All in the Family

These blood-bound business owners prove it's all relative.



Photography by Gary Lupton
Makeup & Hair by Paulo's Atelier (Agata Young and Justin May)

Running a successful business is hard enough, but when your family is involved, look out! You think customer relations and employee motivation are tough? Try firing your brother-in-law. On the other hand, managing a family business has its plus side, too. If you can’t trust your partners—like maybe your mom and dad—whom can you trust? These seven Westchester companies have been dealing with the snarly tangles of family ownership and management for decades. They represent a cross-section of enterprises passed down from generation to generation. In every one, however, they’ve faced down the demons of family involvement and built growing, successful companies.

THE JEWELERS

Wilson & Son Jewelers
Scarsdale and Mount Kisco

(standing, from left to right): Matt, Ira, and Mike Wilson (seated): Lynne Wilson

Changing direction is hard for any company, but it can be particularly trying for a family business—especially one dominated by a patriarch for 40 years. That was the case at Wilson & Son Jewelers, the Scarsdale institution that’s been in business since 1905.

    “When Mike and I came into the business, it was on life support,” says Matt Wilson, great-grandson of the company's founder. “If you were to walk into our Scarsdale store in 1985, you’d have seen the same paint, floor, and ceiling as in 1940. The problem was that people were going to the nice, new, shiny stores. Finally, my father, Ira, put his foot down and rebuilt the store.”

    Blocking change had been Meyer Wilson, son of the founder, Morris Wilson. “My grandfather’s philosophy was that you didn’t want to look too successful because customers would think you were overcharging.” The family philosophy has changed. Says Matt, “I like to do business with people who are successful.” He believes his customers do, too.

    An even bigger change, though, took place when their father, Ira, took over. “Whereas my grandfather wouldn’t let my father make any decisions,” Matt says, “my father just told Mike and me to ‘go for it.’ We were thrown into the deep end. I was twenty-one at the time.” 
Today, Wilson & Son is the exclusive independent jeweler for Rolex in Westchester County and handles dozens of other major brands as well. The company also offers repairs and appraisals and has three gemologists on the staff of 14. In 2006, it added a store in Mount Kisco. This year, the company was inducted into the Westchester Business Council Hall of Fame.

    The future undoubtedly holds more changes, but an ownership change isn’t likely, according to Matt, 45. He, his brother, Mike, 47, and their father, Ira, a young 72, are still very involved in the business. There are a total of eight grandchildren in the wings. “They’d have to work somewhere else for a couple of years first,” Matt Wilson says. “It’s open to them, but not a sure thing.” 
 

THE REALTORS

Houlihan-Parnes Realtors
White Plains

(from left to right): Kelly Houlihan, Jim Coleman and James J. Houlihan

The roots of one of Westchester’s largest real estate firms run deep—all the way to County Kerry, Ireland. That’s where the founder of what is today Houlihan-Parnes Realtors, Daniel Houlihan, emigrated from in 1874 at the ripe, young age of 14. Young Dan started as a construction laborer but eventually created a real estate business that today owns or manages millions of square feet of commercial property across the country, including several prominent buildings in Westchester, such as 145 Huguenot Street, a 300,000-square-foot office building near the New Rochelle train station.

    Jim Houlihan, 58, Dan’s great-grandson, runs the firm today with a staff of 55 in the company's White Plains headquarters and more than a thousand others at various properties across the country. Houlihan joined the family business in 1973, the same year it moved from the Bronx to Westchester. “After my junior year in college, my father suggested I try working in his office for the summer,” he says. After college, he worked as a broker for the company for 14 years before becoming a partner. His two daughters, Christie and Kelly, have both worked with the firm. Kelly is currently completing an advanced degree in real estate at New York University while working part time at the firm. She will rejoin the firm on a full time basis after she graduates next year. Christie Houlihan has just graduated from Fordham Law School.

    As with many family businesses, there are actively employed family members (a daughter, Kelly Houlihan, a brother-in-law, Jim Coleman, and a cousin, Jerry Houlihan) and numerous family members with investment interests in either the company or its various properties. “I’ve seen in other families where jealousy gets involved,” Houlihan says. “We try to be open, transparent, and explain to everybody what’s going on so you don’t get spears thrown at your back.” They have a family business council that meets annually. A related company (so to speak), Houlihan-O’Malley Real Estate Services in Bronxville, is run by cousins Dan, Gerry, and Joe Houlihan. Jim Houlihan’s wife, Pat, works there as a residential realtor.

