Owners pass torch to sons, daughters
Photo by Vincent Aiosa
On the walls of Lehmann’s Maytag Home Appliance Center, photos of the four generations that have built and maintained the business over 80 years adorn the wall.
One day as third-generation owner Terry Lehmann and his daughter, Heather Hulbert, looked on, the fifth generation of Lehmann’s Maytag was already hard at work.
Hulbert’s 8-year-old son, Justin, who already has his own company shirt and name tag, opened up a refrigerator and began his pitch to a customer.
“He pointed toward the bottom of the fridge and said ‘the construction pamphlet is in the bottom drawer, and it has lots of parts that my grandpa will have to help you put together,’” said both Terry and Hulbert with a proud smiles.
On the fourth Thursday in April, parents across the nation will spring their kids from school and allow them a peek into their parent’s work lives.
In 1993, the Ms. Foundation for Women, a nonprofit established by Ms. Magazine, launched the Take Our Daughters to Work program, which was expanded in 2003 to become the Take Our Sons and Daughters to Work program.
The program began as a way to show the value of education, the benefits of a healthy work-life balance and as an opportunity for the child to envision their future and the steps on the way to their goals.
Business owners are blessed with a unique opportunity to expose their children to the world of work, and many times, the children will go on to join the business and maybe even take over a family tradition of business excellence.
In honor of the Take Our Sons and Daughters to Work program, The Bellingham Business Journal stopped in on a few of Bellingham’s many family-owned businesses to talk about the risks and rewards of working with those they love most.
Lehmann’s Maytag: 80 years and going strong
As Terry beams at his grandson, he quickly remembered that it wasn’t long ago that he was the grandson coming into his grandfather’s Maytag store back in mid-1950s.
“I remember going down to the store in the evening with my parents and they would put me in a washing machine box and let me play,” Terry said.
Hulbert laughed and nodded in agreement.
“We all have,” she said. “We practically grew up in washing machine boxes.”
At his store on Iowa Street, family surrounds Terry. He works with his two daughters, Heather Hulbert and Shannon Lehmann, who handle most of the office work and will one day take over from their dad. He also works with his brother-in-law, Rob Flaherty, who works in parts and service and has two employees that have been with him for more than 50 years between the two of them, which he said “makes them like family.”
Terry’s grandfather, Ed Lehmann, started Lehmann’s Maytag in 1929 on the brink of The Great Depression. He sold old-fashioned wringer washing machines door to door, Terry said.
“He would come up to your house and knock on the door and say, ‘Ma’am, how would you like to try out a Maytag washing machine for a week? No charge,’” he said. “Well, back in those days, you washed clothes by hand, so a week later he would come back and man, you loved that washing machine and you didn’t want to get rid of it.”
Terry’s grandfather did that for about a year before starting the franchise that remains to this day.
Terry said when he was 11, he would come from school to his family’s store downtown to wash windows, dust appliances and sweep the floor. He even got to run special errands.
“[My grandfather] took me to the corner smoke shop and introduced me to the owner and said, ‘This is my grandson and he will be picking up my cigars for me.’” Terry said with a nostalgic laugh.
Terry’s father, Don Lehmann, went on to take over the business in 1965 and he passed it on to Terry in 1987.
Soon it was Terry’s daughters who were coming in after school to work around the store.
“When I was 12, I went to Whatcom Middle School and I would walk over to the store and weed out in front of the store or wash windows,” Hulbert said. “I also remember working in the office. I had quite a few chores that I did.”
Now both of Terry’s daughters work with him and will one day take over the business.
“It made me super happy that they wanted to do it,” Terry said. “I had the want and the desire a long time ago.”
Hulbert said she and her sister were curious about the prospect of running the business and decided they had to try.
“We decided that if we were going to try this thing, we better do it now, while we are young,” Hulbert said.
She said that working with family can be comforting at times, but it can also bring a lot of pressure, especially in the midst of a recession.
“If you are a manager and you have to come in with a strong hand, you have to cleverly maneuver around family issues,” she said.
Hulbert said she also feels a commitment to the Lehmanns who came before her.
“There’s a pride issue there and there’s the obligation, not just to Terry but also to the generations and wanting to be able to carry this on if possible,” she said.
However, while the history is an obligation, Hulbert said it is also an amazing asset.
“I think having a business for 80 years is pretty special,” she said. “Not a lot of people can do that.”
Five Columns: ‘It’s not just family owned, it’s family operated’
At Five Columns Restaurant, family and business are one and the same.
“For me, whether it’s family, business or customer — taking care of one is taking care of all because they are all side by side,” said Jim Christopoulos, founder and co-owner of Five Columns.
The restaurant’s interior is bright and fresh with regal Ionic columns and bright blue accents. Its décor and design contribute to a truly Athenian atmosphere.
