Generations: A look into the business of family
Author: Frank Dunne, Jr. | Photographer: Photography by Anne
How often have you heard the advice, “Never work with friends or family”? Who knows where that originated? Probably with somebody who had a falling out with a friend or a cousin over some business deal. The question is, if that’s such sage advice, why do so many family businesses thrive? We have quite a few here on Hilton Head Island. Let’s talk to some of them and find out the secrets to their success.
Leonard’s Haircutting II
Len Ciliento pulls out an old, circa 1970s, yellowed newspaper article from the Wallington (New Jersey) Leader. It’s about a barbershop—one he inherited from his father and had been in the family for 40 years. The article quotes Ciliento as saying prophetically that his oldest daughter Lori, then 11 years old, was already expressing an interest in cutting hair. Today Len Ciliento and Lori Hall stand side by side behind barber chairs at Leonard’s Haircutting II, that little barbershop complete with a barber pole in the Fountain Center on Hilton Head Island.
Ciliento and Hall are two pretty easy going folks to begin with, so working together isn’t likely to be a problem. But the nature of the business does help in that regard. “It’s not the kind of job where we’re really working together,” Hall said. “Yeah, we spend the whole day together, but we really don’t get to talk that much. I’m with my customers and he’s with his.”
“Then when we close the doors I go this way and she goes that way,” Ciliento added.
Both agree that the best part of their business is that they can look at their clients not so much as clients, but as friends. “Think about it,” Hall said. “You spend more time with me than with your sister.” (Author’s note: She’s right. My sister lives in Boston.). To that Ciliento added that it is really a special experience because they get to know people so well. “You have people come in, then their kids come in and you see them grow up and get married. You get to see all these generations and get to know these families. Then to be able to share it with somebody close to you…it’s that much more satisfying.”
Vacation Time of Hilton Head Island, Inc.
Try to keep up with this because there will be a quiz. It all started when Dennis and Jean Lowes purchased the old Adventure Inn (remember that?) on South Forest Beach Drive from Sheraton in 1976 with a plan to launch a timeshare resort. “Timesharing was a very new concept on the island at the time,” said Terry Notartomaso, the Lowes’s daughter and an associate broker at Vacation Time today. “It was a brand new concept throughout the country,” added CEO and Terry’s husband Michael Notartomaso. To give you an idea what a trailblazing move this was, at the time, Adventure Inn was one of seven timeshare resorts listed on the Resort Condominiums International (RCI) timeshare exchange. “Now there are thousands and thousands,” Terry said. “Dennis was definitely a pioneer,” chimed Gary Fons, Vacation Time president and general manager.
Fons also happens to be married to another Lowes daughter, Laurie. The couple operated Adventure Inn’s restaurant, Fitzgerald’s, until it closed eight years ago. Today, Laurie runs Sutton Place, Ltd., Vacation Time’s in-house remodeling/interior design firm. Laurie and Terry’s brother Tim manages facilities and grounds for the company’s properties while his wife Lois handles club member services for the timeshare division.
Another Lowes sibling, Linda Roberts, is the short-term villa rental manager, and Clark Fons represents the third generation of Lowes descendants with responsibility for long-term rental operations. Although not related by blood, Rosemary Bottomley, Vacation Time’s chief financial officer, has been with the company for 37 years, so it’s hard not to count her in. “Rose is our adopted child,” Michael said.
The Vacation Time clan agrees that, for them at least, the family model is a definite strength. “It helps that we all get along and respect each other,” Gary said. “And everybody has a stake in the business’s success, and that’s really important.”
“The family members outnumber the non-family members within the business, so we force them to act like family and feel like family,” Michael quipped. “And the same thing is true about the guests who come in. It’s like having family members coming in to visit every year. It makes us feel really good about what we do.”
The Reed Real Estate Group
Rich Reed observed that, to an outsider looking in, a family running a real estate business must look like, “Oh, I don’t know…sausage being made?” Nonetheless, the Reed Realty Group—Charlie, Andy, Tom, and Rich—make it work. Oddly, not one of them planned for a career in real estate. Charlie was on furlough as an airline pilot and needed a job. He ended up at Charter One Realty, where he helped launch a real estate agent mentoring program. “We were having a hard time finding good realtors to hire, so we came up with the idea that we needed to start a mentoring program.” A few years into the program, Andy left the banking business in Virginia to join Charlie, and guys named Reed starting piling up.
Charlie’s nephew Tom joined next. After running the real estate department for a Hilton Head law firm, he decided to go another direction. “I mentioned that I was open to some other possibilities, and Andy said, ‘Why don’t you come join Charlie and me?’ That’s basically how that happened.”
Tom’s brother Rich was all set to become a college professor, but the opportunities to do that were all far away from family and friends. “Tom and I are pretty close, and his transition from practicing law to real estate made me think maybe that’s something I’d be interested in,” he said. “So I went to talk to Charlie, but he said, ‘Sorry, we just hired Tom and we don’t have room for you.’ I had to go cut my teeth in the business somewhere else, which was fine, because when I finally came in, they couldn’t give me too much crap!”
“It’s a unique dynamic because we’ve known each other forever,” Andy said. “I’ve always said, with family you often take liberties that you wouldn’t take with other people. That’s a good thing and it’s a bad thing, because you can get to where you want to get quicker. You can get your point across. We have our ups and downs, but overall, it is a true blessing to work with the guys I work with.”
