By Abby Patkin
This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Massachusetts Family Business magazine.
At family-owned A.W. Chesterton Co., they start ’em young; “Some of my earliest memories are my father really talking to me about the business when I was a boy. I think he probably even talked to me when I was in my crib,” jokes CEO and President Andrew Chesterton.
Chesterton credits his father’s stories with sparking his interest in the family’s sealing solutions and industrial equipment business. “My father was really very passionate about the business, and he would always talk to me about what was going on, and how we were growing a business,” he said. “That was probably the thing that got me really interested in the company, just seeing how passionate my father was about the business.”
His recent appointment – he took over the reins from Brian O’Donnell, a longtime Chesterton executive, in June – marks a return to family leadership for the company, which was founded in 1884.
The Groveland-based A.W. Chesterton has over 1,250 employees, sales in over 113 countries and locations spanning five of the seven continents, but what it stresses most is the uncompromising importance of customer care. In a statement regarding his appointment, Chesterton emphasized his company’s commitment to family values and individualized customer service. In his statement, he noted that his immediate plans for the company focus primarily on “exceptional customer care, unparalleled product quality, and technical innovation.”
These are values that the company has held close since Chesterton’s great-grandfather, Arthur Wellington Chesterton, founded it as a small steamship supplies shop on the Boston waterfront. The engineering supplies side of the business followed soon after and the company – which has remained under family control for over 132 years – has gradually expanded its services and offerings ever since.
‘A Winning Business Model’
With A.W. Chesterton in a state of regular growth since its inception, Chesterton points to a rather straightforward business model as the key to the company’s success. The model, he explains, is twofold: equal parts professional management and hands-on customer service.
When Chesterton first joined the company 29 years ago, the then-recent Duke University graduate took an entry-level job in the company’s customer service department. “It really taught me a lot about who our customers were and what they needed, and how we had to really be customer-focused to be a successful company, which is why one of my emphases as CEO now is that we’ve really got to become a truly customer-focused company again,” he explained.
Chesterton also notes that one of his fondest memories from his time at the company was from his tenure as the strategic business leader for the company’s hydraulic pneumatic business line, an assignment that involved calling on customers and developing corporate accounts. “That was a really exciting time for me. I really enjoyed that and it took my experience in the business to a whole other level to have that role,” he said.
Now, he and his wife – Darina Chesterton, who leads the corporate quality organization – are the only two family members currently working at the company, though ownership of the private company is divided among Arthur Chesterton’s descendants.
But despite the strong emphasis on family values, Chesterton is careful to note, the management team’s professionalism and determination are what help keep the gears in constant motion. Although the company puts heavy focus on its customer service department, “We have a very strong management team, and I think that’s important too,” Chesterton said. “Sometimes people think that a family business is less serious than a regular business, but it’s definitely not at Chesterton. … We’re very serious, we want to perform at a very high level and the Chesterton Company has always been about high quality and it’s always been about high performance, and that’s very much a part of our business model.”
Still, he said the company would not be as successful as it is today if not for its dedication to its customers – part of the reason why he has stressed the importance of renewing the company’s commitment to those values. “I think as we’ve gotten bigger over the years … we’ve developed more administration and more bureaucracy and things like that, which is a pitfall for all companies as they grow,” Chesterton said. “And I think what we really need to do now is really think about how we can be a truly customer-focused company again.”
“We really want to be driven by our sales force and what they tell us about the market and what they’re seeing out there so we know what we do internally will really be of value to the customer,” he added.
Abby Patkin is the summer editorial intern at The Warren Group. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Anna Sims
This article first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Massachusetts Family Business magazine.
Joseph Basile, president
When a family business has endured for four generations, it must be doing something right. But in the case of Ayer-based Catania Oils, a processor and packager of organic, non-GMO vegetable, olive and blended oils, that something might just be a desire to continually change and improve.
“Every generation, every step of the way has taken [the business] further and further,” said Stephen Basile, vice president and a fourth generation family member. “Now it’s our turn.”
Stephen, along with his brother Joseph Basile, president, are leading the way as the fourth generation to put its mark on the business. Recently that leadership has included unveiling a new company name. Long known as Catania Spagna Corp., the company in February changed its name to Catania Oils to better support the brand.
Troubles with the company’s original name, Catania Spagna Corp., included frequent mispronunciation of “spanga.” The original name also made no mention of the company’s actual product, oils, which could cause confusion.
