Passing the Torch

Back Longreads Oct 12, 2021 By Laurie Lauletta-Boshart

This story is part of our October 2021 Family Business issue. To subscribe, click here.

One of the pros of being involved in a family business is working with your family. But one of the cons is working with your family. Family firms that endure share several common traits like long-term orientation, institutional memory, smart diversification, and a balance between tradition and change, according to The Economist. Overall, they are more successful than their non-family counterparts, but each generation must step up. And the transition from one executive to the next generation can be a challenging one. 

The oft-cited statistic that some 70 percent of family businesses fail or are sold before the second generation can be daunting, but several Capital Region family businesses have defied these odds, with some tracing their roots back more than a century and through five generations. These companies show how they’ve endured.

Diversifying Wisely

Former Pacific Coast Building Products president and CEO Dave Lucchetti worked for the company for 51 years before stepping down from the top post in July 2021. “They gave me a small office without a window and cut my pay,” jokes Lucchetti, who passed the baton to son Ryan Lucchetti, the third-generation family member to run the building products company based in Rancho Cordova. The senior Lucchetti still plans to retain his role as executive chairman of the board.

“He’s going to be more than a board member because it’s impossible for him not to be involved,” Ryan says. “It’s not even like a job to him. It’s just kind of what he does.” The older Lucchetti does not dispute that. “When you’re involved in a family company, you never really retire. It’s part of your family,” Dave says.

Ryan and Dave Lucchetti are two generations of Pacific Coast Building. (Photo courtesy of Pacific Coast Building)

Ryan’s ascent to the top post was more tortoise than hare. He started his career as the operator of a front-end loader in an aggregate pit in Nevada. “At times, I thought maybe it should have been different, but as I reflect back on it now, I’m extremely thankful because I think it provided me with a greater understanding of various aspects of the business and it created long-term relationships with people in all different roles and positions,” he says. Even as the boss’ son, Ryan had to earn his way, cutting lumber loads, stocking wallboard and loading roofs. His dad’s tenure started the same way. 

“When you’re involved in a family company, you never really retire. It’s part of your family.”

Dave Lucchetti, Former president and CEO, Pacific Coast Building Products

Pacific Coast Building Products — which acts as the parent company to several operating subsidiaries — originally began as a lumber company in 1953 by Dave’s father-in-law Fred Anderson. The company expanded into manufacturing, contracting and distributing building materials by the time Dave took over as president and chief operating officer in 1979. He added the CEO title in 1989.

Today, the company employs 3,500 people and tops $1 billion in business, spread across 13 states and British Columbia. Dave is modest about the company’s success, crediting the good people that work for the firm and noting they were opportunistic in purchasing failing businesses at the right time. “Our expansion has been at our choice,” he says. “We are making long-term decisions, unlike public companies where they have to show certain growth every few months.”

Ryan Lucchetti, left, is the third-generation family member to run the building products company, which was founded in 1953 and is based in Rancho Cordova. (Photo by Terence Duffy)

Ryan agrees. “We work in an industry that is extremely consolidated these days, so remaining relevant with the products and services we provide is the goal. But it’s really about basing our decisions on the values we’ve established as an organization, and being able to plan for long-term versus making decisions quarter to quarter. This is something we would like to perpetuate from one generation to the next.”

Taking the Long View

Sacramento-based family business Fischer Tile & Marble has been in business more than a century, celebrating its 115th anniversary in 2021. The commercial and residential tile, stone and solid surface company has won numerous awards and gained national acclaim for its part in the restoration of the famous minton tile in the California State Capitol rotunda, and its tile and counter work at the Golden 1 Center. 

Fischer Tile & Marble was founded by members of the Fischer family (pictured here circa 1920) in Sacramento 115 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Fischer Tile & Marble)

This year, the fifth generation of Fischers are poised to take over the business, but that was not always a sure thing. “If my kids, Taryn and Trent, didn’t want to work in the family business, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, because I didn’t have anyone else to transition it to,” says Jay, a fourth-generation Fischer who started working for the company full time in 1970. Jay had to bide his time before becoming president, waiting for dad Harry to retire. Harry retired at 70 and then worked for a few more years part time. “He didn’t like it very much when he wasn’t the boss,” laughs Jay.

“This business is my family, it’s my life and I absolutely love it, probably because it means family to me.” 

Taryn Fischer, manager, Fischer Tile & Marble

Now in his early 70s himself, Jay let his kids decide if they wanted to join the family business, with both ultimately finding their place at the company. Daughter Taryn Fischer, who manages the tile side, describes herself as a big personality and a little more assertive than her dad, and says she did not feel pressure to work in the family business, but joined her father and brother at the company three years ago after working for a different tile company for a decade. “I got a lot of really good experience having that under my belt,” she says. “But this business is my family, it’s my life and I absolutely love it, probably because it means family to me.” 

