Trimark Petroleum Group News

Driven by more than dollars
Seattle Times 2002 -

Al Jiwani is a long way from Uganda and Idi Amin's reign of terror that forced his family to flee to England in 1972. But in some respects his life has come full circle. After briefly living in Vancouver, B.C., the family moved to Seattle in 1986 and set up a jewelry-supply business.

Eight years later, Jiwani opened a gas station, following in the footsteps of his father who ran one in Uganda.

The family business has grown dramatically. Today, Jiwani and his youngest brother, Hafiz, run Trimark Petroleum Group, which operates 12 gas stations in the Puget Sound area. The other brother, Shafiq, takes care of the jewelry-supply business in Vancouver.

Besides the strong family bonds, what keeps the business running smoothly is autonomy, said Jiwani, who is president of the company and oversees everything.

"We rely on each other for advice and guidance, but our responsibilities do not overlap."

Sometimes, their decisions may not be in the best financial interest of the company, but the business is "not just about dollars and cents," Jiwani said.

This attitude is typical of family-owned businesses, said Catherine Pratt, director of the Family Enterprise Institute at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. "There is a heart and a soul that is very heartwarming," she said. "The qualities they cite consistently are persistence, hard work, sacrifice, vision and family values."

The institute was founded in 1993 to provide a forum for preserving and promoting family businesses, and help firms deal with the complications of mixing family with business. It also helps firms hand down lessons in leadership and integrating family values.

Despite the enduring success of local family businesses such as Nordstrom, Bartell Drugs and Weyerhaeuser, less than a third of family firms survive the second generation.

A company that makes it to the third generation is unusual, Pratt said, and one that lasts into the fourth generation is "really doing something right." In addition to regular business cycles, these firms also have to deal with family, leadership and succession issues.

"The dynamics can get very complicated as a business gets older," Pratt said. "With each generation it gets harder."

At Langlois Pianos in Bremerton, leadership is not yet an issue for 2-year-old Natalie. Her mother, Felicia Langlois Maul, assists in running the business that was founded in Wisconsin in 1865 and moved to Washington in 1965.

Maul's father is the fifth in the family to run the business. Two years ago he asked her to fill in part time at the shop, which sells new and used pianos and electronic keyboards. She had only worked summers in the store, but soon decided to come on board full time.

"I really didn't know, growing up, that I would work here," said Maul, who is the third of four girls. "But it just feels right: This is what my parents did, so this is what I should be doing."

Maul is not doing exactly what her parents did; her father is a master tuner and still tunes and services pianos. Maul, who is 21, has set up teaching studios and has modernized the books and the billing system.

Maul takes pride in continuing a family tradition, and hopes her daughter will someday do the same. She plans to expand the retail and teaching segments.

Having a clear strategy for the future is important for the success of family-owned businesses, Pratt said. Also, families that expose the children to the business at an early age — even just to sweep the floor — can better deal with succession issues.

"The children also learn early that they have to work harder than everyone else because it's their business," she said.

At Wilcox Family Farms, there is also an emphasis on getting a formal education and some outside experience. Jim Wilcox and his brother, Barrie, began working on their third-generation farm in Pierce County at an early age in the 1960s, and formally joined the farm business after graduating from the University of Puget Sound.

Today, they run it as co-presidents with help from their four sons, all of whom are college graduates and three of whom worked in other jobs before joining the business. Those outside skills give them management and marketing expertise that comes in handy on the farm, Barrie Wilcox said.

The farm began in 1909 on a 240-acre lot with a few cows and chickens. It has grown to 1,800 acres with 800,000 laying hens, and its dairy division handles about 2 million gallons of milk per month. The farm had revenues of about $160 million last year.

The farm has had some financial problems over the years. But family businesses usually are better able to cope because they tend to be conservative and have a more long-term view, Pratt said.

"It takes a great deal of courage to get up every morning and go to work in a building that has your name on it," she said. "There are definitely failure rates, but they'll often pull through because they have a desire to make it last through the next generation."

What sets these firms apart from the corporations making the headlines these days is that they view their businesses differently:

"It is not really a vehicle to get rich — it is a way of life," said Jim Wilcox. "There is a sense of stewardship — we feel an obligation to pass it on in better shape than we got it."