It’s a Family Thing

What do vegetable seeds, banged up cars and million dollar investment portfolios have in common? In the case of three century-old Greenwich businesses, the answer is family ties. In spite of the odds, McArdle’s Florist and Garden Center, the Zelenz Brothers’ Auto Body and Baxter Investment Management have discovered that doing business the mom-and-pop way has paid off—personally and professionally.

These operations are as different as can be, but remarkable, too, for what they have in common: “I think if you talked to each of us, we’d tell you that we operate with the philosophy that the customer is always—and I mean always—right,” says William Baxter Jr., of Baxter Investments. (No surprise, we heard exactly that from the proprietors at McArdle’s and Zelenz Brothers, too.)

While some research puts the failure rate of second- and third- generation family businesses at a staggering 85 percent, the families behind these enterprises have mastered the art of adapting as the town and their families have grown. From insisting the next generation train elsewhere (at least for a while anyway) to having well-plotted succession plans, they clue us in on what’s kept the family bonds that support their businesses and loyal customers so strong.

McArdle’s Florist & Garden Center

Family Growth

It began with a seed. Actually, make that burlap sacks and sacks of seeds. James McArdle’s great-grandparents, Mary and James, came to Greenwich from New York, and in 1910 began a small seed shop at 380-388 Greenwich Avenue that catered to the town’s estate gardeners and farmers.

The business—believed to be the oldest continuous family enterprise in Greenwich—took root against the odds. James died from pneumonia before the 1920s began, leaving Mary to go it alone when it was unusual for a young mother of three to be a sole proprietor. Her middle child, son James (known as Jim), pitched in to help his mother at a young age. After college, he assumed the business, which he eventually passed on to his son, Jim.

Jim’s son, James McArdle, started working for his dad sweeping floors when he was just eight years old. Back then, McArdle’s was still calling itself a “seed shop,” but it was already branching out, selling plants and garden tools. In 1962 the family bought McArdle’s current Arch Street location for greenhouses, but kept the Greenwich Avenue seed shop until 1982. That year, Arch Street became the sole location for what has since evolved into a full-service garden center, florist and landscape-design enterprise.

Like his father and grandfather before him, James studied business and horticulture at Cornell, but following in the family footsteps was his decision. “I always had a choice, [the business] was never forced upon me,” he says.

He employs the same “it’s entirely up to you” philosophy with his two sons and daughter (ages fourteen to twenty-one) and his nieces and nephews. The youngest generation of McArdles helps out during busy holidays and vacations—some kids more than others—and it’s not considered a family obligation. “I think it is great when they do want to be here,” James says. “But I also want them to work other places. They won’t thrive unless they love it and have an appreciation for what we do and why we do it.”

What does he look for in the next generation? “You have to love flora—the product we sell—but it’s more than that,” James says. “It’s really about attending to the customers’ needs in a personal, attentive way.”

Jim McArdle, who is happily retired but remains his son’s landlord and occasional consultant, says James always had a natural affinity for the garden business. “But he understands, like I did, we’re in the people business too. Even when I stop in, I see customers I know from my years there. I greet them by name, and sometimes they can’t believe I remember, but I always felt it was my job to remember. And it’s what makes us different from a big-box store.”

The father and son say fostering community matters too: Five years ago, McArdle’s brought Santa and four reindeer from upstate New York to visit during the busy Christmas holiday season and began a new Greenwich tradition. “Obviously, the kids love it, but the amazing thing is how the adults have responded,” says James. “They start talking to me about those reindeer in October, asking me if they’re coming again.”

Another thing that differentiates McArdle’s from the more impersonal chains is its focus on community service. From providing floral table arrangements for local charity lunches to supporting nonprofits dear to a horticulturist’s green heart (such as the Greenwich Land Trust and Greenwich Tree Conservancy), James says pitching in is just “the right thing to do.”

Making McArdle’s a hospitable place has created loyal customers that span generations, but James says he never relies on the idea that just because someone bought perennials from his dad, they are a customer for life. Working alongside his dad, he explains, taught him lessons about cultivating loyalty.

“One thing I did as a kid was help with deliveries, and I remember going up a slippery walk on a bitterly cold winter day and dropping a customer’s personal vase—which we had filled with flowers—and watching it smash into a million pieces,” he says. “Let’s just say my dad didn’t like that too much and neither did the lady whose heirloom vase I destroyed.”