   The family has never forgotten its Irish immigrant roots. Jim Houlihan was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 2000 and served as chairman of the committee that created the Great Hunger Memorial unveiled in 2001 at V.E. Macy Park in Ardsley. Later, he chaired the committee that raised funds for The Rising, the memorial dedicated to the 109 Westchester residents who perished on September 11.

 

THE CAR DEALERS

Pepe Auto Group
White Plains

(from left to right): Gene, Robert, Sal, and Joe Pepe

Family dynamics take on added velocity when business is involved. At least that’s the experience of Joe Pepe, president and COO of Pepe Auto Group in White Plains. The six-dealership company works its way through sibling rivalries and parental control issues, though, and uses family ownership to its advantage.

    “We all get along together fine, but there are sibling rivalries,” confides Joe Pepe, who works with his 80-year-old father and two of his three brothers. “Plus, you never get a break because you’re always with your family.” His older brother, Sal, 57, runs the Larchmont store, and his younger brother, Bob, in his late 40s, works with all the dealerships. Another brother opted out of the business and went into real estate. Pepe’s father, Gene, started the company in 1968 and family dynamics may have influenced that decision, too. “My father was working for his father in a construction and real estate business and didn’t like it,” Pepe explains. “He always had a fascination with cars, so he bought an Oldsmobile dealership in Mount Vernon. In 1970, he bought out his partner and picked up the Mercedes-Benz franchise.” Today, Gene Pepe remains CEO. “My father looks on us as kids,” he says. “It’s hard for him to let go.”

    On the other hand, interaction with family members has a positive side, too. “We all own these businesses together, so we make decisions based on what’s best for the company, not what’s best for an individual,” Pepe says.

    The company today has more than 300 employees and operates six dealerships. Joe Pepe believes family ownership is at least partially responsible for their success. “When you work for a big conglomerate, you can’t get an answer right away,” he says. “I can make a decision immediately.”
 

 

THE UMBRELLA MAKERS

ZipJack Custom Umbrellas
Elmsford

Martha Dubinsky and Michael Witkowski

Manny Dubinsky did what his customers asked. That’s how he went from repairing jacket zippers in the Bronx to selling giant umbrellas that shade diners at sidewalk cafes around the world. Today, his daughter Martha continues the tradition of responding to customers as she fashions the company he left her into a business suited for the 21st century.

    “My father always said it’s not all about the all-mighty dollar,” Martha Dubinsky says. “It’s about building solid relationships. If you take care of people, everything else will take care of itself.”

    Her father started the company in the Bronx in 1950, fixing zippers on jackets (ergo, the name “ZipJack”). “An army buddy taught him how to fix rain umbrellas,” Martha says. “Then someone asked one day if he knew how to re-cover a garden umbrella. Later, someone asked him to put a logo on an umbrella. He was adventurous and had an entrepreneurial spirit.”

    Manny’s work caught the eye of beverage giants Perrier and Schweppes, and the company took off. Today, ZipJack produces umbrellas for Cinzano, San Pellegrino, TGI Friday's, Chili’s, Subway Restaurants, and many others. Country clubs and resorts are big customers, too. If you’ve ever dined in Rockefeller Center, at a Grand Hyatt or a Marriott Hotel, you’ve probably sat beneath one of ZipJack’s products.
Martha, now 48, worked in the shop in her teens then joined the company full time after she graduated from SUNY Purchase with a degree in fine art. Her husband, Michael Witkowski, works with her as operations manager. (Her older brother chairs a university English department in South Carolina.)

    Manny passed away in 2006. “I still hear him talking to me,” his daughter says.“We’re still sort of transitioning from my father’s era to mine.” Some things won’t change, though. “I never want to get so big that I don’t know people’s names or recognize a face.”
 

THE GAS DISTRIBUTORS

Paraco Gas
Rye Brook

(from left to right): Joe and John Armentano

Propane distributor Paraco Gas leaped from $1.8 to $100 million in annual sales in a little more than 40 years, largely on the strength of family ownership. Company founder Pat Armentano started selling welding supplies from a garage in Mount Vernon in 1968, but he and his sons grew it by acquiring more than 20 other propane companies over the years.

    Today, the company has about 300 employees and 80,000 customers from Virginia to Massachusetts who buy propane for residential heating, cooking, hot water, and recreational uses like pool heat and outdoor grills. They also supply Home Depot and other retailers in the metro region through a cylinder exchange program.

    It’s a very fragmented market. The nation’s top 10 propane companies combined control only about 35 percent of it, with approximately 3,000 little companies dividing up the rest. When it comes time for the small, independent companies to sell their business, Paraco steps in. “We’re very competitive in that area,” says CEO Joe Armentano. “We relate very well with the small independent. We keep their employees, their customers.” 

