All in the Family Article

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Even in a tough economy, family-run firms are thriving. Here are seven businesses that have made the grade.



amily businesses are the oldest form of business organization; they’re also the backbone of the communities they serve. According to the Small Business Administration, approximately 90 percent of American businesses are family-owned but only 30 percent succeed in the second generation and only 15 make it to the third due to lack of careful planning and implementation. While the pitfalls may be many so are the pleasures and pride in seeing the family legacy continue and flourish. Our community is blessed to have so many families succeed, doing what they love and doing it well. Here are some of their stories. DaviD anD Charles Croom croom construction



When Charles Croom chose to work in the construction industry, his father David never expected that one day the two would be working together. “Some families bring a child into the business right out of college. That was something I never intended to do,” says David. Nor had Charles, who after graduating with a degree in Building Science from Auburn went to work for one of the nation’s largest privately held construction firms. Who knows what would have happened if David hadn’t asked his son if he had ever thought about joining Croom Construction? “Oh, sure I’d thought about it but never seriously considered it until he came to visit one weekend and said let’s talk about your coming into Croom Construction,” says Charles who, after 10 years of working in the Orlando market, was about to receive what he calls “A big jump as division manager, which meant a lot of traveling and entertaining. At that time my kids were pretty young, and they and my wife Jennifer are the most important things in my life.” His father’s question couldn’t have come at a better time. “I thought what do I want to achieve, what’s important to me. I never really felt at home in Orlando, but Vero Beach, where I grew up and went to school, always felt

When Charles Croom joined his father David’s construction company, he already had 10 years of operational and managerial experience in the industry. “When you work in a family business you have to bring something to the table,” says Charles. “What was appealing to me when I decided to join the company was to continue the legacy.”



Ray Della Porta Sr., his wife Peggy with Ray Jr.’s wife Shannon (both hygienists) , and Ray Jr. have worked together in the family dental practice for 17 years. “There was never any discussion about him joining me,” says Ray Sr. To that his son smiles and adds, “It was what I wanted. I look forward to coming to work in the morning and would love it if my sons would become dentists and one day work with me.”



like home. I talked with friends who were working for their dads and my minister. It took several months for us to come to terms. When you work in a family business you have to bring something to the table.” David agrees. After a decade in the industry, his son had the experience and skills he was looking for. “We didn’t define a position per se. The understanding was that he was going to come in and head up operations, which is what he did with his former company, and then get involved in the financial and marketing end. It’s worked out well. Charles makes decisions, I make decisions, and there are decisions we make together. He and I have the same goals for the company and the same values, which makes it easy. Another thing that makes it easy is that Charles doesn’t have any siblings who want to work here.”

No, but Charles does have a son, 12-year-old Steven, who joined the Croom labor crew this past summer. “He loved it, felt empowered by it. He knows it’s hard work,” says Charles, who manages five or six projects at a time. “They can range in size from a small renovation to a $3-million estate home, so my days are full. When we have a new client, Dad and I do a lot of listening to determine which project supervisor they would best match up with, and the two of us have a set time on Thursdays when we get together and talk things over.” David couldn’t be more pleased with the way things have worked out. “Charles has established an excellent reputation in his own right, not only with our clients but with our staff and outside suppliers,” he says. “They have a great deal of respect for him.”

For Charles, that respect goes both ways. “I want every client to be 100 percent satisfied. It’s the Croom way. And what was appealing to me when I decided to join the company was to continue the legacy.” ray anD ray Della Porta della porta cosmetic dentistry

To hear Ray Della Porta Sr. tell it, when his son Ray made the decision to go on to dental school it was understood that, after he graduated, they would be working side by side. “There was never any discussion. We just knew.” “It was get your degree and come to work with me and that was what I did. It was what I wanted,” says Ray Jr., who after graduating from the University of Florida College of Dentistry 17 years ago joined the dental practice his father had established in 1983. Up until then the senior Della Porta had a faithful following in Delray Beach. “It was a quiet town when I got there in 1970; a few years later developers began building inexpensive condos west of town and I saw the handwriting on the wall so I came up here. It was also about time for our three boys to go to high school and that started us thinking about moving.” For someone like Ray Jr., who loved the water and boating, it was a good fit. So was Vero Beach High School, where he played baseball. “When he was young we sponsored baseball teams,” recalls his father. “We were ‘The Flossies’ and their shirts had a big molar on the front. Now we sponsor ‘The Cardinals.’ Ray’s sons all play and he coaches. He also takes them skiing at Christmastime, just like I did when he was young.” There’s something about coming full circle as a family that appeals to the Della Portas. That and the fact that working in the dental profession runs in the family, as Ray Sr. points out. “It’s in Ray’s genes. His father is a dentist, his mother and wife are hygienists as are three of his aunts. There are lots of dentists in the family, even one in Italy. Ray and I have a good time, and that’s why I continue to work. I’m 72, I’ve been practicing for a long time and I hope to continue.” So which Della Porta does a new client get when they call to set up an appointment? “We let the girls at the front desk handle that. They ask if they want junior or senior and some of the younger women like to go to my son because he’s better looking,” Ray Sr. quips. “We have no problem with that or with practicing together since we have the same philosophies. Some of the things he’s wanted to do he’s done and he’s done them well.”