“Even once we’d explain to people that we’re in oils, they would say, ‘Oh, like fuel?’ And we’d have to explain, ‘No, like cooking oils.’ That’s why our logo is [an image that’s half plant, half oil drop] giving off those more natural, earthy tones that speak to plant-based oils,” Stephen said.
The name change also helped align the company’s offerings with its existing reputation.
“Within our different divisions – we have retail, food service and food manufacturing – for the most part, we weren’t referred to as Catania Spagna Corp., we were referred to as Catania,” Joseph said. “We looked at it and we felt like there was a lot of brand awareness [already] with the name Catania … as well as generational history. It was important to us to keep Catania in the company name.”
Treasuring A Legacy
Stephen Basile, vice president
The history of Catania Oils began in a small village in Sicily where Giuseppe Basile – great-grandfather of Joseph and Stephen – started selling oil in his neighborhood. Giuseppe immigrated to the United States around 1900, landing at Ellis Island before settling in Lynn, Massachusetts, where he continued the work.
“He started selling oil door to door with the hopes of creating a family business without really knowing what the legacy would become,” Stephen said. Today, Giuseppe’s one-time door-to-door business operates in a more than 250,000-square-foot facility in Ayer. Packing more than $225 million in oils each year for customers including Stop & Show, Whole Foods and General Mills, the company employs more than 140 workers, including 13 family members.
The oldest members of the company’s fourth generation, Joseph and Stephen began their tenure at the family business when they were barely teenagers.
“My grandfather would pick us up and bring us to the plant just so we could be around it … It was really just about having fun and being with our grandfather. We would be given tasks to do like sweeping the warehouse and helping him with local cash sales,” Joseph said. As the brothers got older, they became more involved in a variety of different roles in the company.
“I always like to say we got Miyagi-ed into the business,” Stephen said, referring to the 1984 movie “The Karate Kid.” Their training at Catania Oils, he joked, was similar to Mr. Miyagi’s unconventional method of teaching karate. “You remember, ‘Wax on, wax off’? It was like that. We had no idea what was going on, and then later on, it was like, ‘Oh, OK, I understand now.’”
Ultimately, Stephen believes the way his family trained them at the company was invaluable. “From holding all of these different positions, we really developed a good understanding of the entire operation from approval process to production to manufacturing to warehousing to shipping – basically, the entire operation,” Stephen said. “I would say that’s one of the most important things we went through.”
In addition to the name change, the fourth generation of Basiles has been leaving its mark on the business in many other ways, including improving its technological capabilities.
“From an operations perspective, we’ve drastically changed the way we come to market and the operation itself as far as how we bring oil into the facility as well as package and ship it,” Joseph said. “We’ve invested a lot of money in new capabilities [including] automation of equipment, and other stuff that makes us more efficient.”
While Joseph and Stephen embrace new challenges, they continue to deal with the same conundrum facing all family business, no matter how long they’ve been around: how to strike the balance between business and family.
Joseph said one of the most important things he learned from his father and grandfather growing up was the importance of being able to put the business first.
Going forward, they want to make sure they have “the right people in the right roles to grow the business,” regardless of that person’s last name or how long he or she been employed at the company, Joseph said. And while both brothers appreciate the history and value of working with their relatives, their view of the company’s family extends far beyond an employee’s last name.
“What I love is the passion that the people have that work here. We have a lot of employees here that are non-family, but they treat our business like they are family,” Stephen said. “We appreciate all of our employees, but to be able to work with people other than family who will treat your business like it’s their business is really, really encouraging to see.”
By Malea Ritz
Life moves fast for the Weitbrecht family – and that’s how they like it. They have to keep their eyes wide and move fast to get the auction items out the door.
Tom, president of Braintree-based Strategic Auction Alliance, runs the company with his wife, Janice, event manager, and his kids – who are both auction clerks and bid spotters – Justin, 18, a licensed auctioneer, and Kate, 15.
Together, they do everything from business liquidations, sales for bankruptcy trustees, fundraising events for nonprofits, tax possessions, tax title properties and automobile auctions, to name a few. And the kids have been in the business since they were 9 years old.
“I did the first one, I thought it was pretty cool, so I just kept doing them and here I am all these years later – still doing them,” Justin said.