    Joe Armentano, 56, worked alongside his father (who passed away last year) and took over as CEO in 1988. His youngest brother, John, 47, is VP for acquisitions and development. Joe lives in Bronxville and John in South Salem. There are two other brothers who aren’t with the company.

    Working with family members hasn’t always been ideal. “At one time, we had a cousin in the business that I had to fire,” Armentano says. “It was tough to see him a week later at a family picnic.”

    In 1985, they borrowed heavily to buy two Suburban Propane locations on Long Island. “That prompted me to go back to school to get an MBA in corporate finance,” Armentano says. That acquisition also necessitated adoption of more of a corporate culture. “We went from the typical mom-and-pop family environment to having a professional management team, audited statements, bank loans, etcetera.”

    Armentano hopes to double the company’s size in the next five years, but he says that won’t mean a change from family ownership, although the third generation may or may not be involved in management. “Being privately held, we can drive the culture the way we want to,” he says.
 

THE WALL WOWERS

Wallauer’s Design Centers
North White Plains

Robert Duncan Jr. and Debora Duncan

What would Clarence Wallauer think of a coupon texted to a cellphone? When he founded the paint and home-decorating retailer that bears his name in 1921, only about a third of all households had telephones—much less miniature instruments that send signals through the ether. Today’s Wallauer’s, though, uses every marketing tool available to spread the word about the 10 stores run by Clarence’s grandson, Robert Duncan, Jr., and great-granddaughter, Debora Duncan.

    The Duncans revel in the company’s rich history, but don’t rest on its laurels. From an interactive website, Facebook page, and Twitter presence to staff training via webinars, they try to keep their stores as fresh as the paint on their customers' walls. They also continually change in-store displays and merchandise mixes to showcase new trends and styles. It’s all part of the continual evolution of Wallauer’s, which has grown from a single store in White Plains to seven more in Westchester and two in Putnam County. The largest is the North White Plains store, which has an 11,000-square-foot showroom plus warehouse and office space for company headquarters. The stores sell everything from industrial coatings to custom bedding, although 70 percent of sales come from the original product—paint.

    Debora Duncan handles advertising and marketing, skills she learned from her father, who serves as president. “I’m a lifer,” she says. “I started in high school putting wallpaper books away. I have worked in all the stores at one time or another.” Her sister worked for the company until she moved to Florida five years ago. Both were literally raised in the business—the family lived in an apartment over the original White Plains store at one time. “One day, our father took my sister to the store in Tarrytown,” she says. “We got up into the shop window and pretended to be live mannequins. We turned a few heads.”

    While the Duncans are proud that Wallauer’s is entirely family owned, Debora says she has no illusions about what that means. “I’m not sure being family owned really matters to the customers, but being in business ninety years should mean something to them.”
 

THE SUPPLIERS

Strauss Paper Company
Port Chester

(from left to right): Stewart Strauss, Joyce Strauss Jonap, and Bob Jonap

Many of us have mentors, but next-generation family business owners have a special bond with theirs. “When I was five years old, I could either go play baseball or go to work with my father,” says Strauss Paper Company CEO Stewart Strauss. “I chose to go to work with my father.” Today, Stewart, 57, and his sister, Joyce Jonap, 59, operate the $50-million company according to the lessons they learned at their father’s knee.

    Their parents, Henry and Ruth Strauss, fled Germany before World War II. “Neither one spoke English,” Stewart says, “and they didn’t own anything but the shirts on their backs.” They worked numerous jobs and learned the language, though, and, in 1943, Henry started a Strauss Paper out of the back seat of his car. By 1954, it occupied a 5,000-square-foot building in Elmsford.

    “My father taught me that a business either moves ahead and grows, or you’re dying,” says Stewart, who joined the company in 1976. His brother-in-law, Bob Jonap, 61, became part of it in 1979, and his sister, Joyce, Bob’s wife, in 1983. The company moved to Port Chester and today operates from 90,000 square feet of warehouse, retail, and office space selling all kinds of products related to cleaning and maintenance to office buildings, schools, hospitals, and others in a 75-mile radius.

    “One of our drivers has been here forty-two years," Stewart says. "When I was fourteen, he taught me how to drive a truck. In the last couple of years, he taught both of my kids how to drive.” Still, Stewart notes, “Those relationships can have a downside, too. When I first became president of the company, it took a little time for some employees to realize I’m the same person but in a different role. When I make a decision, they have to move ahead with it.”

    Family ownerships of Strauss Paper means a lot to Stewart. “If our parents were alive today, they would be astounded at what this business is. We’re very proud of what the family has done.”

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