Published on November 2nd, 2011 | by Ledger Online0
Secrets of the family business
Symposium and exhibition at University of Hartford explore local multi-generational enterprises.
By Cindy Mindell –
It’s no small feat to start a business, not to mention a business that becomes successful. So how much more challenging is it to maintain a successful business over two or more generations?
That is one question at the heart of an upcoming symposium and exhibition at the University of Hartford, coordinated by the Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, the Barney School of Business, and the Entrepreneurial Center.
The symposium, “Family Business: The Next Generation,” will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 9 in Wilde Auditorium on the university’s West Hartford campus, followed by the opening of the exhibition by the same name, which features photographs by local photographer Lena Stein. The exhibition runs through Feb. 3, 2012.
Moderated by Barney School professor emerita Margery Steinberg, the symposium panel will include leaders of five of the seven family businesses highlighted in the exhibition: Coleco, Copaco, the Simon Konover Company, Lightbridge Corporation, and Zachs Communications. Puritan Furniture and Viking Oil are included in the exhibition.
The idea for the program evolved as the Greenberg Center was preparing for its 25th anniversary this year. While writing a history of the center, faculty discovered a longstanding synergistic relationship with several area family businesses, whose generosity made the center’s founding and growth possible.
“What all of these businesses have in common is a longstanding commitment to philanthropy in the Greater Hartford area,” says Prof. Avinoam Patt, the Philip D. Feltman Professor of Modern Jewish History at the Greenberg Center. “Part of each founder’s vision was not only to build a business, but to also help build community.”
That commitment echoes the vision of the University of Hartford, says Patt, often described as “a private university with a public purpose.” Likewise, the Greenberg Center was established both to serve students and faculty and engage the greater community. “In a sense, the University of Hartford and the Greenberg Center have always felt that they are a ‘family business’ which serves the greater needs of the extended family of Greater Hartford,” he says.
The program also grows out of an interest to examine the evolution of the family business, says Patt, who is also director of the Sherman Museum of Jewish Civilization at the Greenberg Center. “We wanted to explore businesses that had a strong family component, with first-generation founders – immigrants or refugees, in most cases – and that have remained in the family and enjoyed varying degrees of success. The program examines how a business works, from founding vision to transition from one generation to the next, and how the children and grandchildren maintain the family business, help it evolve, and face economic changes and challenges.”
Patt acknowledges that the exhibition could have been much larger and include many more examples of area businesses, both large and small. “There are so many good models of family businesses in our area that it was hard to pick and choose,” he says. “We could do ‘Family Business, Part Two.’ Hopefully, the program will spur a lot of discussion: is the phenomenon distinctive to our area? It’s part of American Jewish history and the Jewish immigrant story, which tended to be a family immigration. Many German-Jewish immigrants in the 19th century started off as peddlers, ‘businesses’ that didn’t require a lot of start-up capital and that offered a lot of independence and flexibility to observe Shabbat and dietary laws. Marcus Goldman, a peddler in Philadelphia in 1848; Meyer Guggenheim, a peddler in New York and Philadelphia in 1848; Henry Lehman, a peddler in Alabama in 1844; and Lazarus Strauss, a peddler in Georgia in the 1850s, all went on to establish major department stores and commodities brokerages.”
The University of Hartford program looks at businesses established in Greater Hartford in the ‘30s, some founded by immigrants who took tremendous risks to leave home to make new lives and launch new enterprises. William Singer, who founded Puritan Furniture, came to Connecticut in 1931 from Poland at age 13. Maurice Greenberg, founder of Coleco, emigrated from Russia in 1932. Hartford native Israel Steinberg started Viking Fuel Oil in 1933 while still a student at Weaver High School.
“All these businesses were established in the depths of the Depression by people who had the courage to invest during difficult economic times and start something new at a very young age,” Patt says. “While the message is about economic success and about starting the family business, there is also a message here for our current economic climate: you never know when the best time is to get started. So the symposium is not only a historical retrospective, but also offers a timely, forward-looking perspective.”
The program also seeks to understand how and why these businesses have remained committed to the philanthropic vision established by their founders. “The philanthropic contributions of the family businesses we are showcasing have helped to build our community,” says symposium moderator Margy Steinberg. “Such businesses see the community as ‘extended family’ and through their contributions celebrate the successes they have enjoyed in the community in which they have flourished.”
In this, the first of a two-part survey, the Ledger looks at three of the businesses included in the program. The other four will be showcased in a future issue.
It was Arnold Greenberg, second-generation leader of Coleco Industries, Inc., who endowed the Greenberg Center in 1985 as a living memorial to his late father, Maurice, and as a way to fill what he saw as an important need at the university and in the community.
Arnold and his brother Leonard each served as chairman and CEO of Coleco, taking it from a manufacturer of shoe leather and shoe-repair supplies to leathercraft kits, above-ground pools, and eventually the wildly popular Cabbage Patch Kids and ColecoVision video-game console and arcade video games.