“Think of a 9-year-old saying to their friends, ‘No, I can’t sleep over your house this weekend, I have work,’” Kate said.
Tom started the company 10 years ago with a friend in Milton and averages 40,000 miles a year on the road, traveling to and from various auction locations and covering a wide range of territories. He’s licensed in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Florida. The company employs approximately 12 people on an as-needed basis. Also a licensed real estate broker, Tom uses the brokerage in conjunction with the company’s auction sales.
Similar to the popular TV shows “Storage Wars” and “Auction Hunters,” Tom also does storage auctions, averaging 30 a month. Although, he points out that “reality” shows are far from real. After the shows increased in popularity, people began overbidding on storage units, he said, hoping to find rare valuable treasures. Those auctions have settled down to a more realistic level now, he reported.
Strategic Auction Alliance has also auctioneered a police evidence auction, comprised of unclaimed items that have been seized, such as merchandise from shoplifters. The family recalls this Braintree auction in particular because it was the day of the Bruins’ championship parade and still drew 1,000 people, backing up both sides of the highway.
Another of the family’s favorite auctions is for the Strike 3 Foundation, an organization created by Major League Baseball to raise awareness, mobilize support and raise funds for childhood cancer research. The family admits being a bit star-struck initially by some Red Sox players, but appreciate working with them, and still recognize how lucky they are to have those types of opportunities, they said.
Getting the business off the ground was difficult at first, Janice said, especially with young children.
“It was hard when we first got started,” she said. “This was [Tom’s] dream, and I enjoyed helping him out, and the kids were so young that we left them behind a lot of the weekends for the benefit auctions, so it was hard not seeing them. So as soon as they got old enough, they started coming with us; it just worked out really well, and now I can’t imagine not having them work with us.”
“We live in controlled chaos,” Tom said. “We were initially concerned about the appearance of bringing minors to the auctions, and it turned out our clients really loved them. And if we didn’t bring them, they’d say ‘Where are the kids?’”
Over the years, the Weitbrechts have compiled a lot of knowledge and advice they offer up to newcomers. Tom says the most important things are to always honor your commitments, have realistic expectations and take ownership in what you do. “It isn’t about the bid calling, it’s about solving the entire problem,” he said.
Kate adds that newcomers should learn to improvise in case, and when, everything goes wrong. Tom suggests rolling with the punches, wearing a lot of different hats and always staying in control. It’s also very important to be professional, fair and honest, he added.
They’ve also learned how to become really good at reading people’s body language, they said, because there’s a whole psychology behind it. They can pick up on borderline facial expressions or body gestures when someone is considering a bid – and they run with that. They make jokes and tempt them with phrases like, “Don’t sit on your hands,” “It’s only money, it’ll grow right back” and “Don’t look at her, look at me.”
“You just become really good at reading people to a scary level,” Kate said.
“We’ve become the masters of body language,” Tom added.
Working with family doesn’t come without its challenges, however. Kate says for better or for worse, there’s no holding back. Juggling school and work can be strenuous, but Justin and Kate seem to have figured it out, according to Tom.
“It’s hard to balance being in high school and having so many high-level classes that you have a lot of homework in and have to study a lot if you want to do well on the tests. It’s pretty hard sometimes when you have weekday auctions to make some time in the event to study,” Kate said.
But Justin says all of the long travel and busy weekends has made them closer as a family.
“I don’t think we could have envisioned what it’s become when [Tom] went away to auction school – it was a change of career for him,” Janice said. “We had no idea where it would go. [Kate] was an infant and [Justin] was a little one; so it’s like, ‘One day at a time, I guess.’ We’re lucky we’re here today.”
Malea Ritz is an associate editor at The Warren Group, publisher of Family Business magazine.
By Malea Ritz
This article first appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Massachusetts Family Business magazine.
Most people don’t spend too much time thinking about the details of a cemetery headstone for a loved one until they are faced with the solemn responsibility of doing so. It’s often a very difficult and emotionally trying time, and there are a lot of factors to consider – type of stone, shape, size, font, special effects, etc. That’s where Elizabeth Deveney of Deveney & White Memorials comes in to help.
Deveney & White has been in the business of monument making since 1946, and is in its fourth generation of family ownership at the same location in Dorchester. Of the fourth generation, it was originally Deveney’s older brother, Matt, who helped most in the business.
