Christopher Wadsworth Brown wasn't even a glint in his great-great-great-grandfather's eye when the family business was founded in 1818, but as the current president of S.L. Wadsworth & Son, Brown knows a thing or two about keeping a business afloat through good times and bad.
"You have to keep the customer's needs in the forefront," he says. "I don't think that's changed since the business was started."
Back in 1818, Samuel B. Wadsworth founded S.L. Wadsworth & Son as a ship chandlery in downtown Eastport, just across the street from the company's current location. The business might have kept its original address if it hadn't been swept out to sea in the Groundhog Day Gale of 1976.
But dealing with adversity has been a mainstay of the business as much as the marine supplies the company has been selling since it first opened. It's also part of the reason S.L. Wadsworth & Son was selected to receive the Maddy Corson Award from the Institute for Family-Owned Business last month. The retailer is open year-round, offering the inventory of a general store, hardware store, pharmacy and gift shop under one roof. It recently welcomed the seventh generation of Wadsworth kin into its long list of proprietors.
Mainebiz chatted recently with Brown, who with his brother, Scott, is heading the company now. The following is an edited transcript.
Mainebiz: How do you stay open for nearly 200 years?
Brown: Well, a lot has changed obviously, but through it all, S.L. Wadsworth & Son has always adapted to the needs of the community, because an island's needs are specific.
Can you give us an example?
For instance, a lot changed between the turn of the century and the 1930s. Much of our business was servicing ships [that were powered by sails], and then came the engines. So ships from England that used to stop at Nova Scotia and Maine for supplies could go all the way to Boston. It was the introduction of the engine that changed everything for us, and changed Eastport, too.
Are things going well now?
They are. We opened a gift shop that focuses on nautical-themed things to take advantage of the change in the tourist community that started about 15 years ago. We've quadrupled sales over the last 15 years. More recently, we put an end cap of office supplies in the store [because an office-supply store] closed and then some Band-Aids, aspirin and other medical supplies when the downtown pharmacy closed. Our customers are a mix of locals and tourists. A lot of people appreciate that when they walk into the store, it is an old-time hardware store with quite a bit of character.
Are you anticipating any new lines of business that reflect how Eastport is changing?
There are constantly things in motion. Now there are initiatives to harness tidal power. So we stock up to meet their needs. There's a new conveyor at the port of Eastport. It's the little things we do. For instance, there is a certain type of glove they need at the port and we order and stock it. It's a different type of glove you need for handling cattle versus what you need to handle paper. We constantly make changes to meet the community's needs.