April 27, 2015
These companies in the home design industry are no flashes-in-the-pan. See what it takes to make a business last a century or more. (Hint: Have kids. Hire them.)
Text by Kristine Kennedy
Every once in a while, John Kebabian, owner of Kebabian’s Oriental Rugs in downtown New Haven, gets the thrill of meeting a rug his family sold many decades before. Well-loved but not too worn, the rug comes back in trade, returned by a customer whose great-grandparent may have started buying from the Kebabians as far back as the company’s founding in 1882. “I’m the fourth-generation owner, and we’re dealing with fourth-generation customers,” says the fifty-nine-year-old Kebabian. “A lot of them have left Connecticut, and they’re still coming back to us.”
What’s more, some of the company’s suppliers—weavers in the Middle East and Asia—are also multigenerational family businesses. “We continue to import from some of the same families that my father and grandfather worked with,” Kebabian says.
In an age when selling your start-up is the height of business cool, some long-established design-related companies in Connecticut are not only surviving, but thriving. Success can be partially attributed to the relationship-based company culture a family business has, especially in an industry that serves people in their homes. “We’re selling a very personal item,” says Kebabian.
Sam Gault agrees. Gault is president and fifth generation at Gault Energy & Stone, founded in 1863 as Gault Bros. Gault Stone, with locations in Westport and Bethel, provides stone and masonry materials and fabrication for residential and commercial projects. “It’s a different kind of feel,” he says of the company culture. “We used to have a tagline: ‘Where you’re treated like part of the family.’ We still use that internally.” Some non-family employees have stayed with the company twenty, thirty, forty years. “We do right by our people, so they’re doing right by our customer,” says Gault.
In addition to cultivating close personal relationships internally and with customers, these family businesses have achieved longevity by continually adapting to changing social and economic environments. They’ve done so largely by recognizing and utilizing the strengths of the younger generation.
“With every transition between generations, there’s been a very different mind-set,” says Matt Cohn, twenty-three, vice president and fourth generation at Greenwich-based Decorative Crafts, an importer of high-end furniture from Italy and China that sells to the trade. Matt’s great-grandfather Milton Cohn founded the company in 1928, importing Italian ceramics and leather goods and traveling the U.S. to visit with customers. Maintaining the company through the Depression made Milton more fiscally conservative. Matt’s grandfather Richard Cohn focused on expansion. He introduced the catalog concept in the 1960s, then was one of the first American businesspeople allowed into communist China in the 1970s, exposing Americans to quality Chinese items they had never seen before.
Matt’s father, current president Jeff Cohn, took quality and refinement of the selection a step farther. “He wanted the company name to be synonymous with really nice pieces,” says Matt. “He completely upgraded our line.”
Quality of goods is a common theme. “We can’t sell lesser qualities, because that comes back to bite you,” says Kebabian, “If we try to b.s. the public or play games, that’s going to affect the next generation. So you think about that.”
Kebabian’s next generation is twenty-five-year-old Josh Kebabian, who joined the company about a year ago, following an education in corporate finance and accounting, as well as a two-year stint in the corporate world. “I didn’t appreciate the product when I was young, even though I was surrounded by it,” says Josh. “As I got out into the real world, I absolutely saw the value of our business.”
Josh also recognizes the adaptability of his company, run by a series of Armenian Turkish Kebabians who came to the U.S. to study at Yale before joining the family business. “With each owner, it does take on a bit of a different personality,” he says. Josh’s grandfather expanded the antique rug part of the business and introduced the washing and restoration services. Josh’s dad, John, the current owner, does more traveling and built up the Afghan production, which has benefitted the whole industry. Josh hopes to be more directly involved in the production of pieces, and he wants to emphasize marketing. “He’s great on the computer,” says John, “good at promoting; we’re redoing our website. He’s been actively pursuing customers to write reviews for us. These are things that never occurred to me.”
“The older generation is very flexible and lets the younger generation find our way, make our path, and learn ourselves,” says Matt Cohn, who graduated from college in 2013. Cohn is focused on Decorative Crafts’s website, social media, e-mail marketing, advertising, and modernizing the company’s internal technologies. Doing more with the hospitality industry is also a goal. “My dad is very relaxed. He lets me do my own thing,” Matt says.
Gault Energy & Stone has its sixth-generation workers already. Sam Gault’s nephew and two nieces both work in the company. Maybe someday his children, now teenagers, will be interested, too. But no pressure.
Over the decades, the businesses have experienced sibling rivalries, emotionally charged conversations, and piercing honesty. But also passion. “I know in some family businesses the next generation can be forced into it and aren’t passionate about it,” says John Kebabian. “If I didn’t want to take over this business, I would not have done it.”
Matt Cohn also wasn’t sure he was going to join the business, having pursued East Asian studies in college. Now he’s glad he did. “I’m always reminded that my great-grandfather started this from nothing. It brings me a lot of motivation every day,” he says. “They’ve worked so hard to get it where it is, and now it’s transitioning to me, and that gives me a lot of pride.” •