“He grew up setting stones in the cemetery, moving stones around the yard, kind of doing more labor type of things. And then when he was old enough, he was able to meet with families,” Deveney said.
Matt was diagnosed with terminal cancer in February 2007 and later that year passed away at age 35.
“When Matt got sick, I had been working for an advertising agency in Boston and I was working in promotional events,” Deveney said. “I came back into the family business to help out while he was sick, and then of course he passed away, and I decided to stay working in the family business – and it’s been over 10 years.”
Joining the family legacy that her great-grandfather, grandfather, father and uncle forged before her, she now runs the business with her father and mother working part-time. Deveney sees the whole process through, from concept to conception.
“I’ve had people say that they come in and they’re nervous, or they’re on edge, or they don’t know what the person would have wanted. Or there’s a whole group of a family, like there’s a dynamic happening between different siblings or aunts or whoever it is,” Deveney said. “It’s sort of helping people to stay focused on the task at hand and helping them, guiding them through the decisions.”
“It’s helping people to understand it’s going to take time, but it’s going to be a beautiful product in the end,” she said. “It’s all made by hand, which is kind of amazing today, when you think about it. These are craftsmen that have done this for generations.”
Deveney & White produces memorials in several languages, including English, Chinese and Vietnamese options.
Memorializing a Family Member
After meeting with the family and understanding their vision for a memorial, a full-size illustration is produced.
“That’s one of the things, I think, our families love because when they do get the full-size drawing, they get to see the stone before it’s carved. They can make any adjustments to it that they want,” she said.
With the approval of the family, she works with the sandblaster and stonecutter to provide the canvas for the engravers.
“It’s actually rewarding because you’re helping people at a difficult time in their lives where they’ve been faced with the worst tragedy imaginable in some cases,” Deveney said. “We’re able to provide not only a beautiful product but some kind of service for people when they’re struggling.”
The most fulfilling part, she said, is working with families that are especially specific about what they are looking for, and delivering a product that they love.
“You know, how many things can you say, ‘I’m making a product and it is literally going to be here forever. It’s never going anywhere.’ That is a lot of responsibility.”
There can be a lot of pressure when customers are purchasing a product designed to withstand the test of time, but Deveney & White is up to the task.
“There’s a way that we know exactly how to carve the lettering so that, over time, the lettering is not only going to be legible but the lettering should look like it did when we first put the stone in,” Deveney said. “If you take a stone that’s a very sparkly and has a lot of quartz in it, it’s got big, giant flecks in it that are gorgeous. But once you go to engrave some writing in there, it can be tricky because of those flecks – the same flecks that you love that made the stone sparkle – may not come out the best in terms of how we do the lettering.”
A Personal Touch
Deveney & White doesn’t just make headstones; it has also expanded its portfolio to corporate, city and institutional projects, ranging from to firefighter memorials to signs at MIT and engravings at Harvard.
The Charlestown Firefighters Memorial, a project with which her brother Matt was involved, sits on the Freedom Trail and now is the first thing tourists see at that bus stop. Another particular favorite of hers was a freestanding Celtic cross for the Charlestown Historical Society’s Irish Famine Memorial.
With the knowledge that every season is a busy season when you’re working in the memorial making business, Deveney said the constant work is worth the reward. She loves the flexibility it gives her, and doesn’t miss the long meetings of her former corporate career.
“It’s very nice to be your own boss. It’s nice to make your own decisions,” she said, adding that working with family is also rewarding.
“My parents are the best coworkers that I could possibly have,” she said. “The unique thing about our family business is that generations can clash. My parents are so supportive of any endeavor.”
When her kids were babies, she brought them to work with her, she said. Deveney was worried how the clients would take it, but it brought many of them comfort.
The long hours and hard work doesn’t stand in the way of her family life.
“My family is very much used to it now; I’d rather have this than have to be away from them,” she said.
Deveney recognizes that she works in a unique family business industry.
“In other occupations, you aren’t necessarily experiencing a person or family with heightened emotions,” she said. “There are hundreds and hundreds of families per year that we’re providing a service for, which can be hard to juggle, with all the different [hats] you need to wear. But I really enjoy it, and I’m proud of the work that we do.”
“I feel like that sets us apart in some ways, because it’s a business, but it’s personal.”
Malea Ritz is editor at The Warren Group, publisher of Massachusetts Family Business magazine. She may be reached at email@example.com.