“Let’s build something cool together” could be a good motto for any business, but it’s an especially apt one for family-run companies. And in an era when giant corporations seem to be taking over the world, family-owned businesses still make up two-thirds of all enterprises around the globe, including in the United States.
Every business seeks to provide a livelihood for its owners and employees. Family-run enterprises can also be an excellent vehicle for transferring values, both within the family ranks and beyond. “Doing things right seems to be more of a cultural obsession in these companies,” family business expert John A. Davis told The New York Times.
Here are three family businesses that show the variety and vitality we have in our region.
It takes a village to raise a child, so the African proverb says. The same might be said for elders: Older people often thrive best when living in community. Village Concepts owns and manages 17 communities in the Puget Sound region, with “creating a village that feels like family” as the company motto.
“That is what is happening inside of our buildings,” says chief operating officer Stuart Brown, who is the grandson of founder Bill Brown. “They create a village of people that are their extended family, whether it’s in our independent affordable senior apartment buildings where residents do that among themselves or our assisted living where the staff is an extension of that.”
Bill Brown built El Dorado West in Burien in 1975 to offer an alternative to traditional nursing homes. “He saw he could build a place for seniors who were more independent and active,” says Stuart Brown. Bill’s sons, Steve (now president and CEO) and Rick, grew the company during the 1980s and 1990s. Village Concepts now employs 475 people and is updating its older properties to meet what people want now, often including a range of living choices in one community.
“We’ve been in continuous operation since 1975, but we have a building that’s only three years old,” Stuart Brown says. In fact, Bill Brown was among the first residents of the remodeled El Dorado West. “It was a nice full circle for him that he was able to move into the place he originally created and it was a brand-new facility,” the grandson adds. It also gave the family personal insights about what it’s like to have a loved one move into senior housing.
Stuart Brown shows a photo of himself and his uncle, dad, and grandfather sitting at a restaurant, having lunch—and says that’s how he learned a lot about business, simply through the generations working together. “We always had a very good relationship,” he says.
Steve Brown adds, “One of the concerns of bringing a son on board to work in your business is ‘will he succeed?’ It was always upfront that if you’re not doing the job, you’re going to have to bow out and do something else. But Stuart has more than done the job and exceeded in our expectations of him. I don’t think we’ve had any major arguments. We were always able to work out our ideas and compromise and make them work.”
“We wouldn’t be a very good reality TV show,” adds Stuart. “There’s not a lot of drama.”
You may not know the name Continental Mills, but there’s a good chance its products are in your pantry right now. The company got its start helping a Seattle women’s bridge club market a pie crust mix, and it remained a small enterprise for several decades. “We’re talking about in-the-garage small,” says John Heily, current CEO and chair, who recently marked 50 years with the company. It had fewer than 20 employees when he took over from his dad.
Today, Krusteaz baking mixes are part of a growing Continental Mills portfolio that includes Alpine spiced cider and licensed brands Ghirardelli and Red Lobster. The company now employs more than 850, with its corporate offices and warehouse in Tukwila and a manufacturing plant in Kent, plus additional plants in Illinois, Kansas, and Kentucky.
John’s son, Andy, now serves as president (with several other family members on the board of directors). Both men have done everything in the company from laboring on a factory line to setting policy. Although Andy thought he might work elsewhere following college and graduate school, “after spending some time here, I became consumed with it. We have amazing people and we have really cool brands and assets we can leverage.”
He’s also assumed leadership at a time of rapid and exciting change in the food industry. “We’re going where the marketplace is going and trying to get out in front of it as much as possible,” he says. “It’s never been this dynamic.” For instance, Continental Mills has added new brands in what it calls “better-for-you-snacking,” including Wild Roots and Buck Wild.
“The greatest pride I have in having a legacy and having my son follow me is that the passion he has is the same passion I have,” says John. “It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve experienced in my life, and I believe he will take the business to places that I have just dreamed about.”
For many people, a restaurant is the classic family business. Mohan Gurung draws on both his family’s heritage and current family ties as he serves up the savory tastes of Nepal, India, and Tibet at Everest Kitchen, his restaurant in the Lake Forest Park Town Center.
Gurung’s father was a healer and herbalist in Nepal who often used food to help people attain their best health. Gurung himself worked in the healthcare field as a young man in Nepal and after immigrating to the United States in 1993, juggling several jobs as a medical assistant to get his two now-grown children through college.
Once he’d achieved that goal, he wanted to help people stay healthy, but he didn’t have the credentials to advance in American-style medicine. Instead, drawing on both his father’s lessons and the wisdom of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”), Gurung opened a restaurant. The Everest Kitchen’s tag line is “Eat well, feel well, live well.” Adds Gurung, “This is the most important part of the health field.”
Gurung’s son-in-law, Mike (whose last name is also Gurung), is his partner in the venture. Mohan manages the daily operations and Mike focuses on marketing. Near the cash register is a showcase of jewelry made by Smriti Gurung (Mohan’s daughter and Mike’s wife), who mainly works as a nurse but is also active in American-Nepalese programs that assist children in rural Nepal. A portion of the proceeds from jewelry sales—as well as that of photos by Cora Edmonds on display—benefit relief efforts in Nepal.
Food and community are closely tied at Everest Kitchen. Gurung says he enjoys providing wholesome food to his neighborhood and creating jobs, too. Seven people work in the restaurant, and Gurung would like to forge a culinary training partnership with a local high school or community college. Meanwhile, Gurung is happy he and his family have been able to promote healthy living without having an M.D. or a Ph.D. by his name. “If you’re healthy, you can do anything,” he adds.
Julie Fanselow writes about the arts, business, and travel and is the copy editor for 3rd Act Magazine. She lives just north of Seattle.