Janesville's oldest businesses share similarities

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Jim Leute
Saturday, September 14, 2013

JANESVILLE--Neal Schneider considers himself lucky to have survived his first day as the sole owner of a Janesville funeral home—at least luckier than his former partner, who died that morning.

Harris Ace Hardware got lucky in 1957 when the owner died and left the business to his son and daughter, neither of whom had much experience with or excitement for the hardware business.

The company had an outstanding general manager, a non-family member who was able to carry the company as the neophytes learned their way.

While luck usually plays a role in the survival of any business, the owners of several of Janesville's oldest attribute their survival to a passion and culture that's often unique to a family.

Janesville is home to several businesses that are more than 100 years old.

While Rock Road and City CARSTAR are among local businesses celebrating centennials this year, they're down the list of the city's oldest.

The oldest Janesville business is Bliss Communications, publisher of The Gazette.  Levi Alden and Z.A. Stoddard started the newspaper in 1845, and various members of the Bliss family have owned it for 130 years.

Family ownership is a hallmark of businesses that survive decade after decade, said Deb Houden, executive director of the University of Wisconsin Family Business Center.

“Families tend to share long-term values, and survival takes generational views,” she said, adding that a majority of the oldest Fortune 500 companies are family businesses.

“They typically outperform non-family businesses. Families are very unified in their values and goals, and that leads to longevity.”

That's doesn't mean a family business is guaranteed success.

In fact, Houden said, statistics indicate otherwise.

“Only about 30 percent of family businesses survive to a second generation, and just 10 to 12 percent make it to the third,” she said. “Only 4 or 5 percent get to the fourth generation, so it's very rare to get that old.

“It's also very impressive.”


J.P. Cullen & Sons is a Janesville-based general contractor reaching into its fifth generation of the Cullen family.

“I suppose luck has played a part in it, but from generation to generation there's been a passion and love for continuing what the previous generation laid out for us,” said David Cullen, chief executive officer of the company he co-owns with his brothers Mark and Richard.

“There's a tremendous amount of pride, and you don't want to be the generation that drops the ball.”

Skip Bliss shares that sentiment. The owner of Bliss Communications thinks about it often as he leads a family business that's in an industry undergoing significant transition.

“I'm very conscious of the people before me who built this business,” Bliss said. “There's a sense of stewardship, and I'm routinely asking myself whether I'm doing the right things and what kind of shape I will leave the business in.

“Sometimes I get down, but then I then realize there were some in this family who found a way to get through the Great Depression, labor strikes and world wars. They made it … then I stop feeling sorry for myself.”

As new generations are born to the family, they're often born to the family's business, Houden said.

“It's almost like the chicken or the egg debate … what comes first?” she said. “They really go hand-in-hand. The business takes on a generational pride that's talked about and really becomes the fabric of the family.”

Dave Riemer understands that. He, two of his sisters and his mother own Harris Ace Hardware, which was founded by Riemer's great-grandfather in 1882.

Riemer's grandfather died in 1957, leaving the business to the then 2-year-old's mother and uncle.

“My mom, who was not yet 30, had young children, and I don't think my uncle, who was six years younger, had much to do with the stores up until then,” Riemer said. “My grandfather had good managers in place, and a great general manager in Howard Gage.

“The transition was sudden and unexpected, and Howard was the guy who really kept it going.”

Riemer and his sisters bought out their uncle in 1997.

“We grew up knowing and not forgetting that it was a family business,” Riemer said. “Our parents never really expected us to work in it, and we never felt any pressure to do so.

“They encouraged us to do our own things, and my sisters started out on completely different careers and then came back to the business.”

Cullen echoed that sentiment, saying his aspirations for a career in the family business only came together as he learned about business management in college.

“My family knows that we're all individuals and the business is not something you're pushed into,” Cullen said. “It's a family business, and it's here, but you've got to earn it.

“It's not just something that's going to be handed to you.”


Neal Schneider and his wife became sole owners of the Nelson-Schneider Funeral Home in 1962.