Trent, who has been with the company for nine years and is in charge of the solid surface division, says he’s learned a lot just by watching his dad, but is a little more open to getting different opinions. “I like to bring in as many minds as possible to figure out solutions for certain issues,” he says. 

This photo shows the Fisher Tile & Marble showroom in the 1960s. (Photo courtesy of Fischer Tile & Marble)

While the transition is happening this year, Jay will stay on to oversee the change. “The business has never been anything but a sole proprietorship, and now this will be our first partnership, so there are a lot of unknowns that will be worked out,” Taryn says. Trent notes while there may be a stigma associated with family businesses being a tense environment, that has not been the case with his family. “Spending so many hours together can put a strain on any relationship, especially family, but we all mesh very well and make a great team. I think that caters to our success and has been a very cool aspect of working together,” he says.

Taryn Fischer, left, and her brother Trent Fischer, right, are fifth-generation members of the family that started Fischer Tile & Marble 115 years ago. Their father Jay Fischer, center, started working for the company in 1970. (Photo by Terence Duffy)

Balancing Tradition and Change

Maggie Bender-Johnson always imagined working in the family insurance business, Bender Insurance Solutions in Roseville, even though she wasn’t quite sure what the company did. As she got older, she also witnessed the crazy hours that her dad Stephen Bender (a member of Comstock’s Editorial Advisory Board) was logging to grow the company. 

After college, she decided to see what she could do somewhere else. “Ultimately, my personal opinion of my value was way different than my marketability, so with my tail between my legs, I went to my dad and told him I was committed to giving the family business at least two years,” she says. “That was 16 years ago and it has definitely been one of the best decisions I’ve made.”  

Stephen Bender, left, joined Roseville-based Bender Insurance Solutions in 1973. The company was founded by his father, Warren G. Bender, in 1938. (Photo courtesy of Bender Insurance Solutions)

The family business was started in 1938 by Stephen’s father, Warren G. Bender, a Chico native who came to Sacramento to set up shop. Stephen joined in 1973 and was able to leverage his Sacramento relationships to benefit the business and its growth trajectory. “Dad had a nice agency, but it was a small agency, and I realized that we had to do things differently. We couldn’t abandon values and ethics and all the things that are right, but we had to go through the difficult process of diversification and pushing towards automation and technology, and all of these things were important from an operational point of view,” he says.

Stephen branched out, adding property development and management, the health care sector, manufacturing silos and agribusiness, taking time to develop expertise and carrier alliances in each arena. And it paid off. Under his leadership, the company grew from three employees to more than 50, and from $725,000 in annual revenue to more than $10 million. Now Bender Insurance Solutions is one of Northern California’s largest independent insurance brokerages. 

“If you enjoy your family you get to be with them a lot. But that can also be a con if you don’t enjoy your family.”

Maggie Bender-Johnson, president, Bender Insurance Solutions

Bender-Johnson — who was promoted to president in 2017 — will assume the CEO role when Stephen retires in the next 14 months. He will remain as chairman of the board. She says leading a family company is more than just being an entrepreneur because you are also stewards of your family’s legacy. “I’m the steward of my grandpa’s and father’s baby,” she says. “I’m the steward of our family’s lifestyle, our history. It’s like hashtag pressure. I’m fine with that. I think I have a really good balance personally, professionally and mentally, but the pressure is real.”

Warren G. Bender Insurance had a location on 18th and I streets in Sacramento. (Photo courtesy of Bender Insurance Solutions)

She also leans on her family for support. Both sisters Alison Bender and Jillian Bender-Cormier work in the company, Alison as an account manager and Bender-Cormier as a brand manager. Fortunately for the Bender family, Bender-Johnson was the only daughter who desired a leadership position, so everyone got to have a role they desired. “It can be lonely at the top,” she says, “but you get a lot of trust when you work with family members you have a good relationship with. If you enjoy your family you get to be with them a lot. But that can also be a con if you don’t enjoy your family. For me it’s a pro.”

Preparing for Future Opportunities

Dina Vellutini Kimble now runs the Sacramento company started by her grandfather Leo Vellutini in 1971. (Photo by Terence Duffy)

Dina Vellutini Kimble recalls the first time she went to work with her dad; she was just 12 years old. She would spend summers helping out at the Sacramento-based family business Royal Electric and loved it, but didn’t think it was a career option for her. “There weren’t many women in operations when I was growing up, so I just never even thought of it,” she says.

But that changed when her late father Frank Vellutini — who ran the business for nearly 20 years — took her to dinner during a college-search road trip and asked if she had ever thought of joining the company. “As soon as he said it, I had my light bulb moment,” she says, “which is kind of silly because we are an electrical contractor, but it really was. And I told him, ‘Dad, I would love to do that.”