Jiva Yoga Center
“Good question. That’s the biggest challenge,” said Jean Rioux when asked how she and husband Ken avoid talking shop when they’re at home. Shop is Jiva Yoga Center, and though you’d think a couple of yogis would be pretty good at getting themselves into a place of peace and tranquility—and they are—the bottom line is that operating two yoga studios/retail stores is still a business, and it’s work. With two locations to manage, obviously Ken and Jean can’t be at the same place all day every day, so it’s not like they’re on top of each other 24/7; but Ken says you still have to be able to shut it down. “You say, it’s eight o’clock. No more.”
The couple met in the 1980s and, although they were here on Hilton Head Island, in a sense they were as far as can be from where they are today. “I was a firefighter and Ken worked for the water department,” Jean said. “It was way before yoga even approached our minds.” They spent the ensuing years away from the island, then came back around 1999. Jean began practicing yoga and opened the first Jiva Yoga Center on Greenwood Drive shortly thereafter. “It started as a small venture, but it kept growing like a chia pet.” Ken got involved later when he tried yoga as therapy for a knee injury.
The real secret to their success, as Ken suggests, is their ability to divide responsibilities based on the unique skill sets that each brings to the party. “I’m good at building, but not staying and running it, managing it,” he said. “Jean’s good at managing and empowering other people to help.”
Lowcountry Boil Bluegrass Band
A band may not be the first thing that you associate with the term small business, but it is. The product is music and people pay for it. So it fits. This particular band needs no introduction, because Mike and Jevon Daly (father and son) have been playing together as Lowcountry Boil for about 15 years. You may also recognize Jevon by his exploits with Silicone Sister, Hilton Head’s tribute to ’80s “hair bands” and quite a departure from Boil’s American roots music style. And if you were around about 10 years ago, you’ll remember Kieron Daly, Lowcountry Boil’s “child prodigy” on mandolin and guitar. He’s all grown up now and on to other musical things.
It’s pretty clear that music talent is in the Daly DNA, so it’s predictable that they work well as a group musically. But aren’t bands notorious for fighting and breaking up over creative differences and such? It makes you wonder how anybody could mix band issues with family issues and hold it together.
“It’s not always easy,” Mike said. “For example, most of our stuff is plantations and private parties; we play at Vineyard 55, and we have a steady job at Hudson’s on Tuesday nights. Our show is usually a dinner show, but I would say that this band is ready to go and play a bar anytime. That’s a philosophical discussion that we have sometimes.” The key to overcoming something like that is to find the common ground. “The philosophical differences, that stuff still goes on, but there’s a love of the music and some mutual respect that gets us past it.”
The year was 1972. Ruth and Berry Edwards visited Hilton Head Island for the first time and decided then and there to uproot their family in North Carolina and move to the island. “We totally fell in love with Hilton Head just like everybody else,” said Ruth about the hasty decision. The next February, they purchased a small landscape nursery and an old church building (which had to be moved from Okatie to the island, but that’s a story in itself). It didn’t matter that neither of them knew anything about landscaping; Berry had run successful companies before, and they both recognized the growth period that was just beginning for Hilton Head. It was mostly a matter of getting and keeping the right people, which was successfully accomplished.
“The first guy that Mom and Dad hired, Alfred Simmons, still works here,” said Ruth and Berry’s son Lee Edwards, who is now The Greenery’s president. The company has since grown from six to 400 employees.
The husband and wife business partnership worked well for starting up the business, but didn’t turn out to be the long-term strategy. “Berry was always really the brains behind the whole thing and I was the creative one,” Ruth said. “I worked for the first few years, but then I told Berry I was going to quit. He said, ‘Good, because I was going to fire you!’ And we’ve gotten along fine ever since.”
Both are retired now, although Ruth is still peripherally involved with the antique shop (the converted old church building) at The Greenery’s retail site, and the company is now employee owned. Lee says, however, that it still maintains the culture of a family business. “It has been a family business and now it’s an employee-owned business, but it’s always had the same attitude. I’m still running the company and Mom and Dad aren’t as involved anymore, but it’s still got a family kind of feeling.”
Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks
When he heard that Hudson’s was for sale in 1974, Brian Carmines wasn’t quite sure what that meant. “Somebody said, it’s an old rundown fish camp on Hilton Head Island,” Carmines said. It makes you wonder what he saw as the upside. “I just wanted to get out of the banking business.” Today, Brian’s son Andrew is at the Hudson’s helm. His wife Erin, Hudson’s marketing director, sees a common thread in her husband’s choice to join the business. “He just wanted to get away from a desk job too,” she said. Like father, like son.
Andrew worked in the business growing up, “Cigarette butt duty in the parking lot when I screwed up,” he said, but went off on a different path after college and worked in the corporate offices of a hotel company in California for a few years. “It was, you know, every morning, sales meeting, 8 o’clock.” From that perspective, the restaurant business looked better and better. “I’ve always enjoyed the restaurant business. Growing up you don’t realize how much you pick up just from inheriting traits and knowledge of the business. Now there’s nothing that I’d rather do.”
Brian is somewhere between semi-retired and retired and says letting go has been the greatest challenge. “I have blood, sweat, and tears in the enterprise. Clearly it’s not going to go on that way forever, but the psychological perspective of passing it on has been a personal issue.” In the meantime, Andrew likes having an in-house consultant. “Having my dad as a sounding board is invaluable. He’s seen every possible scenario that can come down the pike. For me, that’s the most positive thing about it.”
Both agree that the family culture in management spills over in a positive way to the staff. “Because we have the family aspect over here, it definitely trickles over to there,” said Andrew, to which Erin added, “It’s like having a whole bunch of teenage children.”