said. “I’m proud to have these as my family.”

Sheena Tracy, who is in the third-generation at Fairfield-based GERARD B. TRACY ASSOCIATES INC., said new generations bring different skills and technology to the business. When she started 11 years ago, the phone at work was the same rotary phone her parents had at home.

“We stepped it up quite a notch in the technology field,” Tracy said. “It’s still really important to keep with tradition, that’s what makes you a family-owned business.”

Sisters Toni Ann Lupinacci and Cheryl Van Voorhies, co-owners of LA JOLIE SALON & SPA, grew up working at their parents’ company. Lupinacci said they are going through the biggest transformation yet, expanding the businesses to 1,800 square-feet on the street level in Stamford, adding 10 stations.

“Empower people and work as a team to make great things happen,” Lupinacci said.

Marc Penvenne also spoke about expanding a business, starting with five employees at Meli Melo in Greenwich in 1994 and growing to 66. Now he also owns Bistro V (formerly Versailles). He said his children bring “new blood” to the business.

“The biggest challenge is the competition of big companies that have been in the market for a long, long time,” Penvenne said.

Ross Lodato, co-owner of UNITED HOUSE WRECKING INC. in Stamford, said their customers’ tastes and shopping habits have changed — they expect a superb shopping experience and low prices.

“The key to a successful family-owned business is willingness to accept change, being able to adapt to new technology and a new retail environment,” Lodato said, dedicating the award to his parents.

Carol Piccaro said when she joined her father’s Darien-based company, U.S. CHEMICALS LLC, in 1984, she had to overcome the “glass ceiling” and his resistance to technology. Yet she incorporates his family tradition, giving profits to a charity each year.

“Dad taught us to save money, spend money and give some away,” Piccaro said. “Now U.S. Chemicals does it as part of their culture.”

WESTCHESTER COUNTY

Sue Kegan said when she joined her husband Kevin’s family business, BLOSSOM FLOWER SHOPS, 40 years ago, the staff stayed past midnight on holidays hand-writing cards for the flowers and pinning delivery stops on the map. She said the business has been able stay ahead of itself because Kevin has adapted technology and, he added, because the family has stayed together.

Randolph Rose, of FEA HOME, said he feels blessed to work in his Yonkers businesses with his wife, Ellen, who he call calls the “glue,” and his three sons.

“My kids brought in a whole new look, I was never into merchandising and websites and advertising,” Rose said. “They brought everything new to the table.”

James Houlihan, managing partner of HOULIHAN-PARNES REALTORS LLC, said the company was started by his great-grandfather, an Irish immigrant in the 1800s. Now, a fifth-generation company in its 125th year, he said some employees have been with the company 30 to 40 years.

“Each generation can add things because businesses change,” Houlihan said. “If you don’t change you’re like a flower that dies on the vine.”

Barry Mittman, managing partner of White Plains-based MARKHOFF & MITTMAN P.C., THE DISABILITY GUYS said the company has incorporated the mission of the firm, helping injured workers, into its own culture. Mittman and other employees want their children to work for the firm.

“I think it is change that is going to help us keep what we have, grow bigger and do better,” he said. “Our children will be able to bring the new ideas.”

Steven Finkelstein of MOUNT KISCO TRUCK AND AUTO PARTS said working with his brother Pete for the past 35 years cuts through the red tape and allows them to divide responsibilities.

“Each of us know about how the other is going to feel about decisions that need to be made daily,” he said.

Lisa Cordasco, president of NEW CRYSTAL RESTORATION based in Port Chester, came up to accept the award with her family, including her father and founder, Louis Cordasco Sr.

“Over 55 years ago my dad did something no one did in Westchester County,” she said. “He did that with style and with grace.”

She said in 2008 they reinvented the business and became the first emergency, fire, water, damage restoration company to use safe, green, non-toxic products.

Glenn Pacchiana, president of THALLE INDUSTRIES, a fourth-generation business, said when an environmental company sued about 20 years ago, he introduced himself to its director. Since then, the environmental community has become Thalle’s biggest ally, he said.

“When you have someone out there fighting you, please look, there’s always ways to find things to put together,” Pacchiana said.

Stacey Tompkins, president and owner of TOMPKINS EXCAVATING spoke about how her three sons have contributed to the business with civil engineering, photography and business skills.

“Each one of them has participated at a young age,” Tompkins said. “We work hard and we play hard.”

Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, the co-owner and co-president of VALERIE WILSON TRAVEL who works in the Purchase office, accepted the award on behalf of her mother, who started company 35 years ago, and sister, Kimberly Wilson Wetty, also co-president.

Despite people thinking travel agencies no longer exist, she said Valerie Wilson Travel is thriving, with 325 employees in 16 offices, three of which are in Fairfield and Westchester County.

“There is no typical client, and innovation is what we have to deal with every day to embrace and be relevant to our clients,” Wilson-Buttigieg said.

Ericalee Stuart, of Peekskill-based WHITE PLAINS LINEN, said the company went from a small mom-and-pop shop with 12 employees and 100 customers to more than 500 employees and 1,000 customers. It teamed up with local waste management company to capture steam and rain water to help process and launder linens, she said.

Although she is a non-relative, she said the company feels like family to her.

A-QUICK PICK CRANE SERVICE, a crane with operator and rigging service company based in Derby, was unable to attend the ceremony.

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About the author

Danielle Brody
Danielle is the events manager for Westfair Communications. Previously, she was a reporter for the Fairfield and Westchester County Business Journals. She has written for the Journal News, the Scarsdale Inquirer and the Newark Post. Danielle is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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