An example is the installation of new equipment, lights and delivery systems, including digital X-rays. “It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. With all of the computerization available today it’s been an exciting learning curve. You have to invest in your business and keep learning,” says Ray Jr., who specializes in cosmetic and reconstructive dentistry. “I’m a general dentist who rebuilds the house from the ground up. I believe in taking care of what you’ve got and making it better. I look forward to coming to work in the morning and would love it if my sons, who are 8 and 11, would become dentists and one day work with me.” tony anD anthony Gervasio brite future electric

“Working for my father can be tough sometimes. He’s the boss and what he decides goes,” Anthony Gervasio says. “I’m tough with everybody,” replies Tony, head of Brite Future Electric. “I demand 150 percent of myself and the others have to give at least 100 percent. I also think if you have a very good personal relationship that it can make the working relationship more difficult.” His wife Rhonda can attest to that. Tony fired her. The family was living in Miami at the time, and as president of Daniel Electric, Tony was faced with having to implement an austerity program. “So I retired my wife,” he grins. “I was the one to take the first hit.” A sign in his office – “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm” – has been a constant reminder over the years. When asked why he chose to go into the electrical contracting industry, Tony recalls his growing-up years. “When I was 13 years old I used to build electronic kits and that got my curiosity up. Then I went to college and in the '70s what they were teaching was how to become a liberal so I left and got a job in the construction/trade industry in Connecticut.” Four years later Tony and his brother decided to head for California via a circuitous route. “My brother had friends in Sebastian so we headed south. Then he hurt his back, had to have surgery and I had met Rhonda.” Enough said, as no one would change the way things have turned out. Especially Tony, who is proud that his son has come into the business. “I knew I wasn’t cut out for college. I was definitely ready to go to work and I’ve worked in every section of the business,” says Anthony. “He’s actually done jobs I’ve never estimated, like the $20-million Four Seasons in Miami,” says Tony. “I’m the marketing, administration, long-term planning guy.



Anthony heads one of three major crews; his next step is to take over all the crews and dispatching. We talked the first of the year and our goal is that, by the beginning of next year, I won’t have to come in at 6:30 in the morning. “See that?” Tony asks, pointing to Brite Future Electric’s “One of the Best Places to Work” award. “That’s what I started out to do – I’ve worked for others all my life, so it means a lot. My driver is keeping the focus on quality. We have an incredible synergy here. Everybody is willing to step in and help. I absolutely love being in this industry and what I’m doing but if you ask me what my dream job would be, it’s automated computerized lighting. If I could do just that I would be so happy. “My favorite line from Anthony was when I asked him, ‘Do those guys out there think I’m a jerk?’ ” He said, “ ‘No

dad, those guys love you. I’m the only one who thinks you’re a jerk!’ ” Tony grins, knowing nothing is farther from the truth. “Anthony and I are close. We spend time together here and outside, having family dinners together. He’s my son and my friend.” Gena Grove anD anDrew harPer norris & company real estate

When Andrew Harper joined Norris & Company Real Estate it didn’t matter that he was co-owner Gena Grove’s son. Like all new agents, Andrew had to prove himself. He soon did and it wasn’t long before mother and son became partners. “There definitely was no preferential treatment when I



Anthony, with parents Tony and Rhonda Gervasio, share Brite Future Electric’s commitment to providing quality work, which helped earn the family firm a “One of the Best Places to Work” award. “I’ve worked for others all my life, so that means a lot,” says Tony, who credits Anthony for helping make it possible. “He’s my son and my friend.”