The brothers have long been philanthropically involved in the Greater Hartford community. Leonard, a graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, created the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at his alma mater in 1996, to advance knowledge and understanding of the varied roles that religious movements, institutions, and ideas play in the contemporary world. He has served as a presidential appointee to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, on the board of the Jewish Museum in New York City, and on the American Jewish Committee board of governors.
Arnold has served on the boards of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford, and was vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations. He has been involved as well at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and the Hartford Stage. He was chairman of the board of the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts and the Board of Regents of the University of Hartford.
“Growing up, Leonard and I were very strongly influenced by our father, which led me to be very active in the organized Jewish community,” he says. “I wasn’t as well-schooled as my father in Jewish studies but I have been imbued with important Jewish values since early childhood.”
For entrepreneur and philanthropist Joel Grae, “my business ventures and charitable giving have substantial social worth or I don’t get involved,” he says. An attorney by profession, Grae has also helped fund or direct several companies and research projects in the medical and scientific fields, including Radkowsky Thorium Power, Inc. (now Lightbridge Corporation). An avid art and fossil collector, he and his wife SusAnna recently donated nearly 250 antique African artifacts to the Yale University Art Gallery, among the largest collections in the country.
“After we made the donation, the museum director sent me a book with a very interesting aspect: you really don’t own anything until you give it away,” Grae says. “It’s true – you feel great when you give it away. These pieces are 1,500 to 4,000 years old, made by people who disappeared off the face of the earth except for their art, which has sparked new research at Yale.”
The Graes have also lent the Joel and SusAnna Grae Mediterranean Collection to the Greenberg Center’s Sherman Museum and donated some 30 Middle Eastern artifacts to the institution. They first became involved in the center when they funded scientific aspects of an archeological dig in Israel led by Greenberg Center director Prof. Richard Freund, where they spent their honeymoon.
Grae turned Lightbridge over to his son Seth in 1997. “I sent him to Russia and said, ‘You can come back when the Russians tell me you’re an expert in nuclear power,’” he says. “It took three months.”
Lightbridge works to reduce nuclear waste and proliferation, based on the work of Alvin Radkowsky. A nuclear physicist, Radkowsky designed the first commercial nuclear plant, using thorium to burn plutonium from old nuclear weapons, which prevents the use of spent fuel to produce nuclear weapons.
As for passing down his philanthropic vision, Grae says that it goes with the territory. “My son feels the same way,” he says. “Business is not just a question of making money; any idiot can do that.”
Grae is currently funding Yale research projects to develop new vaccines and a non-hormonal contraceptive for women. “Everything I do, I think of as my legacy,” he says.
Viking Fuel Oil
Viking Fuel Oil Company’s Lewis Steinberg builds legacy through sponsoring community organizations. When Steinberg joined his father Israel’s company some 35 years ago, he expanded the business to more than 10,000 customers and a fleet of 12 oil-delivery trucks, and eventually branched out to offer plumbing and air-conditioning services.
Starting in 1978, with his wife Margery, then a professor of marketing at University of Hartford, Steinberg adopted the adage, “non-profit means big profit” for a small business. Rather than place expensive ads in the local press, Steinberg decided that corporate sponsorship and community support would be appropriate vehicles for getting his company recognized.
Viking sponsors many causes, from healthcare and human services to the arts, community youth sports, religious groups, and youth and community services — a synthesis of “good citizenship and good business,” he says.
At the University of Hartford, Steinberg has supported the Hartt School, and the Barney School’s Upper Albany Main Street Program, a community revitalization organization through the Micro Business Incubator. He is a founding member of the Hartford Scholars Program, which allows qualified students to attend the university at half-tuition. But Steinberg is most proud of the scholarship he created at the Greenberg Center that allows students the opportunity to participate in archeological digs in Israel and elsewhere, led by center director Prof. Richard Freund.
“In this symposium, the audience of students and community members will be inspired by the stories and by the hard work and perseverance of the business founders,” says moderator Margy Steinberg. “Entrepreneurs are the single most important source of new business in this country, and small businesses collectively provide most of the jobs. The University is surrounded by entrepreneurial small businesses in Upper Albany, which we support through our Micro Business Incubator program, and who will learn from the speakers at this seminar.”
Steinberg sees the family businesses represented as potential role models for other entrepreneurs, “through their stories of overcoming adversity, responding to challenge and change, perseverance, and risk-taking, and the value of family ties in sharing the risks and benefits of the business, as well as succession planning to keep the business operating for generations,” she says. “All are key elements of these businesses.”
Next week, in Part 2 of “Secrets of the Family Business,” the Ledger will take a look at Coleco, Copaco, The Simon Konover Company, Zachs Communications and Puritan Furniture.
“The Family Business: The Next Generation” symposium and exhibition opening: Wednesday, Nov. 9
Symposium: 2:30–4:30 p.m., Wilde Auditorium, University of Hartford | Exhibition opening and reception: 4:30 p.m., Sherman Museum, Mortensen Library, Harry Jack Gray Center, University of Hartford | Symposium registration required: (860) 768-4964 / email@example.com