Functional family businesses do exist
Who's your favorite: Sisters or Dutch Bros coffee?
Maybe it's unfair to choose between two such personal brands. Dutch Bros Coffee is the fun-loving, red-state Oregon drive-through sugary drink experience from Grants Pass that is sweeping the west on a wave of goodwill and motivational sloganeering. Sisters (close to Bend, Oregon) is home to Sisters Coffee Company, the red-state artisan coffee roaster and retailer, that started in a shack in1989 and now has two cool coffee shops — one of which almost burned to the ground last year.
One cranks out lattes before you've had a chance to put it in Park and check your Instagram, the other offers a time-sucking pour-over to be savored in a wood-lined lofticule.
Sisters and Bros are just two family businesses honored last week by Oregon State University at its Austin Family Business awards. The event was held at the Nines Hotel in the same Meier & Frank building where OSU has its Portland annex.
There were four categories: Business Renewal, Generational Development and Family Harmony, and a special Dean's award for Leadership.
The big winners were Sisters Coffee Company, and CRB Manufacturing of Clackamas Heritage Specialty Foods of Wilsonville, although the latter family was absent due to a tragedy. On the morning of Nov. 15, a Woodburn man went to the plant at 28220 S.W. Boberg Road in Wilsonville and allegedly shot and killed his former manager, Carl Hellinger, 36. At the event, there was a moment's silence and a video message from management at the company.
In the Business Renewal category, Henderer Design + Build and Roby's Furniture and Appliance were finalists. The judges praised Roby's for closing on Sundays so their staff could rest, and for taking on Amazon. Sisters Coffee Company got to tell their story, by video and in multiple speeches, of how a couple, Winfield and Joy Durham, started a 600 square-foot coffee shack "that no one thought would last through the winter."
The grown children, Jesse (director of operations), Justin (CEO) and Jared (director of retail), now run the business. They were there with their children at The Nines.
As Justin told the Business Tribune, in the beginning, "My dad did wholesale, made espresso and roasted coffee, he did it all." Those wholesale accounts now include Safeway, statewide.
Sisters opened its flagship 6,000-square-foot cafe and roastery in Sisters in 2005. Its Pearl District café came in 2011, before much of the current customer base had moved in. The apartment above it caught fire in 2018, and water damage from the sprinklers shut the café for half a year while it was remodeled.
He sees the business task now as building "a platform for future generations, and to build on our parents' legacy, and their grit and determination."
The father and founder, Winfield is now the facilities manager, and comes to the leadership meetings offsite and encourages the team.
"Working with your sibling, like any business you're going to have things to work on, challenges. The beauty is that you get to overcome challenges together. We've grown a lot, learning how to be open with one another. We're building a culture of trust."
He says while strangers might come and go, the kids grew with the business. "We learned the coffee business from the ground up. I studied history and biology at Concordia University in Northeast Portland, as did my brother, and my sister went to Portland State University. The coffee industry is super exciting and super competitive, and we've all grown up in it."
The approach to retail is to focus on the customer experience.
"We try to be always aware of what the customers want, and it comes down to a love for coffee, and for people. You can't have one without the other. We know our customers' names; we want to make them feel special."
He adds, "How many times is the service poor, and they make you feel dumb? You don't go back if it's not a memorable, positive experience. If you make them feel loved and appreciated, they're going to come back."
A big part of the business of coffee roasting is having relationships with growers. Sisters works with a fifth-generation family farm in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, Aurelio Villatoro, whose own sons are taking over. Growers and roasters have visited each other and bonded.
"When you understand how much effort they put into quality control, that builds trust. We like to think of ourselves as a local premium brand of specialty coffee, buying the best beans, and selling at a higher price point."
As for dealing with the Oedipal anxiety of replacing, if not overthrowing, the father, Durham jokes, "Early on, when I came back to the business, I saw things that needed to be changed. But over time, I realized dad knows what he's doing, and dad realizes there's sometimes a better way to do things."
It's a mental trick too.
"It's a confluence of two different mindsets. You have to be humble enough to take honest criticism, and you have to have confidence and faith in yourself to move the company forward."
Providing Wi-Fi has turned the coffee shop into a gathering place for people to work and seek leisure. Sisters welcomes that.
One thing that has changed recently is transaction speed.
"With digital point-of-sale technology, you have faster transaction times and a higher volume of sales. When dad started, he was writing out invoices and punching in transactions into a cash register, he and mom."
He feels for them when he thinks of that. "But they cared about us. They had a good life and made it happen."
In the category Generational Development, CRB Manufacturing of Clackamas was the winner followed by finalists City of Roses Disposal & Recycling of Portland and George Morlan Plumbing of Portland.
Alando Simpson, vice president of City of Roses Disposal & Recycling, is well known in Portland for taking his father Alonzo Simpson's company and growing it into a force to be reckoned with, now with 56 employees. On stage, he was joined by his dad as well as his sister Jasmine, his wife Morgan and his brother AJ, who recently returned to the business.
