The days of downtowns and mom-and-pop shops may be numbered, but Lawrence still has a few businesses that have lasted through generations.
| 2017 Q1 | story by Tara Trenary, new photos by Steven Hertzog
In this vibrant college town, small businesses are welcomed with open arms and nurtured. Although less common, family-owned small businesses are held as treasures, especially those that have stood the test of time.
Although small businesses in the United States remain lucrative on the whole, these days, the multigenerational family-owned small business may be waning.
According to a 2016 family business survey by PwC, a service designed to help family firms develop solutions in multiple areas of business, only about half of family businesses surveyed that expected an ownership change in the next five years planned to pass the business on to the next generation, down from 74 percent of companies surveyed just two years ago. Nearly one-third had no succession plan at all, and only 23 percent had a plan in writing that’s been communicated to key stakeholders. (Firms with a longer timeline for ownership change were also down from 79 to 69 percent.)
This drop may be because businesses are becoming increasingly complex, as is the U.S. business landscape overall, or because business owners are increasingly moving toward outside buyers for one reason or another, according to the survey. The good news is that 83 percent of family businesses surveyed don’t plan to change hands within the next five years.
In Lawrence, we are lucky to still have a few generational gems that have been around for quite some time and, hopefully, will be for years to come. But why have these businesses remained successful in such a tough local market?
“The businesses that make it do so because they offer an excellent product and an exceptional experience that creates return business,” says Sally Monahan Zogry, executive director, Downtown Lawrence. “They also offer a terrific atmosphere that is welcoming and makes you want to come back.”
Among those Lawrence businesses that have been around for a awhile and plan to stick are a few of our local favorite hardware and glass companies, all family-owned and operated by Lawrence residents who feel being involved in the community is an asset to maintaining a strong business.
Linda Cottin, of Cottin’s Hardware and Rental, agrees. Cottin’s, 1832 Massachusetts St., is a local hardware store that has been in operation in Lawrence since 1946. Linda and her husband, Tom, bought the store in 1992 from the Zimmerman family, who owned the multigenerational hardware store since its inception. The Zimmerman’s had been looking for a buyer for years and were about to liquidate the business when the Cottins heard about the opportunity from a friend. Both Linda and Tom’s fathers had owned hardware stores back in Sturgis, Michigan, so this was not a new venture for them. The Zimmermans were ecstatic the business was going to stay within a family, Linda says.
“It was a non-blood-related family type of feeling,” she says. “And the whole town rolled out the red carpet for us.”
Tom lived with the Zimmermans for awhile learning the business, and the two families remained close after the transition.
Cottin’s services Lawrence and its surrounding communities, and stocks a full line of hardware, paint, tools, lawn and garden, housewares, plumbing, electrical and more.
Linda says that customer service is their “No. 1 job,” and they think of themselves as a “community hub,” committed to supporting their customers in the same manner their customers support them. “We go way beyond hardware when it comes to helping people,” she says. “There are many other locally owned businesses who feel the same way and consistently contribute to our community. We work hand in hand with them as often as we can.”
The Cottins’ Thursday farmers’ market came about from a need of some customers to sell food and neighbors who wanted to purchase fresh produce. “So we offered them a space to do it in,” Linda says. “And we continue to support the efforts as a service to the community.”
Cottin’s also serves as a drop-off or pick-up point for certain things within Lawrence, shares information and resources with the community, facilitates networking among community members, offers ideas and support, and has even given customers rides home, helped people find jobs and housing, repaired toys for children, sheltered lost pets and opened the store late at night for emergency hardware needs, Linda explains.
She says competition is not an issue with the local stores like hers. They try to work with all the other businesses in town. “If we don’t have something, we like to know where to send our customers to find what they need, and other businesses send people our way on a regular basis, too.”
Linda says she and her staff can offer a level of customer service that others can’t because they have been in the business so long and are able to share that knowledge with their employees and customers. “We are also able to gear our inventory specifically to meet the needs of our customers,” she says. “There are a lot of unique products we stock that no one else does, and many of those items are stocked because someone asked us to order it at some point.”
Linda says she and her employees are very in tune with the Lawrence community. “We stock as many locally made products as we can,” she says. “We are conscious of our community and of our environment, and we strive to be as sustainable as possible in everything we do.”
Although Cottin’s may not remain within the Cottin family for generations to come, Linda says the hope is that it will stay with people who are as “close to family as you can get.”
