Balanced on faux cowhide-covered crutches, Stew Leonard Jr., the president and CEO of the family-named grocery store chain, said family businesses are “close to our heart.”
“We really put family business up on a pedestal and really love working with them,” he said.
Leonard was the keynote speaker at the annual Westfair Communications Family-Owned Business Awards on Feb. 26.
The event held at 1133 Westchester Ave. in White Plains did just that, honoring 20 businesses from Westchester and Fairfield counties. More than 230 attendees networked then watched as co-workers, family members, friends and neighbors accepted their awards.
Leonard is the third generation to work at the store, which started as a milk production and delivery business in the 1920s.The family now has more than 2,000 employees in locations in Connecticut and New York state and has been named one of Fortune magazine’s best 100 places to work.
Even so, the Leonard family has established a rule that the next generation has to work elsewhere for three years before joining the business. Leonard said his brother Tom is responsible for that rule because as a kid, he left his job at the store for spring break without permission from his manager. When he returned, his father, who was also his boss, had to fire him and then console him.
Joe McCoy, region manager and senior vice president of People’s United Bank, the platinum sponsor of the event, said he loves to hear stories about how businesses got their start and where they want to go.
“That’s really what gets me up in the morning and really drives my passion for what I do, listening to you guys and really hearing the passion in your voices for your businesses is really remarkable,” McCoy said.
Other event sponsors included gold sponsor Entergy, silver sponsor Frontier Communications, and bronze sponsors Buzz Creators, Citrin Cooperman and Sikorsky. Additional sponsors were Dessertist, Val’s Putnam Wines & Liquors and Barksdale Home Care Services Corp.
A panel of industry leaders also contributed to the event, choosing the winners out of the 60 nominees. The judges each spoke about the importance of family-owned businesses before introducing the honorees.
Pete Gioia, vice president and economist, Connecticut Business & Industry Association, a partner in the event, said it was difficult to narrow down the list of nominees.
“All of the respondents were terrific, all winners in their own right,” Gioia said.
Donald Janezic, executive vice president and treasurer of Bigelow Tea, has worked at a family-owned business for 28 years. He said he has seen firsthand the caring nature of family businesses.
“I really honor you family-business owners for what you do for your employees, for your customers, for your business partners and hopefully for the community,” Janezic said.
Eon Nichols, partner, Cuddy & Feder LLP, said the awards were “well-deserved.”
“Poring over the materials submitted, you can really see the heart and soul of the companies and the great community services that you guys do,” Nichols said.
Joseph Armentano, CEO of Paraco Gas Corp. spoke about his connection to the people in the room. His father, who started his own family businesses from his garage in 1968, played golf with Jim Bilotta, the founder of winner Bilotta Kitchens. Armentano has used People’s United Bank since 1999 and hired George Williams of A.G. Williams Painting Co., another winner, to paint his house about 25 years ago.
“The check is in the mail,” Armentano joked. “I guess if you’re in business long enough you get to know people.”
Anthony Davidson, dean of the Manhattanville School of Business, said family-owned businesses have a huge contribution to society and great impact on their communities. Along with the other judges, he said making a decision was difficult because of the “passionate submissions.”
The professor and entrepreneur posed the question to all the businesses accepting awards: “What is the single most important factor that propelled your business to where it is today?”
Michael Diamond of AffinEco said his father, who founded the Bridgeport-based maintenance and cleaning company in 1966, would drive him around in the car until a problem was solved. His father’s lessons made the business what it is today, Diamond said.
“At a young age that’s how we learned persistence and commitment to wanting to propel the family.”
George Williams of A.G. Williams Painting Co. said his grandfather, a Greek immigrant who started the Pelham company in 1906, had a motto he and his staff still use today: “Work hard and play by the rules, and you’re gonna succeed.” Williams said maintaining his grandfather’s attitude has contributed to the company’s success.
“I could stand here and tell you it’s about me, it’s about our team, it’s about the work we do, it’s about our customers, and that’s all true, but it’s really about my grandfather. He instilled in our family a culture, a culture of honesty, a culture of accountability, integrity and reliability. And that culture has been handed down through our family, through our employees to this day.”
Kymberly Weiner of Best Plumbing Tile & Stone attributed her family and employees to the Scarsdale company’s success and ability to be independent.
“In our industry, a lot of family-owned businesses are being bought up by larger corporations and we remain independent and plan to continue to remain independent,” Weiner said. “The major factor is the support of management and our employees. They understand that our value is best realized if we remain independent and family owned.”
Jim Bilotta of Bilotta Kitchens said the Mamaroneck company has succeeded because the staff has built trust with their clients within its 50 years.
“While my father years ago used the handshake to sign the deal, today the contracts our clients sign are still based on that trust. It’s still trust, it’s still back to the basics.”
Paul Bonomo Jr. of Cannondale Generators Inc. in Wilton said persistence, hard work and sacrifice have gotten him through the hard times.
“I’m going to paraphrase President Calvin Coolidge, who said that persistence alone is the most important factor, it’s not genius or talent or education; only persistence and determination.”