Royal Electric founder Leo Vellutini, left, talks to his granddaughter, Dina, in a family photo from 1979. (Photo courtesy of Royal Electric)

Two decades later, Vellutini is now running the company her grandfather started in 1971, and her father joined in 1974. “Now, if you walk through our company, there’s a ton of women in operations and leadership positions, so I think we are attracting a lot more women into the industry today,” she says.

“I think when you are a family member in a family-owned business, you are probably willing to take more risk with your career.”

Dina Vellutini Kimble, president & CEO, Royal Electric

Vellutini started her career at the company as a project manager in 1998, working in several different areas and jumping at opportunities. She never took for granted she would have a leadership position but was prepared to work hard. “I think when you are a family member in a family-owned business, you are probably willing to take more risk with your career,” she says. “There is somewhat of a sense of security, so I would go deal with difficult jobs, which gave me a really good education for all facets of the company.” 

In 2017, Vellutini became president and then CEO in January 2019. In December 2020, her father died, leaving big shoes to fill. “People used to always talk about how he would go sit in their office and have a conversation with them about their families and their hobbies, and I watched how he would build relationships with people on our team and how much they valued that. So, I try to do the same thing,” she says, which isn’t easy with 550 employees.

Frank Vellutini, left, stands next to his father, Royal Electric founder Leo Vellutini, in a 1989 photo. (Photo courtesy of Royal Electric)

Vellutini Kimble’s brother Leo Vellutini and brother-in-law Evan Albright also work for the company, as do several generations of other families. “Making sure you have a family relationship separate from your business relationship is important. I’m not sure I’ve always been successful in finding that balance with my dad or my family, but I keep working at it,” she says.  

Vellutini’s primary focus is to prepare the company for the next 50 years and explore the company’s capability to scale, particularly with the current boom in construction. Royal Electric brings in about $150 million in annual revenue and is active in several industries, including aviation, heavy and highway construction, multifamily and commercial and education construction.  

Preserving Institutional Memory

At 83, Greenlaw “Fritz” Grupe, Jr. balks at the idea of slowing down and says he plans to work for another 20 years. The chairman of The Grupe Company in Stockton reflects back on his years in business and recites a number of different truisms that have guided him and his family company. The biggest: “If you can’t execute, your vision has no value. It’s just a dream.” And Grupe has had some big dreams. But he’s also found a way to execute them. He started as a budding entrepreneur at age nine, selling farm fresh eggs to family and neighbors, then moved on to cattle and eventually owned a small herd. 

Greenlaw “Fritz” Grupe, Jr. is the chairman of The Grupe Company in Stockton. (Photo courtesy of The Grupe Company)

In his early 20s, Fritz worked at Sims and Grupe, the real estate and insurance brokerage firm his father previously owned, giving him the confidence he needed to strike out on his own. He also credits his great-grandfather John Carsten Grupe — who emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in 1849 and was an entrepreneur in his own right — for much of his inspiration.

In 1966, Fritz founded The Grupe Company, a multi-pronged development and real estate company. At 28, he purchased the land to develop his first master-planned lakefront community in northwest Stockton, calling it Lincoln Village West. The 750-acre mixed-use development was one of the first of its kind and includes waterfront homes, condos, apartments and a retail center. He went on to build more than 12 master-planned communities and 50,000 homes in six states.

“I think one of the pros of family business is the opportunity to really build relationships with family and to be able to work together on a shared goal and a shared vision.”

Kevin Huber, CEO, Grupe Huber

All four of Fritz’s children are active in the The Grupe Company, but none are being groomed to take over as CEO. Instead, Fritz is teaching each to be effective board members. “It’s their job to hire the right management,” he says. His goal was to train each one to run what they were interested in, and not force them into something they were not interested in. “One of the principles I believe in as a manager is you should build on people’s strengths and make their weaknesses irrelevant,” he says.

Son-in-law Kevin Huber, who is married to Fritz’s eldest daughter Sandy, first moved onto the Grupe’s ranch as a hired hand when he was just 16. After getting married, Huber went to work for the family business. He has held leadership roles both as president and CEO of The Grupe Company, and president and CEO of Grupe Huber (formerly Grupe Commercial).

Kevin Huber, right, is the president and CEO of Grupe Huber; his son Fritz is the third generation to work in the family business. (Photo by Terence Duffy)

In 2010, at Huber’s request, Fritz returned to The Grupe Company CEO role and Huber shifted to working full time as CEO of Grupe Huber’s commercial business. Kevin’s son Fritz Huber joined Grupe Huber four years ago, making him the third generation to work in the family business. “I think one of the pros of family business is the opportunity to really build relationships with family and to be able to work together on a shared goal and a shared vision,” says Kevin. “And when you do that with family, that bond is even stronger. It’s a very special thing.”

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