Schneider's grandfather and father were licensed funeral directors. His two sons and a grandson are licensed and involved in what today is known as Schneider Apfel Schneider & Schneider Funeral Home and Crematory.

That's five generations of Schneiders, including three in the Janesville business.

Schneider credits the business' longevity to a deep sense of caring that's been passed from generation to generation.

“To serve families, you really have to step over to the other side and try to feel as they feel,” Schneider said. “When JFK was assassinated in 1963, the whole country was in mourning for four or five days. It was a tragic loss, but it is not any different than for a family who has just lost as husband, wife, mother or father.

“It's the same, not just as grand a scale. We have to understand that it's a tragedy, and we have to get ourselves to the other side to help families.”

That's a challenge the business faces every day. It's also a challenge given the backdrop of the business being a family business.

“Like all family businesses, you have the added dynamic of working with siblings or other family members,” Riemer said. “It's different than working with someone outside the family.”

Riemer said he and his siblings have been successful in assigning specific jobs to each and keeping family issues out of business decisions.

“You just can't let personal feelings about a sibling enter the situation,” he said. “We each do our jobs and don't cross into the personal side.

“We all get along, but sure, we can have an issue during the day but still be able to go out for dinner that night.”

That's a perspective shared by Schneider and Cullen, who said that while their respective businesses have rarely created major family “problems,” they have created “issues.”

“Families are families, and when you marry a business with a family you have to work very hard to keep the family issues on one agenda and the business issues on another agenda,” Cullen said. “It's critical to communicate because if you don't, it could be fatal to both the business and the family.”

Internal family issues aside, Bliss said family businesses create a culture that's appealing to non-family members.

“The organization takes on a family culture and personality,” he said. “Sure, there are always greener pastures, but when you ask people why they stay, it's usually because they like the culture of a family business, and I think that helps attract the best people.”


Fred Gray's business, Gray Brewing, is the second-oldest in Janesville. It, too, has been a family business from its launch in 1856 by Joshua Converse Gray, Fred's great-great-grandfather.

“I really think the reason we have survived so long is that we have always been a small, hands-on operation,” Gray said. “With it being a family business, you grow up with it and just stay with it.”

Gray grew up with the business through a variety of product changes and an arson fire that destroyed the brewery on West Court Street in 1992.

“We're unique in that we've always been handcrafted, that we do everything here and that everyone is capable of doing everything,” he said. “The upside is that everybody is very passionate about what we do. The downside is it's sometimes tough to leave work on Court Street.”

Gray said the business has been on the cutting edge of industry trends, ready to change and grow at the risk of becoming stale.

While family values and passion are important, the ability to change and offer products or services that people want to buy is critical, local business owners agreed.

“I would credit our longevity to our customer base that has been so supportive over the years,” said Richard Leyes of Janesville Floral, which was founded in 1893 in the 200 block of South Main Street. “We've always tried to offer the best services and the best products available.”

Schneider said his business and its services also have changed over the years. Thirty years ago, the business had few if any cremations. The funeral home recently added a crematory to handle a service that Schneider said now accounts for a significant part of his business.

“The business has to adapt to changes because if you don't change, someone else will do it for you,” he said.

Cullen also believes businesses need to keep up with the times, particularly family businesses that might be more susceptible to long-entrenched, generational ways of doing things.

He and his brothers are close in age and are much nearer the ends of their careers than the beginnings.

Yet they still pay attention to change management, a business philosophy for transition from one generation or group to another

“We recognize that it has to be done, particularly now with the fifth generation of the family coming in,” Cullen said. “Outsiders are also important as a succession takes place.

“You need good outside leaders who can run with the ball and teach the newcomers who sometimes need the tough love that the owners can't deliver.”

Sometimes, however, those transitions never materialize.

Not all family businesses survive to the next generation, and there's no shame in that, Cullen and Houden said.

The reasons are many.

“Often times, the kids just don't want to be involved,” Houden said. “Sometimes, the parents just want to sell the business. Other times, the business has outlived its useful life.

“The reasons for a business not surviving are not necessarily bad. Generally, family businesses still last longer than non-family businesses.”

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