For family businesses that survive, their stories of perseverance become a chapter of the American Dream.
The family business: For some, it’s a blessing; for others, a curse.
Some get immersed in it almost from the time they begin to take their first steps. Others get pulled in, maybe not kicking and screaming, but reluctantly nonetheless.
According to a 2013 study by Forbes, some 90 percent of all businesses in the United States are either family-owned or controlled by a family, such as Walmart or Berkshire Hathaway, and family businesses generate more than half of the U.S. gross national product.
And those businesses that do continue to be run by the founding family are a rare breed indeed. The same Forbes study found that fewer than one-third of family businesses survive the transition from the founding generation to the next, and of that remaining number, half of those companies will be defunct by the time the third generation is ready to take over.
For those enterprises that do continue to survive and thrive, within their own stories of hope, perseverance, ingenuity and longevity can be found an essential chapter in the history of the American Dream.
Take Rosenbluth Vacations in Plymouth Meeting, which has gone from a two-man steamship passage company that transported immigrants from Russia and the Ukraine to America in the late 1890s, to a multibillion-dollar company. Now, with the fourth generation of Rosenbluths at the helm, the company remains strong, even in an industry that’s gone through major turbulence.
“We started in 1892 to help people immigrate from Europe to the United States,” said Hal Rosenbluth, who’s winding down his career after building Rosenbluth International into a $6 billion business for corporate travel, incorporating some 35 countries. “People would pay $25 to my great-grandfather, Marcus, who worked with his sons, Max and Joseph.
“From what I understand, one of them would go to Ellis Island to help with the immigration process and somehow get them to Philly. There, people would get jobs and pay them to bring over their relatives.”
Joseph’s son, Hal Sr., who recently passed away at 91, started off as a lawyer, but eventually came aboard. Eventually, his children, Hal Jr., Lee and Amy, followed.
Which was not necessarily the plan. “I graduated from Miami in 1974 with no desire to get into the travel business,” recalled 63-year-old Hal Jr., who spends much of his time now as a cattle rancher in North Dakota. “I wanted to be a criminologist. I did it simply because I saw my father was overworked. Then Lee came into the business.”
The brothers chose to divide their attention and efforts. Hal took the corporate side, Lee focused on the vacation business and Amy worked in human resources.
But it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. “The travel industry is impacted by every outside event,” said Lee, who noted that the number of travel agencies in the country has plummeted from 35,000 to less than 10,000 in the last few decades. “Obviously, 9/11 had a major impact, as did the bank failures of 2008. That’s the intriguing part of our industry: You can’t predict certain events, but you have to manage through them. And that was the beauty of my father. He certainly gave us his opinions, but he let us make the decisions and never second-guessed us.”
In much the same way, Marcy Druker got her start at what was originally Cheryl D’s, a women’s clothing store founded by her father, David, and named after her older sister. “I was in college and then got a great job at Betz Laboratories, but had trouble fitting into the corporate structure,” she explained about her retail transition in the mid 1970s. “We had long hours those days — I used to go back to the store and work stock, and it calmed me down.
“I started arguing with my father about things he was doing,” she added. “Finally, he said, ‘If you’re so smart, I’m going to buy the property across the street and let you run it’ — which he did. That was at Fifth and Olney.”
Eventually, the business, now called Mi-Lady Specialty Shoppe, expanded to include two stores in the Northeast. When Marcy’s mother died in 1994, her husband, Gary Cohn, came in to help on the business side, doing the purchasing and running the three properties.
Fast-forward more than a decade to when their daughter, Sheara, came into the picture. “I did not want to always do this,” admitted Sheara Cohn, who has helped rebrand the store into Mi-Lady Bra Boutique. “I went to school for advertising at Syracuse. I did that for a little while, then, in talking with my parents, they saw I had a lot of opinions about the store. I tried it — and was surprised to see I was really good at it.”
According to her mother, who was in the midst of battling cancer when all this was going on, Sheara saved the business. “The reason the store is so successful is because of her,” exclaimed Marcy. “I’m a person who doesn’t like too much change. When Sheara came in, she showed me I don’t have to change morally, but I can tweak my buying. We were always successful, but she brought in a youthful fashion sense and energy. She made it clear to me: ‘If you don’t change, you will not survive.’ ”
Which is roughly the same thing that Marc Spector has been telling his dad, Barry, at Castor Printing. “I’m trying to get into modern things; do a lot more digital,” said Marc, who’s worked at the store on Castor Avenue for almost 20 years.
“It’s a lot tougher than it used to be,” recalled Barry. “We’re a very small fish in a big pond, because everyone with the Internet tends to gravitate in that direction and forget about the little guy. I used to have two shifts and 11 employees. Now I’m down to seven employees with one shift.
“I’ve been here 40 years,” he continued. “I’m 75. My health is still good. But I’ll be signing it over to him soon. The property is paid up. He can run it. If he wants to move it, he can.”