So James stresses to his approximately fifty employees that a single error (like an oops with a vase) can undo years of goodwill. “We’re in the gift business. You get [something] wrong and there are other places for them to go. You can’t rely on the notion that people did business with my dad or my grandfather and that they’ll come here for that alone. We need to make a great impression and have a happy customer every time.”

Besides offering attentive customer service (he insists on hiring friendly employees who actually notice customers and say hello), James explains McArdle’s has prospered by embracing the town’s ever-changing demographics. “When we started, we were really in the business of delayed gratification. You planted a seed and you had to nurture it, wait for it to grow. There was a time when gardening was the number one hobby in Greenwich. But today there are so many more people, particularly in homes where both spouses work, who just don’t have the time or desire to garden anymore.”

So, the McArdles astutely looked for other ways to grow the business. Over the years, they bought two rival florists. They expanded the garden center and landscape design group. They gathered an award-winning floral design team and brought in more wedding and event business.

These days McArdle’s is focused on serving the sophisticated homeowner who appreciates a garden’s inherent beauty, but doesn’t have the time or interest to tend to it. “We do a lot more container gardens, things that are beautiful but don’t require a lot of maintenance,” says James. It’s also routine for McArdle’s florists to produce weekly arrangements for Greenwich’s most well-appointed homes and offices; often working with customers’ personal vases and containers. “The trend now is decorating, so we’re responding to the trend,” he says. Its floral-arranging class series has become a hit with do-it-yourself home stylists.

Of course, McArdle’s stays true to its original roots. You can still buy seeds in the garden shop.

 

Zelenz Brothers Inc.

The road to success

When it began business 102 years ago, Zelenz Brothers Inc repaired the designer SUVs of its day, horse-drawn carriages. The Greenwich-based auto body’s founder, Austrian immigrant Frank Zelenz, actually got his start mending those buggies in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Moving on to mending battered cars in Greenwich, his great-grandson and Zelenz Brothers’ current owner Mike Zelenz explains, “was just his way of keeping up with the times.”

Lured here by the promise of opportunities as Greenwich became a getaway for affluent New Yorkers, Frank set up shop on Sherwood Place in 1912 on a plot of land he bought for the incredible sum of $600. Although Frank began Zelenz Brothers’ four-generation tradition of giving attentive, personal service, he never met most of his original customers. Greenwich car owners a century ago were such a pedigreed class that they sent their chauffeurs to see Frank.

Today, Mike Zelenz knows most of his loyal customers on a first-name basis and his parking lot is filled with rows of late model (mostly high-end) SUVs and sedans. But inside the auto body’s compact, tidy office, nostalgia abounds. A wall-mounted vintage phone dates back to the days when Zelenz Brothers had one of Greenwich’s original three-digit phone numbers. “Collectors try to buy it right off the wall,” says Mike. The antique is not for sale.

Zelenz celebrates a colorful history that goes beyond freshly painted cars, including a legendary role hosting a Friday night Prohibition-era poker game that Mike says attracted regulars such as the police chief and mayor (back when Greenwich had a mayor). Rumor has it spirits were served in spite of the laws prohibiting them.

Mike’s decision to buy the business from his dad (who bought the business from his dad) wasn’t purely sentimental.  His father and late mother had planned to divest of the auto body’s property as well as their adjoining Sherwood Place home and retire to a warmer climate. But when the family realized what a devastating chunk capital gains taxes would take from selling property that Frank bought at 1912 Greenwich prices, Mike began thinking about his own future and his parents’ nest egg.

The timing seemed right to return to the business he worked in as a teenager. He was frustrated in his supervisory position at UPS and the idea of being his own boss was becoming more appealing. So he resigned from the package carrier in 2002 and crafted a deal to buy his dad out.

“I soon found I like being my own boss so much more. Now, I say I will never sell it,” says Mike. His own son, David, who just completed third grade, is being raised knowing “he is free to do whatever he wants, but he has a place here if he wants it.”

Mike’s since focused on modern innovations that appeal to Greenwich’s green-minded consumer, such as investing in an environmentally sensitive, water-based painting system. “These things seem to really matter to our customers, and I like the challenge of adapting the business, improving it in ways they appreciate,” he says.

Through the years, Mike has gained some insight into the town’s demographic patterns through battered cars towed to his lot. “In most parts of the country, winter is the busiest time for [collision repair] but here in Greenwich it’s summer. You get this influx of college kids back from school and elderly residents who come home from their winter places. The town population swells and they’re driving on the same roads we drive in the winter with what seems like half the people.” The result of the seasonal demographic shift is “a lot more accidents.”