Jeff Alexander of Commerce Packaging said its success is twofold. The Alexanders, who work at the third-generation Norwalk company, have learned to keep family and business separate, and benefit from “brutal honesty.” On the business side, the Alexanders value customer service.
“We know that a lot of people can offer what we do, but we’ve done everything we can for them.”
Marianne Curto-Giannettino of Curto’s Appliances thanked her husband for his involvement for more than 60 years, and her son, Jonathan Giannettino for taking the Yonkers business to the next level.
“We’ve used the Internet tremendously in the past 10 or 12 years to grow the business,” said Giannettino, standing alongside his mother. “The Internet is certainly a tool, it’s a spoke, it’s not the hub. The hub is trust, compassion and integrity we have for our customers.”
John DeCicco Jr. of DeCicco & Sons chain of supermarkets said his and his cousins’ fathers’ guidance when they were growing up in the business is helping them succeed today. John recalled that when he ordered too much beer for the store as a teenager, his father let him learn from his own mistake.
“One thing that I think is really propelling our business for us now more than ever before is the foundation that our fathers have laid for us in helping train us to build a business.”
Kevin O’Connor of Enhance a Colour Corp. said his family’s digital design business in Danbury continues to grow because of his staff.
“The one thing that has helped propel us has been teams. I think anybody that’s sitting here would say yes we are family businesses, but its people that work with you, its teammates that make you as successful as you are.”
Scott Hobbs of Hobbs Inc. said having the family name attached to his New Canaan-based building services company makes the business that much more personal. While that honors their tradition, he said the staff constantly prepare for what’s ahead.
“We’ve always adapted, looking out for the long term. How do we make customers customers for life? How do we actively train and retain the best employees and how do we make sure we give back to the communities so they’re there for us?”
Dr. Ross Fishman of Innovative Health Systems, a substance-use disorder clinic in White Plains, said while unfortunate, the increase in substance use over the last 30 years has propelled the business. He said he, his wife, daughter and staff have responded by modifying and upgrading their treatment strategies.
“This and the personal recommendations of the thousands of patients that we have served over the years have provided a continuous flow of individuals to our facility ranging from executives all the way down to the homeless. Our hallmark of our longevity has been the ability to provide individualized personal attention and to maintain our patient’s confidentiality.”
Jason Schiciano of Levitt-Fuirst Associates Ltd. said the strong relationship between the two families who own the independent insurance company in Yonkers has helped them maintain a reputable business externally and internally.
“It’s that respect and trust that allow us to have respect and trust for our employees, for our clients, for our business partners. Secondly, it’s treating our employees like our family.”
Gary Lisiewski of New England Total Energy said the family’s vision that they wanted to “own the whole home,” inspired them to add services like heating oil, propane, natural gas and more. Besides the heating services, the Greenwich company also focuses on its customer service.
“We had to reinvent ourselves so we can continually grow the business and we have a great staff of people that work for us. A lot of customers continually trust and value our service.”
Linda Rey of Rey Insurance bought the Sleepy Hollow business from her father in 2013 with her sister. As the co-owners, she said they continue to use the lessons he instilled in them.
“I think the most important thing for us is that our father taught us to be resourceful and figure it out, and so we’ve been figuring out now for almost 20 years between the two of us. We really are proud of what we’ve accomplished and proud of what my father established.”
Paul Scalzo of Scalzo Cos. said his grandfather, who began the family real estate venture with an appliance store, realized his sons were not cut out for the appliance business. He allowed his sons to put their strengths and passions toward the company, which has led to a business that encompasses a variety of industries and many family members.
“What we think propelled our company is that our dad had the wisdom to diversify. It’s the diversification that really has created a lot of synergies between the companies. What that’ll do is really aggressively get our consumer base calling from one company to the other.”
Stewart Strauss of Strauss Paper Co. said the janitorial and cleaning supplies distribution company in Port Chester started by his German immigrant parents is “truly the American dream.” Today there are more than 80 employees, who Strauss said are integral in their success.
“Our business is all about our people, making sure we get the best people that can work well with the culture at Strauss.”
John Fahey of T.F. Andrew Carpet One Floor & Home said he and his siblings used to sit around the dining room table helping their father, the founder of the Elmsford company, stuff envelopes to put in mailboxes throughout Westchester County. His family continues to take their father’s values to heart.
“I think the greatest thing that has helped us as a company is simple — hard work and treating people right. My dad taught us at an early age to be hard workers. We were a team back then and we still are now, and it’s been very successful.”
Douglas Wade of Wade’s Dairy in Bridgeport brought the whole “Wade Brigade” on stage to accept his award. He said his parents instilled in him strong family values.
“Our people are very important to us and it translates to great customer service when everyone is engaged and everyone is working together. I’m very proud of my family and everything we have accomplished.”
After accepting his own award, he presented Stew Leonard Jr. with a 1965 milk bottle of his personal collection from Conover Farms, which Leonard’s father owned and operated. Trying not to drop his crutches or microphone, Leonard accepted with a smile.
Two winners, Craig’s Fine Jewelry of Ridgefield and Triax of Norwalk, were unable to attend.