The full passion and scope of family-owned businesses — from restaurateurs to jewelers to auto dealers — stood to be recognized recently at the 2013 Family-Owned Business Awards, sponsored by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA), the Business Journal and its sister publication, WAG magazine, and hosted by event co-sponsor Arthur Murray Grande Ballroom in Greenwich.
The six winners from among 24 Fairfield County finalists were Conair Corp., Gault Energy & Stone, Nagi Jewelers, Nielsen’s Florist, Unger Enterprises and Windmill Diner & Restaurant.
They were chosen by a panel of judges that included CBIA economist and Vice President Peter M. Gioia; Lovins Group Family Business Consulting Center principal and licensed marriage and family therapist Donald P. Opatrny; Santa Energy former CEO and Vice Chairman John S. Santa; and workplace attorney and HR counsel for CBIA Mark Soycher. (Profiles of all nominees and judges appeared in the Oct. 7 FCBJ.)
An anecdote from William Gault, with his wife, Nancy, standing beside him, set the evening’s tone.
“I started out helping, driving in the fields, when I was 14,” said Gault, a fourth-generation Gault family member and father to Sam Gault, the fifth-generation president of Westport-based Gault Energy & Stone. “I think from age 5 I knew what I was going to be doing.” Asked if he had made the right choice as a small boy, the 79-year-old Gault replied, “Absolutely.”
The event drew 125 to the event co-sponsor Arthur Murray Grande Ballroom in Greenwich.
The keynote speaker was former U.S. Senate candidate and World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon. With a nod to the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., Business Journal publisher Dee DelBello introduced her by saying, “If Linda were in Washington right now, things might be different.” DelBello also noted 78 percent of jobs created in the U.S. are created by family-owned enterprises and 35 percent of the Fortune 500 companies are family-owned or family controlled.
McMahon appeared a study in poise and success, yet the backstory she shared was of bankruptcy and disappointment. “Our home was auctioned; our car was repossessed,” she said. After battling back, helping to build a 700-employee, publicly traded company — WWE — and mounting a pair of U.S. Senate bids, she said, “You build a family business with heart and mind; it’s a very special treasure.”
The pride family members place in their businesses was the event undercurrent and McMahon embraced it, citing the massive banner that flies beside the Stars and Stripes at WWE headquarters in Stamford. “The WWE flag — you can’t miss it,” she said. “When you see that emblem, it’s like the McMahon family crest; it’s blood, sweat and tears.”
McMahon cited a number of foibles unique to family-owned enterprises, including the personal: her husband, Vince, addressing her during a board meeting with, “So, baby …” and witnessing the warm relationship between her then 3-year-old daughter, Stephanie, and Andre the Giant, all 7’4” of him. “When he picked her up it was like something from ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’” she said.
Gioia spoke to a new set of family-owned business data (see separate story, page 8) and took the assembled behind the scenes of the judging process, saying, “This was a really tough job; everybody looked great.”
Soycher, another judge, said “Family ties lead to some of the greatest successes in business and to some of the greatest losses.” He has seen family businesses flaunt their ties and other family businesses hide them. One commonality, however, is the sense they are “embedded in the community,” he said. He called the nominees “a rich array of companies.”
Opatrny, also a judge, concurred, saying, “Choosing the best was an impossible task, a flawed task. We live in a messy process.” Donning his counseling hat, he said it required “heroic efforts to navigate family and business responsibilities.
“These are real families facing real challenges,” he said. He addressed directly the family-themed audience and said, “Without you we really don’t have a country.”
Callari Auto Group joined Arthur Murray as a sponsor. Deutsch Family Wines & Spirits in White Plains, N.Y., a recognized event supporter, provided wine and Heineken USA the beer.
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