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Updated: October 30, 2023 Focus on Family-Owned Business

Frank talk about running a family business: The good, bad and surprising from 4 Maine firms

Photo / Tim Greenway Hussey Seating’s Brian Deveaux is the second non-family member to serve as president and CEO in the family-owned company’s 188-year history.

Operating a family-owned business of any size has its pluses and minuses for those running the business, regardless of whether the leader is a family member or a non-family member.

For the lowdown on how leadership works in these matters, Mainebiz checked in with four family-owned enterprises, two large and two smaller ones. My favorite response is from “Maine Cabin Masters” star Ryan Eldridge, who works with his wife, Ashley Morrill. Asked what he does when there’s a disagreement, he says: “Keep my mouth shut, no matter how hard it is.”

Hussey Seating’s Brian Deveaux espouses ‘collaborative’ leadership style

Mainebiz: As a former advisor to family businesses, what is it like to now lead one?

Brian Deveaux: Having worked with family businesses for many years throughout my career, I have seen some good ones and some bad ones. I am fortunate enough to be working with a family that truly understands what makes family businesses special. The Hussey family has taken great care from generation to generation to communicate how important it is to manage both the family, and the family business. It is no accident that this business has survived to its seventh generation. It has been very purposeful and intentional. As a non-family leader of this business, I appreciate that the Hussey family recognizes and values where the lines should be drawn between management roles, board roles and shareholder roles.

MB: How would you describe your leadership style?

BD: My leadership style is very collaborative in nature. I believe there are very few decisions or actions that need to reside solely with the CEO. Of course, that means that you must surround yourself with highly capable and committed people, which Hussey Seating has a long history of doing. One of our core values is that we care about and empower the people we work with. We very intentionally added the word empower to that core value a few years ago. I want every employee to feel they are valued. Another of our core values is to operate with honesty and integrity. For me, those characteristics are non-negotiable in a leader.

MB: What’s the sales breakdown of replacing older seating vs. building seating for new facilities?

BD: Our breakdown of sales between the new construction and replacement markets varies from year to year. New construction projects are often contracted out by a general contractor or construction manager who are not the owners or users of our products. Our value proposition — the best, longest-lasting products backed up with world-class service — resonates better with the owners and operators of the facilities where our equipment is used. So, while we serve both new and existing facilities, we prefer to focus on the replacement market because it allows us to develop relationships directly with the owner-operators and build customers for life.

MB: What business divisions are growing the fastest and why?

BD: We are fortunate that all our business units are experiencing growth. We sell through a nationwide, exclusive dealer network; we sell directly into the major sports and entertainment markets; we have an international business that sells in the Asia-Pacific region; and we have a robust parts and service business.

MB: What are your current hiring needs, and what jobs are hardest to fill?

BD: Our hiring challenges have changed over the last 12 to 18 months. In 2022, we struggled to find workers for the factory, specifically qualified welders. In 2023, our challenges have shifted to filling finance and drafting positions. Another area where we are consistently looking for employees is in the field of installation supervisors. These supervisors travel to major project job sites and supervise the installation of our products using local labor. It can be an exciting job because you get to travel around the country, often working in professional sports and entertainment venues, but being on the road for long periods is not for everyone.

MB: How’s business this year, and what’s your outlook for 2024?

BD: Our business is quite strong at present. We are seeing growth in all our major markets. There is some pent-up demand coming out of the pandemic shutdowns, and we are seeing strong demand from the K-12 public school markets that have benefited over the last several years from an influx of federal funding in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We expect our markets to continue to be strong in the years ahead, but we are always looking for new opportunities to diversify and continue to grow the business.

Geiger’s Jo-an Lantz on balancing ‘privilege and responsibility’

Mainebiz: How’s business this year and what’s your outlook for 2024?

Provided Photo
Jo-an Lantz, president and CEO of Geiger

Jo-an Lantz: Our orders remain steady this year and we expect an even stronger 2024. As the post-COVID labor market remains tight, companies continue to look for ways to attract, recognize and reward their employees and clients.

MB: What kind of ‘swag’ are companies buying these days?

JL: Brands, brands, brands. Companies gifting clients and employees with top-level brands continue to trend. At an item level, the Stanley 40-ounce tumbler has been the hottest item for months. We not only have Stanley, but many similar 40-ounce styles that provide the same look at a lower price point. Drinkware and apparel continue to be heavy hitters, as well as companies aligning their goals in sustainability with purchasing eco-friendly items.

MB: How does Geiger keep a publication like the Farmer’s Almanac ‘fresh’ and in demand?

JL: The Farmers’ Almanac may be a small part of our business, but it’s a big part of our culture. The Farmers’ Almanac editorial team is constantly analyzing what’s hitting with audiences to stay ahead of the trends.

MB: How would you describe Geiger’s acquisition strategy and how do you maintain a cohesive corporate culture as you expand your geographic footprint?

JL: Fit and function. How the people, business styles and customer profiles align with, or complement, our current business structure is crucial to our acquisition strategy. Customer service and social responsibility are key similarities in our recent acquisitions.

MB: What are some of the pluses and pitfalls of running a family-owned business as a non-family member?

JL: Being part of the Geiger family business involves navigating the balance between the privilege and responsibility of shaping decisions that impact future generations. With 145 years in business, it’s an incredible legacy to protect. For me, it has always been a privilege to have been trusted with this role. This role goes beyond pleasing unknown shareholders, focusing instead on doing right by the Geiger family — and that family extends far beyond those with the Geiger name; it encompasses all our associates, sales partners, and suppliers.