2016 is a momentous year for Cape May’s Montreal Beach Resort. The hotel — and the three generations of the Hirsch family who operate the Shore standby — is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
The late Harry Hirsch, who was 15 when the Nazis invaded Poland, founded the hotel with his wife, Sophie. Harry, who survived internment at Auschwitz, met Sophie while in the same Jewish refugee camp in 1947 and married her that same year. They immigrated to Philadelphia in 1951.
Harry opened the property in 1966 as a 27-room inn. Shortly thereafter, his sons, Larry and Joseph, entered the business. Later, Larry’s son, Jonathan, joined as well.
Now the hotel has transformed into a 70-room resort, complete with a liquor store, beach club and restaurant. Harry passed away in 2011, leaving his American dream in the hands of his children.
Larry, Joseph and Jon spoke about the family business with the Jewish Exponent. Larry and Joe spent their summers at the Jersey Shore while their parents worked at the hotel. Although it was mostly fun in the sun for the kids, they performed odd jobs such as filling the pool with chlorine, loading soda machines and sweeping the floors.
“We were a part of it,” Larry said. “You change according to the needs of the clientele. In order to stay up with the times, you have to adapt. I think the philosophy is to try to put yourself in the guests’ shoes.”
In the mid-1960s, a large number of Canadians, mostly from Montreal, came to the Jersey Shore, which led to many hotels — the Quebec Motel By-The-Sea and the Royal Canadian Motel, both in Wildwood, N.J. — taking on a Canadian theme.
Joe, 56, graduated from Stockton University in Galloway, N.J. with a business degree and joined the hotel in 1982. He always knew he wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps.
“I felt like I was in summer camp all the time,” Joe said. “For me, it was something I always enjoyed doing.”
Larry, 64, took a different path. He was a clinical psychologist living in Baltimore and returned to New Jersey to take care of his sick mother, eventually following the familial path in 1979.
“I had no intention of coming back,” he said. “Our parents encouraged us to seek what we wanted to do.”
Jon, 31, who graduated from Boston University in 2006 with a degree in hospitality, spent many summers at the hotel like his father and uncle before him: filling soda machines, cleaning, helping in the restaurant and assisting on the private beach. Now, he is the food and beverage director at Harry’s Ocean Bar & Grille, the hotel’s restaurant.
Jon said what makes them stand out among the competition is how they treat their guests: like family. While many hotels have shuttered or changed ownership, the resort has stayed afloat by adapting to current trends and always putting its guests first.
“That’s the thing that we do that other places don’t,” Jon said.
The hotel is closed December through April, but they are not on vacation, Jon noted. They prepare for next year, take reservations and do maintenance. The reservations come in quick and often; if someone wants a room in July, they are out of luck, he added.
“We’re not absentee owners,” he said. “We’re always trying to improve the property.”
Another local family enterprise predates the Montreal Beach Resort’s 50-year mark: Sophy Curson, which opened its doors in the less-than-auspicious year of 1929.
The ageless boutique, whose floor-to-ceiling display windows fashionably preside over the southwest corner of 19th and Sansom streets, has witnessed the Great Depression, World War II, 14 presidents and an ever-evolving fashion industry.
Three sisters, Sophy Curson, Pearl Curson Goldner and Bobbie Price, were the original owners. The shop started out by catering to petite women because Sophy was short, but eventually expanded its repertoire to offer other sizes.
Susan Schwartz, Pearl’s daughter, joined the business in the 1960s, though her mother never wanted her to — she wanted Susan to follow her interest in history and museum work. She graduated with a degree in history from the University of Michigan in 1959 and briefly worked as a tour guide at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Center City. However, Susan ultimately couldn’t resist the pull of couture, and became the buyer at the store, traveling to the world’s great design houses.
“I never imagined being here,” Susan said. “I think it’s a challenge — I’ve always liked a challenge.
“We’re not pushy with our customers,” she continued. “They don’t want us to bring out one or three items at a time. We know how they fit. There’s no one or eight that’s the same for one manufacturer.”
David Schwartz, Susan’s son and Pearl’s grandson, who graduated from Kenyon College in 1988, also took a somewhat circuitous route to one of Center City’s more iconic addresses. He dreamed of being a writer in Hollywood, but there was a writer’s strike that year.
That summer, an employee took a leave of absence and David helped out doing inventory — and he never left.
In an echo of a previous generation, David said, “My mother wanted me away from this business — I still haven’t been fully hired.”
While he handles all of the finances, he stressed that the most important thing is customer service. Much of their clientele have been coming to them for decades, including many that are multigenerational themselves. The Internet has helped as well, allowing people to browse their website and purchase items, he added.
“David has been a lifesaver,” Susan added. “He’s really underestimating his job here.”
For some of these family enterprises, they have happily reached the end of the line, but others are sure it will continue on in tradition.
“All my children are happily employed in other industries,” said Lee Rosenbluth. “I don’t see them coming into the business and I’m not pressuring them. I think at some point down the road, I may sell the business — but the name is not for sale. It’s been in the family, in the community, all these years.”
As has Mi-Lady. “I have very little family — this is a piece of my family built by my parents,” said Marcy Druker, who lives in nearby Dresher, where she belongs to Temple Sinai. “It keeps my parents alive. It’s just a part of who I am.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 215-832-0729