Just because Andrew Harper was Gena Grove’s son didn’t mean a thing when he joined Norris & Company Real Estate, and that’s just the way he wanted it. No stranger to starting at the bottom and working to prove himself, it wasn’t long before Andrew and his mother became partners working in a profession they both love. So does Andrew’s wife Rosy, a designer and their assistant. As Gena enthuses, “How many parents are fortunate enough to have a child come and work with them? Lucky me!”

got here,” says Andrew, recalling how it was eight years ago. “I started at the very bottom, didn’t even have a desk. I had to work my way up.” Work he did, and hard. Real estate was a career change for the University of Miami mechanical engineer graduate, one he and his wife Rosy are happy he decided to make. “Our now-12-year-old son Alexander was just starting kindergarten and I was looking at schools in the Miami area,” recalls Andrew. “I kept thinking about when I went to Saint Edward’s and growing up in Vero Beach, which is such a wonderful place to raise a family. I figured coming

here would be a great opportunity and it has been.” Gena agrees. “There’s nobody you can be more open with than family and that openness is what makes our partnership work so well,” she says. “Andrew and I have a lot of respect for each other. “It works if you sit down at the beginning and talk about where you are and what you want to achieve. We cover for each other. Say Andrew and his family need a weekend away or he’s coaching his son’s team – we’re flexible. Making time for family is important to us.” The idea of working together began to take shape when Andrew acquired his real estate license and became



associated with the real estate company Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell headquartered in Coral Gables. “I had wanted to move on to something new,” says Andrew who had been working in the custom audio/theatre industry. “I decided to look at real estate since it had worked out so well for my mother.” “I knew lifestyle and finding the right school for Alexander were important,” Gena adds, “so I made the decision I wanted a partner and just threw the idea out to him.” “It was a complete surprise,” Andrew admits. “It’s been a great choice for both of us. We’ve found that most clients tend to gravitate to one of us and it works well because we have the same philosophy. Gena nods in agreement. Whether we’re listing or selling, I love the interaction with people, and the fact that I’m involved with something that is so very important to them. I’ve seen partnerships pull apart because of



tension, especially where one person thinks he or she is doing more than the other one but because we’re family it doesn’t work that way. “How many parents are fortunate enough to have a child come and work with them,” says Gena. “It’s turned out just as Andrew and I hoped it would.” Jerry anD Jason Keen the village beach market

Sixty-one years ago Jerry Keen’s father opened Keen’s Foodtown, a small grocery store on a then two-lane U.S. Highway 1. Two gas pumps stood out front and nearby cabins provided lodging. It became the place to stop, shop for groceries, fill up the gas tank and catch up on local news and views. Before long the gas pumps were removed to make

After college, Jason Keen never expected to join his father Jerry at The Village Market; instead he pursued a career in pharmaceutical sales, yet he admits, “It wasn’t where my heart was; I felt God had other plans for me. My passion was in the Market.” That passion began when, as a 5-year-old, Jason happily helped stock Coke bottles at Christmastime. He’s come a long way since. “I do a lot of the operational stuff and my dad is still in charge of the pricing and vendor relations. His wisdom, experience and contacts in the industry are invaluable.”

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way for much-needed expansions and additional parking. Today, Staples stands in its place and Jerry and his son Jason own and operate The Village Beach Market, a gourmet grocery store on north AIA that Jerry purchased in 1980. Back then it was another small store with gas pumps that eventually disappeared as major remodeling took place. “My dad had four stores at one time,” recalls Jason, who as a 5-year-old happily stocked Coke bottles at Christmastime. “Over the years as more competition moved into town – WalMart, Publix – the landscape of how items were purchased totally changed.” Those changes weren’t necessarily kind to small family businesses. “It’s hard to believe that when my father opened his store there were half-a-dozen independent food operators in town and now we’re the only one left,” says Jerry. “You have to adapt, adjust. When Fresh Market came in it made things tough so we decided to become more diverse in our product mix, carry a lot more organic items. We created a niche market, treating each customer like family.” “It’s a moving niche,” adds Jason. “We try to carry everything from toilet paper to caviar. Stretching across a broad spectrum is kind of a hard thing to do – it takes a lot of hard work.” It wasn’t the kind of work Jason had in mind when he graduated from Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. Instead, he pursued a career in pharmaceutical sales but as he admits, “It wasn’t where my heart was. My passion was in the Market.” Fate had a hand in bringing Jason back to his passion and Vero Beach. “I was due to be in New York City the week of 9/11 but I resigned from my job the week before. I felt like God had other plans for me.” Jerry is glad things have worked out the way they have. “A lot of people aspire to be in business for themselves but it’s tough today. For me it was a little bit easier – there weren’t as many rules and regulations.” “I think we are where we are because as a family we have each other and we’ve all bought into the vision. I’ve learned some valuable lessons from the ground up,” adds Jason. “It’s not easy, as there are differences in generations. My dad will tell you he’s familiar with a computer but when I start talking about social media he’s out of his comfort zone so there’s a lot of trust on his end. “I do a lot of the operations stuff and my dad is still in charge of the pricing that goes into the store and vendor relations. His wisdom, experience and contacts in the industry are invaluable, and I’m thankful he still plays an active part.”