MB: What leadership advice would you give to your younger self at the start of your career?

JL: Short-term success is based on results; long-term success is based on relationships.

Hüga Heat owners aim for better separation between business, personal lives

Mainebiz: How’s business this year and what’s your outlook for 2024?

Colin Greig: Business has been great so far this year, but it’s the next three months that really drive our results. We’ve been busy all summer building inventory in preparation for the holiday rush. In 2024, we are expecting to scale to a whole new level, reaching more customers outside of Maine and targeting sports fans in addition to restaurants, breweries and outdoor enthusiasts.

MB: Any additional manufacturers you’re now working with?

Jocelyn Olsen: We’ve started working with independent stitchers who are sewing our cushions in their own shops. It’s so important to us to support other Maine entrepreneurs, and we’re thrilled to have found two talented folks who sew out of their homes. We were also so lucky to have found Pieceworks, a contract manufacturer in Montville, which is stuffing the cushions for us. They developed a streamlined way to get the work done so I could focus on growing the business instead of stuffing cushions every night.

MB: What can you share about your partnerships with high schools and sports teams?

CG: We’re excited to be partnering with local high schools and teams to fundraise for the boosters or scholarship programs. For every custom Hüga we sell in their team colors with their logo on top, we’re donating $20. It’s a great way to support the community while keeping folks warm at those cold fall and spring games, as well as in the hockey rinks. So far, we’ve partnered with Yarmouth, North Yarmouth Academy, Casco Bay Hockey and a few others, but we’re open to working with any teams that are interested.

MB: What’s next for Hüga Heat and the heated cushion business?

JO: We have a new product in the works that we are hoping to release before Black Friday, which we’re most excited about. We’ll also be traveling to cold-weather outdoor events across the country to do pop-ups. And we’re planning to expand into Canada with support from the Maine International Trade Center. It’s going to be a busy winter.

Photo / Jim Neuger
Hüga Heat founders Jocelyn Olsen and Colin Greig, who are also a couple, start thinking about their to-do list first thing in the morning.

MB: What are some of the pluses and minuses of running a business with your life partner?

CG: Working together every day is an adventure. It’s a good thing we make comfy cushions because sometimes it’s a pain in the ... But seriously, a huge benefit is that we knew each other’s strengths and have complementary skill sets, so it’s been easy to split responsibilities.

JO: It’s also been easy to shift tasks back and forth depending on what the other one has going on in their day job. When I quit to focus on Hüga last year, it was easy to pick up more of the production and shipping so Colin could focus on real estate. We also know how each other thinks, so we work through things more easily. On the downside, you never turn it off when you’re both thinking about it all the time. We start talking about our to-do list while we’re still in bed in the morning.

CG: And our home was full of Hüga — literally in every room except the bathroom. We’re trying to create more separation between the business and our personal life, but it’s hard. Now that we live and work together out of our home, we’re together all the time.

MB: Any advice you’d give to other couples looking to launch a startup together?

JO: Be honest about how much time each person has to give to the startup, since most people have day jobs when they get started. It can be stressful when other commitments take up a lot of one person’s time, like being on Zoom calls all day long, and they can’t brainstorm or problem-solve at the moment the other person would like to.

CG: Have fun with it. Sure, it can be stressful and occasionally put strain on your relationship, but when you look back and see what you accomplished as a couple, it’s really fulfilling.

Ryan Eldridge on ‘Maine Cabin Masters’ and married life with Ashley Morrill

Mainebiz: How’s business this year for Kennebec Cabin Co. and what’s your outlook for 2024?

Ryan Eldridge: Business had been steady despite the rainy summer. The last few weeks however, have been unbelievably busy, to the point that the staff has had two registers going.

[My wife Ashley Morrill] and I were just talking about the impact of the nicer weather and leaf peepers.

MB: What are some of the pluses and minuses of running a business with your spouse?

Provided Photo
“Maine Cabin Masters” star Ryan Eldridge says that running a business with one’s spouse — in his case, Ashley Morrill — “gets easier the longer you work together.”

RE: You had to ask, ha ha! Being small business owners in Maine is trying regardless of who you’re partnering with, add in the marriage factor, and it magnifies the highs and the lows.

You’re in this together and it has double the impact. Thankfully, I think it gets easier the longer you work together, and your roles are defined.

MB: How do you keep home and business life separate?

RE: That is one of the hardest things to do and something that Ashley has made a point for me to do. As you get older, you realize the importance of mental health and the need for time away from work. There is no better place for this than home.

MB: What’s something ‘Maine Cabin Masters’ viewers don’t see on the show?

RE: The viewers get glimpses of our amazing team, but I wish they could see more of them.   None of our ‘Cabin Masters’ world would be possible without them. And this goes for our team of builders, our subcontractors, retail staff at Kennebec Cabin Co. and hospitality staff at the Woodshed.

MB: What do you do when there’s a disagreement?

RE: Keep my mouth shut, no matter how hard it is.

MB: Any advice you’d give to other couples or families about business ownership?

RE: Don’t give up when you hit your lows, it does get easier.  And kind of like what I said above, when things get heated and you can’t seem to agree on something, know when to walk away and address it later.

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