Marty Kennedy, general manager of Kennedy Glass, a Lawrence business for 67 years that was started by his father, Richard, and is now owned by Marty and his brothers, Gary and John, believes his company would not be in business if it weren’t for the Lawrence community. He says though Lawrence has a large population, it’s still a “small town” when you look at the businesses who continue to support Lawrence. “It is always the same core of local businesses and individuals who have been here the longest. What a nice group to be associated with,” he says. “We are always willing to step up and do whatever it takes for our customers to get the job done or assist the community in any way we can.”
Kennedy Glass, 730 New Jersey St., not only services the community with glass services related to automotive, residential, commercial and showers, it also offers 24-hour emergency service as well supporting neighboring local businesses through lawn maintenance and snow removal.
Marty doesn’t see the “big-box” stores or other similar local stores as competition but rather an incentive to work harder. “Several of the big-box stores send customers to us, and we do the same,” he says. “The big-box stores have always made our family business perform at a competitive edge to meet or exceed our quality of work. The staff is always up to change and challenges.”
However, Marty does think his business is unique: “I believe our business is set apart from others because of our ability to work as a family unit [and] provide a high quality of customer service to our customers and community by providing good products,” he says.
As far as the business remaining a part of the Kennedy family, Marty says the brothers have no plans for an ownership change of the business in the near future.
Another unique local Lawrence favorite is Ernst and Sons Hardware, Brewing Supply, 826 Massachusetts St. Started by Phillip Ernst and a partner in 1905, now-owner Rod Ernst, Phillip’s grandson, began working for the hardware store at 12 and took over ownership in 1973.
Gregg Anderson, early employee and longtime friend of the local downtown hardware store, believes giving back to the community is essential to the longevity of generational businesses. Rod has been doing it for years, though in other ways while also providing a quality business to the community. “His employees are almost exclusively college kids who need income,” Anderson says. “I was the first guy he ever hired as a college kid, which led to an eventual career in sales management in the hardware industry.”
Although Ernst brushes it off casually, “Well, they’re usually the ones coming in for work,” Anderson considers him an “unsung hero” who continually supports young college students who need a hand making their way through school. “Rod is generous by nature,” Anderson says of his friend.
A staple in the community for more than 100 years, Ernst and Sons hasn’t changed a whole lot over the years. Although the town has gotten bigger and things have changed, older merchandise still sells, Rod explains. “We have a lot of repeat customers. A lot of times, I have what they’re looking for.
“I suspect I carry some old stuff they [big-box stores] don’t carry,” he continues. “I’m an old-fashioned hardware store; box stores just carry stuff that moves. Sometimes I can give them more help than going to a big-box store. Those big stores, that’s a big walk.”
But older items are not the only things Ernst and Sons carries these days. Trying to get Ernst to branch out and expand the business, Anderson convinced him to begin selling beer- and wine-making supplies in 2015. “It’s become a nice part of his business,” Anderson says.
Turns out, Ernst and Sons is currently the only store in town to carry these supplies. “Beer and wine make it a destination store,” Anderson says. “People drive there specifically for that. It’s kind of a cool market, not an immediate-gratification crowd.”
Rod has also added kitchen supplies and housewares to his repertoire, and he’s widely known as the “last-resort spot” for stuff no one else has because he’s been around for so long. Ernst and Sons has drawers full of old parts, old-school hardware pieces and old door trim and finishes, among many other things.
And Rod is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to getting old hardware no one else can get. “Rod finds stuff other people can’t get,” Anderson says.
“It’s a lot different than it was years ago, demographics have changed,” Rod laments. “We’re fortunate to have a viable downtown, which is unique in the country. There are no hardware stores in downtown anymore.”
And Ernst and Sons is the last one in downtown Lawrence. “It’s a treasure for the city to have something that’s seen so much history,” Anderson says.
Rod says he has no plans to hand over the reins to a younger generation or to retire anytime soon. “I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I retired,” he laughs.
Indeed, doing business in this country has dramatically changed in the last 100 years. Big-box stores have all but taken over. But Lawrence is still unique, with its quaint downtown atmosphere and small-town charm. So what is it that keeps this town’s small-business climate intact, at least for now?
“Interacting directly with the owner gives a feeling of security that the business is in good hands and that, should any issues arise, they will be addressed to your satisfaction,” Downtown Lawrence’s Zogry explains. “Longevity also means a larger, more loyal customer base and probably less debt for these business owners so that they can weather any downturns in the economy. Starting up a mom-and-pop shop is tougher every year as rent and property taxes increase.”