All in the Family
From its downstairs barbershop to its Playboy collection
and booze supply, Mr. Sid has always been kind of a guy's paradise, as
much clubhouse as men's clothing store. But that doesn't mean it's an
easy place for a guy to work. Especially if you're the owner's kid.
When Stuart Segel decided to go into the family business, his
father, Ira, made him start from the ground up. “He had me sweeping the
floor and shoveling the walk,” Segel says as he juggles
calls and customers in the Newton Centre store, where he has climbed
the ranks to head of merchandising. “He wanted me to know how much time
it took to do these things, but he also wanted me to see what it was
like to do them.” This accomplished its purpose. “It's not a technique
so much as Ira saying, 'If you don't like it, get the fuck out,'” Segel
Retail is a grind, as anyone who's worked in it knows. When your own
blood relations are the grindstone, it can be even tougher. Sometimes,
it can tear a family apart, as with the litigious Demoulas grocery
store clan, Legal Sea Foods' Berkowitzes, the Lenox Hotel's Saunders
brothers, the Joe Tecce restaurant family.
But most family businesses are less titillating than those dysfunctional ones—less Dallas and more Six Feet Under.
Running a family business these days can be an unglamorous struggle
involving long hours, hard work, and heartbreak, made worth it more by
the occasional gratitude of customers than by any big financial payoff.
Truth is, most Bostonians don't even know how many of the businesses
they patronize each day are family owned. Yet in this city, more than
in many others, they've become essential. Ninety percent of Boston
businesses are family owned or managed. And in a time of mergers and
consolidations, they're more and more the ties that bind us all. Even
if those ties occasionally chafe.
Boston's biggest corporations are increasingly under the control of
owners who live somewhere else. Chain stores have invaded sections of
the Back Bay and Harvard Square like a virus. Such things are as
evident as the black type in the newspapers announcing the latest
mega-mergers or the disappearance of old family firms like Filene's.
More quietly, newer family businesses are filling the gaps.
“Look at the number of arts institutions that are building new
facilities,” says Steve Grossman, third-generation president of
Somerville's MassEnvelopePlus. “The gifts that are funding those aren't
primarily from large corporations. The bulk of the money is coming from
families that have grown and flourished here and believe their job is
to be stewards of the city.”
It's long been that way in Boston, Grossman says. “Small companies
have been the backbone on which the Massachusetts economy is built.”
That doesn't mean it's always easy to get the kids to go into the business.
When she graduated from college, Nidhi Handa planned to follow her
friends into investment banking. Then her father, who had built a tiny
jewelry shop in Cambridge into what is now the four-store Alpha Omega
Jewelers chain, reeled her in.
“He said to me, 'If you and your brother aren't interested in
keeping the business, I will have to sell it someday,'” says Handa, who
is now 26. “My father had put his life into the business, and it was
growing, and it was for us. I thought, 'Wow, I need to give it a
Of course, just because she agreed to work in the business didn't
make her immune to occasional parental criticism. “He really threw me
in headfirst,” Handa says, smiling. “I learned in my first year what it
would take 10 years to learn anywhere else. And these are things you
can't pick up in business school.”
She adds, “It's never easy. He'll say, 'It's not personal, it's not
about you.' But as a child, you want to please your parent. He'll tell
me, 'I want to make you better at what you do, not change who you
There's not much time for such quiet moments at frenzied Wilson
Farms in Lexington, a 121-year-old working farm and store where the
third and fourth generations run the show and the fifth generation
works the registers, packs and unpacks shipping boxes, and shines up
Jim Wilson, one of a trio of fourth-generation Wilson Farms
principals, remembers his father taking the family away from home only
once a year: during the weekend of Little League tryouts, so young Jim
wouldn't get picked for a team that might distract him from working on
the farm. It made the point.
“I was already coming to work before I was old enough to cross the
street myself,” he says. “We didn't have a summer home. We just went to
work every day.”
It's going to stay that way, if the Wilsons have anything to say
about it. “They can't expect anyone to respect them if they don't learn
from the ground up,” Scott Wilson, who runs the retail side of Wilson
Farms, says of the next generation. And there's always the knowledge
that the family's prosperity is tied directly to the success of their
business—not to some low-stakes, interchangeable 9-to-5 job.
Zhanna Drogobetsky knows what it's like to have that sense of
obligation. Her family spent years trying to leave the former Soviet
Union, then drifted financially before buying Italian Design in
Watertown (now Italian Interiors), a furniture store.
The store was a success, and Drogobetsky and her sister could afford
to go to college. On the day she graduated from Northeastern, her
parents handed her the keys to a store of her own, in Brookline. “My
graduation present was called 'Welcome to slavery,'” she says,
laughing. Her Italian Design store now out-earns the original; her
sister, Yana, owns Bambini Design, which showcases baby furniture and
accessories across the street. “I'm really waiting for them to retire
to sell [my] business,” Drogobetsky says of her parents. “It's a grind.
My choices are limited. There are other people my decisions have an
Joe Piantedosi Jr. has faced the pitfalls of inheriting a family
business, too: the Piantedosi Baking Company, which grew from a bread
store in Everett to a $30 million?a?year supplier of sandwich rolls.
“Our family lived by the old-school Italian mentality that, whether
you were capable or not, qualified or not, it didn't matter—you were
still coming into the business,” Piantedosi says. Eventually this meant
there were eight brothers, sons, sons-in-law, cousins, uncles, and
nephews involved, which proved too many. That's another problem faced
by family-owned businesses. “The bigger we got, the more you had to be
specialized in a certain area, and some of the family members didn't
want that,” Piantedosi says. “Little by little, as our dads retired,
we've bought them out. No one was forced out or pushed aside, but the
three of us who are still here, we're taking the business down a
For all the difficulties, Joe Piantedosi sees the benefits of
working with his family. “Sunday dinners, everyone was talking about
the business,” he says. “I didn't want to miss out. On Saturday
afternoons, I wasn't out playing with friends. I wanted to come into
work with Grandpa. We'd work, then we'd stop Saturday nights to get an
ice cream sundae on the way home.”
Stories like Nidhi Handa's are more common, of children who enter
their family businesses without having planned to. But if it's hard to
bring the younger generation into a family business, it can be even
more difficult to move the older generation out.
The CEO of Kayem Foods in Chelsea, Ray Monkiewicz, still remembers
the awkward feelings he confronted when it was time to ask his uncle
Anthony to step aside as head of the business. “When I finally broached
the question, his answer surprised me,” Monkiewicz says. “He said,
'Ray, you're right.'” Today the company is in its fourth generation,
and Monkiewicz says his uncle's confidence in him was an important
source of motivation.
It was for Stuart Segel, too. After he survived his breaking-in
period, he sold his first suit, with his father watching. “It was
nerve-racking,” Segel says. “But then this customer bought a few sports
jackets, then a couple of suits, and it turned out he's a clothes nut.”
A very rich one: “My first sale was for $15,000—in 1990 money.”
He pauses for a moment. “I guess, $15,000 later,” Segel says, “my father thought, 'My son might have a little potential.'”