Success & Succession: Howard County family businesses share life lessons

(photo courtesy of Joss family )
July 23, 2013|By Pete Pichaske

Some of the most valuable lessons don’t come from textbooks. They come from experience. And as is the case in many family businesses, gems of wisdom are passed down from one generation to the next. Whether it’s the secret ingredient to the spaghetti sauce, how to win over hesitant clients or where best to plant the crop, time-tested knowledge helps a family business thrive.

Howard magazine asked five local family enterprises to share their stories -- along with both life lessons and tips of the trade.

Elkridge Furnace Inn

Two and a half centuries ago, visitors knew The Elkridge Furnace Inn as a tavern and iron smelting furnace. Today, the furnace is long gone, but the inn has been revived and is prospering, thanks to a pair of Howard County brothers.

Established in 1744 on the banks of the Patapsco River, the inn had fallen into disrepair by the late 1900s and was owned by the state. In 1988, Daniel and Steve Wecker leased the inn from the state, which was planning on demolishing it, and agreed to restore it.

They opened a part-time catering business in 1992 and a part-time restaurant two years later. By 1997, both operations were running full time.

Steve Wecker left the business after several years. He and a different brother, Rob, now operate another well-known Howard County restaurant, the Iron Bridge Wine Co. in Columbia. But plenty of Weckers remain at the Elkridge Furnace Inn.

Besides Daniel Wecker, 54, a trained chef, the staff includes his father, who works as a handyman; his wife, a hostess who also does marketing; his daughter, a pastry chef; his son, assistant restaurant manager and assistant catering manager; a son-in-law, a wedding salesman; and a nephew, who is a line chef. “Plus, we’ve had our fair share of nieces and nephews working here,” Wecker says.

Life lesson:
“My father would say, ‘The customer is always right. Sometimes they’re a son of a gun, but they’re always right.’”  -- Daniel Wecker

Tip of the trade:
“Make every customer welcome. Engage the customers. Don’t just say, ‘Here’s your food,’ but, ‘How are you?’ Try to visit every table.” -- Daniel Wecker

Vertical Connection Carpet One

In the mid-1970s, when Steven and Kathy Joss went looking for vertical blinds for the new house they’d just bought in Columbia, the young couple was shocked by the store prices. When a cousin in New York, who manufactured blinds, told them he could get them what they wanted at a fraction of the store price, they had an idea.

“It was like a light bulb went off,” their son, Adam, says, recounting his parents’ start in business. “They thought, ‘There’s an opportunity here.’”

In 1977, the couple began selling discount blinds out of their Columbia home. Business was good, and a few years later they were able to rent retail space and quit their day jobs.

The business kept growing, and The Vertical Connection Carpet One now operates out of a larger space on McGaw Road and sells a variety of window treatments and floor coverings.

Steven and Kathy still work at the family business, Steven as president, Kathy as vice president. But son Adam, 33, joined the business four years ago, quitting his job as an investment banker in New York City, and is now also a vice president.

“Every family business has its ups and downs, but we make it work,” he says. “I decided to do this four years ago, and I’ve loved it every day since.”

Life lesson:
“Take care of your customers. Make them happy, whatever it takes.” -- Adam Joss

Tip of the trade:
“Take your time and double-check your work. This is especially important for us, because everything we do is essentially custom -- custom-fit, custom measured.” -- Adam Joss

St. John’s Jewelers

Forty years ago, St. John’s Jewelers opened in Ellicott City’s St. John’s Plaza. Twenty years ago, the shop moved into its own space on Route 40.

But much else about St. John’s Jewelers remains the same. It is still a boutique, niche jewelry shop. And it is still very much a family business.

Irwin Farber, now 89, and his wife, Charlotte, 84, started the business in 1973, moving from the Historic Ellicott City shop where he had worked as a watchmaker into their own space. Both still work at the shop: Irwin part time fixing watches, Charlotte keeping the books.

Their daughter, Linda, worked at the store as a child, but left Maryland after high school, traveling to Florida for college, then to California for a degree in gemology. But she returned after several years to work again at the family business. And now, at 52, Linda Miller is president of the store.

Two of her daughters also work at the shop: Margaux Winnard, 22, a part-timer doing social media and sales, and Nicolette Miller, 15, a summer employee.

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