Alando keeps his father close. "He's the first person I call the morning and the last person I call at the end of the night," he said. "My dad has the vision, with me focusing on the implementation of the growth plan and then AJ managing the operations." His sister is in school but also gives day-to-day administrative support, and his wife does human resources.
Since they deal with commercial recycling — big piles of surplus wood and plastic from factories and construction sites — not curbside/domestic recycling (bottles and cans), they have not been affected by China's ban on importing American recyclables.
Working with a mill, Simpson's team has just created the first 100% post-consumer FFC-certified wood product, a type of cross-laminated timber, not for structural use but for things like tabletops.
Even the little kids, who aren't allowed out into the dangerous part of the recycling center, are helping with administration, learning a work ethic — and a business.
They may not ever take over the business, but "It gives them a choice. Obviously, the key is to keep passing it down through generations and build generational wealth and opportunities. The cycle continues."
His sister, a teacher, is studying urban planning as part of a bigger goal: real estate.
"As we grow, we can acquire more real estate and explore business ventures around manufacturing and closed-loop ecosystems."
They have a new newly permitted transfer station at 138th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard.
"My father came from nothing; we're fourth generation Portlanders. (Given) the lack of opportunities that he had, it comes back to utilizing his experiences, his failures, his trials and tribulations, as a catalyst to help try to create a whole new paradigm for people of color and underserved communities to try to become more economically independent, so they're not living in oppressed conditions."
Growth is key, but Simpson wants to build a community, not just a family.
"The more we can grow, the more jobs we can provide, the more innovative we can be, the more land we can acquire, the more things we can do to continue to build and sustain community, then the better off we're going to be in the future, so we're not having conversations about gentrification disparities, at least for a population of color."
People in family businesses often have more time to think about and verbalize their business philosophy since they are never far from work and always have confidantes at hand to talk about it. This is no less true for Brant Boersma.
Dutch Bros Coffee was a finalist in the Family Harmony category. Dutch Bros was founded in Grants Pass in 1992 by Dane and Travis Boersma, brothers of Dutch descent.
Despite its hypergrowth (it now has 13,000 employees across seven states), chief culture officer Brant Boersma says he and his siblings rely on family bonds to keep the business on track. Since his father Dane died, he makes sure he goes on walks to the fairgrounds and back every Wednesday with his uncle Travis, the CEO, where they talk about everything, from business to family.
The family is close, all living in Grants Pass except one brother, and they were brought closer by their dad's illness and death.
"Going through those trials makes other things seem a little trivial. But in the business, it's really easy to be open and honest about how you are feeling. That's always been a focal point: making sure we're doing what we want to do with our lives."
Love on you
His brother Jonah used to run a Dutch Bros franchise in Eugene. Jonah and his wife, Brittany, now run life coaching and yoga re- treats under the name B Zen Wellness.
Brant says their leadership structure is based on talent, desire and passion.
"I was a regional manager, but it was not my natural gift. I am more gifted in vision and creativity. I oversee the Coacha events for our young people, where we take time to celebrate them and love on them."
Coacha events are the revival-type rallies for Dutch Bros staff where everyone gets a taste of the intense, feel-good culture.
As the company has grown, they have brought in non-family leadership, so the culture is essential there.
"A lot of those leaders have a seat at the table. There were 14 at the last one."
Even the in-house attorney, Josh Luke, was a Dutch Bros "broista" during law school.
"There's a lot of history and this makes it a lot easier to understand how every communication style is different. People hear different things, and communication breakdown is what makes things fall apart."
Bros and Chicks
Other family businesses and cultures he admires include Chick-fil-A ("for being who they are and not compromising, right or wrong,"), In-N-Out Burger and Les Schwab Tire Center, where his father-in-law worked for years. He also admires Nike and Adidas for their marketing.
"Trader Joe's is another example of what's cool, a culture where people who can be comfortable in their own skin.
"The human connection is a big deal. We're students of human behavior, and we treat people how they want to be treated. That (drive-through coffee) window is the magic place. People develop relationships there that last beyond the hours on the stands."
He calls Dutch Bros a good job opportunity — especially for young people.
"It's a great, easy, fun job where they learn some responsibility. The biggest part is the community. So many of us — and I'm guilty too — are stuck in our phones. On those coffee stands, there's an opportunity to exercise that muscle of face-to-face communication."
Karsten Manufacturing makes PING golf clubs at its Arizona plant. It received the Dean's Family Business Leadership Award. Karsten's lawyer, Dawn Grove, talked at length about how her grandfather, Karsten Solheim, worked hard as an immigrant from Norway to find his place in America. As an engineer at General Electric, he hit upon the aluminum golf putter head as his ticket to success. (Ping is not a Chinese brand, it's named for the noise the ball made coming off the lightweight clubs.) Grove attributed much of the family's success to the power of prayer and the Bible.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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