While those summer fender benders are good for business, Mike finds the passion for his work is derived from a job well done and his personal relationship with customers. “At the end of the day, I always have something to show for my work. You’ve got a finished product and, hopefully, a happy customer driving away.”

Mike’s dad, who still lives in the Colonial that fronts the shop, says going the extra mile for the customer —even driving that mile—is a time-honored Zelenz tradition. “We always relied on word of mouth and good customer service. It wasn’t unusual for me, if I was working on someone’s car, to stop what I was doing to take them to run their errands.” Although, he once did draw the line at a regular’s request to be driven to Stamford’s old Bongiorno’s supermarket because there “was a good sale.” “I told him we could go to any supermarket in Greenwich because I did, eventually, have to get his car fixed too.”

Today, keeping customer service paramount is how Zelenz Brothers stays competitive as insurance companies try to steer customers to larger out-of-town outfits that agree to work at reduced fixed rates. “What’s nice is the customer who insists on coming to us because they trust us,” Mike Jr. says. And with that, he answers the phone and offers to pick up a damaged car from its owner.

 

Baxter Investment Management

A long-term investment

William J. Baxter Sr., the founder of Greenwich-based Baxter Investment Management, was an Irish kid from Worcester, Massachusetts, who put himself through Clark University and then Harvard Business School selling newspapers. Not door-to-door paperboy style (although he did that once too); but by seeing—and seizing—an opportunity. Baxter launched a business that bought newspapers from publishers in bulk and then distributed them by truck to retailers throughout Massachusetts. By the time he was just seventeen, it was the largest business of its kind in the Bay State.

Ninety years later his grandsons Bill and John seem to have inherited the genetic predisposition for recognizing opportunity. They are the third generation of wealth managers leading the boutique Greenwich investment firm their grandfather began in 1924 as The Baxter International Economic Research Bureau.

Beginning with their grandfather’s humble working-class background, the Baxter brothers appreciate that theirs is an unusual legacy. They know it’s common for family-run enterprises to fold by the second or third generation.

“A lot of family businesses fail because there’s no one who wants to stick with it,” says Bill. “But we’re a close family and always have been.”

The brothers sail together. They vacation together. But it’s more than enjoying shared familial passions that makes the relationship work, says John. “There’s a lot of trust, and no one is greedy. That’s what gets some families in trouble.”

And quite like the disciplined investment strategies they recommend for their clients, the brothers say what’s kept the business thriving (with more than $200 million in managed client assets) has been a series of well-strategized generational transitions.

While their sisters (both educators) had no professional interest in financial markets, their now semi-retired father, William Baxter Jr., had a rule for any child contemplating joining Baxter Investments: Work somewhere else first.

Bill worked on Wall Street before teaming up with his dad in 1989. Younger brother John also spent formative time learning the industry at big financial-services companies, including global giant UBS.

Those other employers ultimately deepened their appreciation that the Baxter way was a more satisfying long-term investment. “I found there was so much bureaucracy [working for large companies]. As much as I learned, it was at times frustrating,” says John, who prefers the leanness of Baxter’s small but dedicated team that fits comfortably in what was once a Riverside dress shop with spectacular water views.

Bill and his wife, Jackie, have four children, and John and his wife, Molly, just welcomed their first potential Baxter Investment heir (a son). They expect to repeat their father’s vetting process with future generations. “The question I see us asking [of any child interested] will always be, ‘What do you have to bring to the table?’” says Bill.

The current generation brings distinct, but complementary skill sets to the firm. John is marketing driven, while Bill is the chief economist. “But we are both well-versed enough in what the other person does that we can—and often do—step into each other’s roles,” says John.

That means being adept at executing the firm’s tried-and-true investment philosophies; the kind of smart, conservative decision-making that helped their grandfather thrive during the Great Depression and beyond.

An example of that “long haul” philosophy is their bullish appreciation of railroads stocks. Though they might seem like an almost nostalgically quirky investment, Bill explains why he likes to include them in clients’ portfolios: “If you think about it, we still rely on them for commerce, but no one builds them anymore. So, the ones that are left are just really valuable.”

This type of strategic thinking was inspired by the teachings of Benjamin Graham, considered the father of value-based investing. Their dad (along with another smart investor, Warren Buffett) studied with Graham at Columbia University, and his sons keep several well-worn, frequently referenced copies of his writings in the office.

“Simply stated, it’s about capturing the market on the upside and protecting on the downside,” explains Bill. It’s a strategy that’s paid family dividends for almost a century.

share this story

© Moffly Media, 2008-2022. All rights reserved. Website by Web Publisher PRO