From Montreal to Bellingham, Jim, and his wife, Dini, have been in the restaurant business for more than 40 years. For the last 20, they have owned a Mediterranean restaurant nestled in the corner of Samish Way and East Maple Street, where they have faithfully served their “extended family” of loyal customers.
Recently, Jim and Dini brought their two adult daughters, Soula and Niki, into the business as co-owners to make sure the restaurant can continue as a family-owned establishment.
“I like what I am doing and we all take a lot of pride in what we do here, so I am very happy we are keeping that going,” Jim said.
However, he said his daughters are no strangers to the business.
“My daughters grew up in this place,” he said. “They have worked around here ever since they were teenagers.”
The family first moved to Bellingham when the girls were in grade school and when they came into the restaurant, they acted as children will act sometimes.
“My mom would bring us here to eat and my sister and I would always want to get into everything,” Soula said.
“I remember something about the dishwasher,” Niki said. “For some reason, we would fight about who would hit the start cycle.”
After high school, both Soula and Niki moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington. They went on to graduate and get good jobs around Seattle, but soon the traffic and life in the big city began to wear on them and they longed to be back in Bellingham.
“My parents never asked us to come home; they were very happy for us living in Seattle,” Soula said. “It was our decision and Niki moved up here two months before I did.”
After making sure they returned for the right reasons, Jim said he was relieved his daughters wanted to come back to Bellingham and be part of the restaurant, but told them they would not work the restaurant, they would take over the restaurant.
“I am very happy, because now a lot of stress is off my shoulders,” Jim said. “It’s always been family owned, but now it is family operated.”
Soula said working with family is great because the people she loves surround her — however, if she ever gets upset with them, she is still surrounded.
“Sometimes, you go to work to escape your family and we can’t do that,” Soula said. “If I am angry at my co-worker, I am angry at my sister and if I go home, I am still mad at my sister. The same things that make it great can make it not so great.”
As their daughters take over, Jim and Dini look forward to more time off, but in the meantime, Jim said he loves working with his family: Soula and Dini hostessing and serving in the front and Jim and Niki cooking and prepping in the back.
“When we come to work, I don’t have to tell anyone what to do,” Jim said. “We all know what has to be done.”
Fiberglass Structural Engineering: Passing the torch
When Chris Renoud was in college, he entered an engineering competition in which he was asked to design a bridge.
While working on that bridge, Chris’ father, Winston, founder of Bellingham-based Fiberglass Structural Engineering (FSE), observed his son and was quite impressed.
“I thought, ‘Man this guy is smart,’” Winston said. “It was just gut feel. He was quick to pick something up and quickly move forward with it.”
In college, Chris went on to emulate his father by pursuing a mechanical engineering degree. Then, at 23, Chris joined his father’s company.
“I think my experience in high school and college opened my eyes to this whole industry and I was well suited for it because I had been exposed to it my whole life,” Chris said.
Chris was so well suited that recently his father passed the torch making him the new CEO at FSE.
“[Winston] wants to retire and we wanted to find a way for FSE to remain a family business; this obviously is the best way to do it,” Chris said.
Winston started FSE in 1976 in his living room.
He saw that huge Fortune 500 companies were buying complex, one-of-a-kind fiberglass equipment, such as piping, tanks, towers and ducting for the construction of massive liquid transfer systems, but they did so with limited knowledge of the complexities of fiberglass engineering and design.
However complicated, Winston said the systems were far less complicated than the aerospace work he was doing previously at Boeing. So he started FSE as a consulting and inspection company that acts as a liaison and advocate for the end user of the system.
“Almost immediately we started working with Weyerhaeuser and other really big corporations here in the United States,” Winston said. “The bigger, more sophisticated companies appreciate the value we bring to the table.”
Chris said the company was created to meet a need and that need still exists.
“We are still the largest and most specialized company for fiberglass engineering inspection,” Chris said. “So we are kind of in a niche.”
Chris said working with his dad has been beneficial because his father is someone he can really trust.
“You can trust anyone, but there is definitely a family trust that you can’t get anywhere else,” Chris said. “Blood is thicker than water.”
Winston said there is a natural tension between a father and son. He said he has spoken with other father-son teams that have gone through a transition of power and said they saw similar tensions. For example, Winston said perhaps work tension could flare up and cause father and son to snap at each other and then apologize later.
“It’s just a natural thing to happen, but I think as the transition takes place, there is a calming down that takes place, which is unique to this father-son issue,” Winston said.
Overall, Winston said their transition arrangement has worked out well.
“Seldom does that happen,” he said. “If we were to hire a general manager, there can be a myriad of problems.”
Winston said he will hang around for the next year or two to guide his new CEO.
“I have a lot of experience in the things that Chris will be going through, but I just need to shut up and let him go,” Winston said.