marK, BarBara anD suzanne leiGh leigh & co. jewelers

Mark and Barbara Leigh agree that going into business for themselves was one of the best decisions they ever made, especially since their daughter Suzanne has become part of Leigh Jewelers. “She didn’t realize how much she knew just from growing up spending summers and holidays at the store. She knows even more now after taking gemology courses,” says Barbara. “And learning from my parents,” Suzanne is quick to add. “People like her,” Mark grins. “What can I say? She’s a Leigh!” Caring about customers is a family characteristic that has served Mark and Barbara well ever since they opened a small jewelry store in New York State 40 years ago. Recently married with two Volkswagens and little else to their name, Mark had been working for The Jewel Box, a well- known chain store. The problem was, as he says, “I was working like a dog and not making much money.” Through connections Mark had made in the industry the couple decided to go into business for themselves. “Why not? We were young,” says Mark. “We ended up buying a little store in upstate New York that sold everything from soup to nuts. The fellow who sold it to us was a watchmaker and he took a liking to us. The deal was done on a handshake. Eventually we owned three stores in the Northeast until we decided it was time to move on.” The year was 1990 and, at the suggestion of a friend, the couple and their two young children headed to Florida. “When we arrived in Vero Beach we liked the small-town feel and bought a house a few days later.” It didn’t take long before a retired but restless Mark began to explore business opportunities. “What I really wanted was to start out on my own so we opened an 800-square-foot jewelry store on Cardinal Drive. I was 43 at the time and most of our customers wanted to talk to my father.” They quickly realized Mark, a certified gemologist, knew his stuff and success soon followed. So did the need for more space. “We took two empty spaces here on Ocean Drive and built what you see today. As a way of celebrating our 40th year in business we wanted to give something back to the community,” says Mark, referring to the fact that 10 percent of every sale of the Vero Beach Bracelet will be donated to Quail Valley Charities, benefiting 25 nonprofit children’s programs in Indian River County. Barbara designed the popular bracelet six years ago, and since being introduced, more than 5,000 have been sold.

Advice for Family Businesses


ohn Brooks knows firsthand the pitfalls and pleasures of being involved in a successful family business. A long-time consultant and third-generation business owner in his family’s Minnesota-based company MaltO-Meal (founded by his grandfather in 1919), Brooks uses his considerable experience to help others find solutions to the challenges of mixing family and business. “Running a business is tough enough without the added challenge of dealing with conflict caused by family dynamics,” he says. “At times the bottom-line demands can be at odds with maintaining positive family relationships and it doesn’t get any easier as the family grows and more family members may have an interest in the company. Say you’re thinking of hiring a new marketing director and it’s going to be Uncle Charlie – just because he’s family doesn’t mean he’s really the right person for the job. “Sometimes family business owners feel like they’re alone in dealing with some of these issues and they start wondering what’s wrong with them. It’s important for them to know there’s someone out there who can help them realize they’re not alone. The value of having an indeFamily business consultant, third-generation business owner and seasonal Vero Beach resident for nine years, John Brooks recently opened an office on pendent third party who’s knowledgeable and Miracle Mile to help others find solutions to the challenges of mixing family objective to deal with their issues can be such a and business. “Running a business is tough enough without the added challenge of dealing with conflict caused by family dynamics,” says Brooks, who works relief. There might have been some bumps and with clients to achieve positive family relationships while accomplishing their bruises along the way that didn’t need to hapbusiness objectives. pen. It is possible to balance family goals and values with running a successful business.” The impact of family-owned businesses on the overall economy is significant. According to figures compiled by the Family Firm Institute, family enterprises not only make up 80 to 90 percent of all businesses in our country they account for 60 percent of total U.S. employment, 78 percent of all new jobs and 65 percent of wages paid. “Like all businesses, competing successfully in the marketplace is a significant accomplishment in itself but family business owners typically aspire to enjoying positive family relationships in addition to achieving their business objectives,” says Brooks. “In my experience, to accomplish both of these goals families who work together as employees or shareholders need to do the following: 1) establish clear responsibilities and guidelines for decision-making; 2) share different points of view in a constructive manner; 3) discuss and fairly resolve sensitive issues, like family employment; 4) develop and agree on goals for the business and family; and 5) commit to being accountable for achieving those goals. “Can you have family harmony as well as business success? The answer is definitely yes, and I work with clients to try to make that happen.”



