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Updated: May 13, 2024 Focus on Small Business & Family Business

Family affairs: The trials and triumphs of running a family-owned business

A man in a light blue shirt and grey vest stands with hands together looking at the camera in a hardware store with grills around him. photo | MATT WRIGHT Brian Barrows refers to himself as being born into the family business. He started working at Barrows Hardware at around 15 years old and has worked there in some capacity ever since, knowing one day he would take over as owner.

Pat Casey got his start in the family business early. At 12 years old, he’d come by Casey’s Diner after school to break hot dogs off their strings, worked his way up to cook by age 14, and eventually made his way to owner, a position he holds today.

From starting out as a four-seat horse drawn carriage eatery in 1914 to being featured on Phantom Gourmet and accumulating 60% of its revenue from takeout and delivery apps like DoorDash, Casey’s Diner has seen more than a few changes in its day.

As a fourth generation owner of the family’s Natick eatery, Casey played the long game, earning his stripes and taking orders from his father, both literally and metaphorically, before he was able to start making the changes he knew were needed to sustain the business’ longevity.

From interpersonal communication and succession plans to community engagement and marketing, Central Massachusetts family-owned businesses have experienced the unique benefits and challenges that can only come from working with loved ones.

Community cornerstone

For Casey’s Diner, being family-run has served the business well when it comes to integrating with the community. So much so, that before Pat Casey had even started on the diner’s payroll, customers were already well acquainted with him.

“It's like I've lived my whole life on a stage in front of everybody,” said Casey. “So the good thing is people know you, and the bad thing is people know you.”

A man in a green hat and black t-shirt with yellow lettering stands in a restaurant with his hand on a counter holding condiments in front of a brown wooden wall with black and white photos on it.
Photo I Mica Kanner-Mascolo
Pat Casey, owner of Casey’s Diner, is making changes and advancements to the family eatery to avoid playing catch up: "At some point, you're either gonna move forward or fall behind."

Demographics of the diner’s clientele have expanded from where they were when Casey was growing up. Rising property values and employees working from home post-COVID mean the diner is seeing more white-collar patrons than it had in years prior, when a large portion of the restaurant’s customers worked at neighboring manufacturers and auto garages. Yet, Casey said, there is still a strong percentage of diners who have been with Casey’s Diner for generations.

“It's our customers and our employees and the town workers and all of that. That's something you just can't replace,” he said.

Conversely, Brian Barrows, third-generation owner of Barrows Hardware in Worcester, doesn’t put as much stock into the family-run aspect of his business playing into its longevity. Though he does find being family-run has contributed to the business’ success, the main factor in the store’s achievements has been its employees, he said. Providing customer service with detailed expertise while building relationships with locals are values going back to the days when his father, Bob Barrows, and uncle, Gary Keefe, ran Barrows Hardware.

“They built the foundation of the business that we have here now. It was their great commitment, their great business practices, and strong work ethic, and a real commitment to Webster Square,” Brian Barrows said. “That's it, we still do things that way.”

Barrows’ workers have a deep knowledge of the products and services the store provides and are dedicated to guiding customers to achievable solutions, and that’s what separates his hardware store from big-box retailers, he said. Barrows likened the business' commitment to helping its customers to community service, going above and beyond no matter the project size.

A black and white photo of the inside of a hardware store with a man in a fedora standing at the end of a glass counter on the right hand side, looking at the camera.
Photo | Courtesy of Barrows Hardware
Irving Barrows, founder of Barrows Hardware, in the shop’s original location on Main Street in Worcester.

For Bri’s Sweet Treats, being family-owned is not inconsequential to the business’ success. In fact, Briana “Bri” Azier, CEO and owner of the sweets shop, has made sure to make this aspect of her company known to any and all who will hear it.

There’s a market of customers specifically looking to spend their money on small, family-owned businesses, said Azier, and she’s determined to find them.

“We wanted to make sure people know we are family-run. We want to make sure that people know when you support us, you are literally helping us to pay our bills,” Azier said. “It means something, but it only means something if you tell people that.”

Family matters

When Azier told friends she was going into business with her husband, they thought she was crazy, but working with her husband has only accelerated her business’ success, she said.

“When people hear that we work together, they think, in the same room doing the same thing, butting heads, hating life, 24/7,” said Azier.

Those preconceived notions couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“I hardly see my husband, believe it or not, because we have literally taken those tasks and divided them. But those divisions only allow us to grow, which is why we've been able to grow so quickly,” said Azier, “which is why I can be at seven events in a week and still be okay because my husband is taking care of the things on this other end. And we can constantly be in communication with it because we live together.”

A woman with dark curly hair and glasses wears a bright purple t-shirt.
Photo I Courtesy of Bri's Sweet Treats
Bri Azier, CEO and owner of Bri's Sweet Treats

A main reason Azier was able to take her business from bringing home $80,000 in revenue in 2022 to accumulating nearly $250,000 in 2023 was because she brought her husband onto the Bri’s Sweet Treats team, she said.

At Casey’s Diner, the dynamics of working with family have been a bit more nuanced.

“My thing with my dad was, you know, he was in charge, and I just did everything his way and waited my turn; and eventually it came,” said Casey. “I used to say, ‘I have all the responsibility and none of the authority.’ But now that I have all of the authority and responsibility, I realize, you know, what the burden is to bear, and I really didn't have that when the buck stopped with him. But now it's all on me.”

Casey’s father, Fred Casey, had an experience not too different from Pat’s in certain ways. It took a lot of convincing on Fred’s part to sway his own father, Joe Casey, to replace his refrigerator coil water station with bottled water, and he had to work hard to convince him to allow potato chips on the menu.

For Pat Casey, it wasn’t until he took over and his father had passed he was able to make some substantial moves he had been waiting patiently to make. Since then, Casey has expanded the diner’s menu, adding items including shakes, floats, ice cream, and french fries. The diner even started serving breakfast.

Navigating family dynamics at Barrows Hardware has been smooth sailing, said Barrows.

“The success of the business was always in the forefront,” he said. “To have the business continue without anything catastrophic … the business was always first.”

Having an aligned goal helped keep the tensions and drama at bay for the Barrowses, said Brian.

“We saw eye to eye on what's important in the way of business and being successful,” he said.

A lineage, continued

“This is our legacy. This is what we want to leave behind,” said Azier.

The theme of family legacy is woven into the fabric of Azier’s business, one of which she hopes her 9-year-old son will carry on when she retires. Yet, she’s cognizant not to force the idea upon him, knowing that could scare him away from the prospect. Instead, she’s selling him on her company’s mission, since he’s already sick of chocolate.

“I'll tell anyone who listens, ‘Chocolate and candy was never the goal. The goal was being able to give back and leave a legacy on this earth, grow the community, leave the community in a better place,’” Azier said.

While Azier’s preferred succession plan is clear, it is more up in the air when it comes to who will fill Casey’s and Barrows’ shoes once they retire.

Casey’s oldest daughter has other aspirations, said Casey, but he has several other potential inheritors to choose from including his two younger daughters, his baby grandson, and his employee and cousin, Shannon.

For Barrows, his two daughters having chosen other career paths. It’s not clear who he will pass the torch on to, but he does hope the store can stay within the family. Luckily, his successor isn’t his major concern at the moment, as he looks to advance Barrows Hardware under his leadership.

“We're gonna go full steam ahead,” he said.

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