Suzanne, Barbara and Mark Leigh are celebrating Leigh Jewelers’ 40th anniversary, quite an accomplishment for a young married couple who started out on a shoestring and, as luck would have it, met someone who had faith they could make a go of a small store in Connecticut. They did, opening three more before coming to Vero Beach where their daughter Suzanne joined them a few years ago. Since then she has taken gemology courses and learned about the business end from her parents. “Just because I’m their daughter doesn’t mean I get special treatment,” she says.

So what does the future hold? Mark is the first to answer. “I feel good physically and mentally. However, I think in probably five years we’ll be here in a more limited capacity. “ Barbara agrees. “Having Suzanne here gives us a comfort zone.” “I see myself being here a lot more and the two of them sailing the blue seas,” says Suzanne. “Barbara and I are both in our mid-60s and life is good; we’ve been fortunate to be at the right place at the right time,” says Mark. “Right now we wouldn’t be doing anything else – at the end of the day the three of us have had fun.” riCK, riCK anD saBrina starr cinemaworld VERO BEACH MAGAZINE APRIL 2012


When Rick Starr Sr. needed a winsome toddler to pose for one of his automobile agency’s newspaper ads he didn’t have far to look. His 2-year-old daughter Sabrina was perfect. It was her first taste of being part of a family

business and today she is the director of marketing & events for Cinemaworld, the company the Starr family owns and operates. Going from cars to cinema wasn’t a big stretch for Sabrina or her brother Rick Jr., Cinemaworld’s vice president and chief operating officer. He began working for his father when he was 13 years old, learning the automobile industry from the ground up and, eventually heading the entire operation. Everything has worked out the way Rick Sr. envisioned it would as the desire to establish a family business was passed on to him by his father. “In 1969 we opened an automobile dealership in Leominster, Massachusetts, and we always wanted our children to have their own dealerships one day,” he recalls. “When I opened my first one I saw my peers bringing their children into the business and I wanted to do the same thing.” The cinema connection became part of the picture due to an out-of-the-blue request. “A friend of mine asked me to help him open a theatre

in our hometown so I did and it was successful, so for about 12 years I did both automobiles and theatre,” Rick Sr. explains. Today the Starr family business is solely focused on the world of cinema. Rick Jr. sees that all three theatres – one in Lincoln, R.I., another in Melbourne and the four-yearold Majestic in Vero Beach – run smoothly. He also maintains studio relationships and books all the films. Sabrina is the one who plans the many special events and fundraisers that help support the Starr’s larger family – the community. “We want to help as many people as we can; it’s always been a part of what we do,” she says. “We partner with nonprofits like the Food Bank, Harbor Branch and Guardians for New Futures. We’re happy to give back whenever we can. “Rick and I both went to college and got business degrees. I was an event planner elsewhere for about 10

years and I enjoyed that, but it was always anticipated that we would both become part of the family business.” So, Rick Sr., how is it working with your son and daughter? “I’d say every once in a while they do something that aggravates me,” he jokes, “but we’ve never had an argument about anything really important.” “Growing up in a close family like ours gives you a better understanding of how to get things done,” says Rick Jr. “Our family had a few meetings and laid the groundwork early on. We let everyone know our expectations and that this is a business and needs to be run like one. We work well together.” “That’s because there isn’t any competition – his job is his and my job is mine,” Sabrina muses. “For the most part we’re basically on the same page. We work hard but the beauty of it is that we get to do what we love where we live.” `

Rick Starr Sr., Sabrina and Rick Jr. successfully transitioned from selling automobiles to providing entertainment, thanks to Rick Sr.’s desire to continue owning and operating a family business, originally instilled in him by his father. It’s been four years since the family opened the Majestic Theatre and those who said it wouldn’t make it have been proven wrong thanks in part to Sabrina, who plans special events and fundraisers, and Rick Jr., who oversees Cinemaworld’s operations, which includes two other theatres. Rick Sr. couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out. “Every once in a while they do something that aggravates me but we’ve never had an argument about anything really important. I’d always wanted my children to be part of a family business and they’re good at what they do.”