For many Lowcountry companies, business is family
For example, daughters of two local business owners chose to study international affairs in college, likely putting them on trajectories that would lead far from Hilton Head Island or Bluffton. One son started his own business apart from his mother’s jewelry store. The other tried working in child care.
But after a few years, that next generation realized there are immeasurable benefits to the family livelihood: understanding bosses, dedicated and loyal co-workers and the chance to preserve and build on their parents’ lifelong endeavors. Thanks to that next generation, our community can count on another generation of successful local businesses.
Here’s to the people who boldly embrace blending kin and career.
CHARLIE’S L’ETOILE VERTE
Don’t let the restaurant’s French name meaning Green Star intimidate you. Think more of a fun, irreverent friend whom you look forward to seeing who happens to be a fabulous chef.
That’s what you’ll get at Charlie’s, along with white tablecloths, a daily handwritten slate of fresh fish as long as your arm and a wine list longer still.
Owner Charlie Golson has been doing it his way since he opened a tiny restaurant in 1982 after serving in the Peace Corps. You want a straw in your drink? Too bad, Charlie doesn’t like them. You won’t get one.
He’s sort of like that with his family, too. For example, in the early days, his wife worked in the restaurant. He remembers, “She said, ‘You can’t treat me like a waitress. I’m your wife!’ But I told her, ‘But you are a waitress here.’”
Today, his skirmishes are with his daughter Margaret, who is valiantly trying to nudge the restaurant into a post-Charlie era.
Margaret had kept some distance between she and the restaurant, but joined the restaurant full time two years ago.
“I’ve always had one half of my body in the restaurant,“ Margaret said. She graduated from Tulane with degrees in Italian because it was the only program that offered a yearlong, study-abroad program and international development. She already knew French from high school classes and her dad. “I wanted to do the opposite of whatever my dad did.”
After college, she worked as a wine rep by day and helped at the restaurant at night. “I was always burning a candle at both ends. I was always interested in wines and learning about wines. I was working seven days a week.”
To trim her schedule, she joined the family business.
“My dad is going to be 65. He’s worked every night. He’s old school,” she said. “The new restaurateur understands you can work smarter.”
To bring people back for visits other than special occasions, Margaret added a bar menu.
“People eat out more than they eat at home. Our restaurant was stuck in an identity crisis. We have white tablecloths and we’re a celebration place. But Hilton Head is the number one family destination by Forbes.”
She said the restaurant has to be welcoming for couples looking for a romantic dinner as well as a family on vacation. Despite some grumbling, Charlie is letting Margaret put her stamp on Charlie’s. “Margaret spruced up the menu. She is smart and logical and I’m the opposite,”Charlie said.
She said her dad can be a little stubborn. “We have scalloped potatoes that are gluten free. He said, ‘I’m not advertising it as gluten free.’ He was ignoring one of the biggest food trends in America.”
For years, Charlie never advertised, happy to let the restaurant serve his need to cook more than his need to make money. Under Margaret’s direction, the eatery advertises heavily in local publications and dining guides. They launched a new website and Facebook page two years ago and opened a Twitter account.
It’s part of her mission to gently extract herself, her brother Palmer, who is the chef, and herself from working every day, from open to close.
“I don’t want to be in the business forever.”
In the meantime, Charlie is looking ahead to his life without running the restaurant.
“I’d love to have a turn-of-the-century kitchen with a wood stove and oil lamps,” he said, adding he might build a wood-fired oven out back and bake bread for the restaurant.
But he swears he won’t open another restaurant. “One is more than you can handle.”
BRUNO LANDSCAPE AND NURSERY
Mary Ann Bruno says the family business doesn’t have 45 full-time employees, she has 45 kids. And she’s making room for one more, son Steven, who is about to graduate from Clemson and join the company full time.
“We had big family meeting last night. We were just talking about the dynamic. You come home to that,” Mary Ann said. “We try not to bring home business stuff, but we’ve been doing it for 25 years. When you like your job, you come home and talk about work.”
Another difference of being family is “we hold each other to a higher standard. My son says I expect more from me than other employees.”
The Bruno clan also includes their daughter Nicole, Gary’s brother, Mark, and even Mary Ann’s mother.
“There are so many positives, they outweigh the negatives. The secret to our success is that it’s a family business. We’re 95 percent residential and we chose to keep it that way. It lends to a more personal relationship and more job security,” Mary Ann said.
The Bruno family also is fiercely protective of its employees, related or not. During the recession, they didn’t lay off any employees, although they did have to cut hours.
“When the economy hit, we put on our big girl pants or big boy pants,” Mary Ann said, adding that her husband, Gary, saw it coming with the slow down in construction permits.
She said they’ve steered clear of commercial accounts because a new customer might require purchasing new equipment, but then they would run the risk of being underbid the next year.
Residential landscaping is challenging enough, with deer, shade, heat and the frequent requests to duplicate lawns found up north.
“Sod is a challenge. The Lowcountry isn’t that easy” of a climate, she said.
Mary Ann said hiring labor is trickier now, too, with the documentation requirements for their county business license.
“People used to think it was just blow and go. To do it right, it requires plantation passes and licenses.”
As the business grows, everyone’s skills complement each other. Her brother-in-law loves lawn maintenance and her husband focuses on new construction.
“Mark is a spreadsheet guru and my husband hates computers. He likes the visionary part. I really enjoy the nursery.” She even enlisted her mother to sew curtains.
She doesn’t hesitate about having her children join the business. “We have the benefit of being 25 years old. I wouldn’t recommend they go into a business that wasn’t financially stable. We are.”
Nicole tried working in child care, but always wanted to be a part of the family business, despite occasional tension.
“I think we all have moments,” Nicole, 21, said. “It’s been great. I went and did my own thing for a while. I’ve been working here full time for two years.” She said the flexibility is great, especially now that she has a 16-month-old daughter.
“My parents are tough on me and my brother. My dad always says if you’re five minutes early, you’re late. You don’t start a task and not finish it.”
Harbour Health Insurance Solutions
For decades, Grant Cully had a bit of a work commute: Hilton Head Island to Cincinnati, where he ran an insurance brokerage while his wife, Karen, and children lived on Hilton Head Island. He commuted most weekends, but it became difficult to travel after Sept. 11, 2001, the year after their daughter Janet graduated from Hilton Head Prep. The rest of the family moved back to Ohio while Janet went to Tulane, studying psychology and business.
After graduation, Janet returned to Hilton Head and worked for another insurer.
Meanwhile, Grant briefly thought about retirement.
“But I needed a place to put things. I needed a filing cabinet. When we thought about opening a company down here, the best person I could think of helping me was my daughter. I wasn’t going to start an agency here unless she was going to be doing the marketing.”
Karen, Grant and Janet opened Harbour Health Insurance Solutions three and half years ago, helping small businesses and individuals navigate health insurance, from picking the right coverage from the right company to understanding the fine print.
“My business up north was more complex than what I tried to accomplish down here,” Grant said.
Karen explained, “If you know what your policy contains, you’ll use it to its potential. Clients can call us from the pharmacy or doctor’s office. We can find out immediately what their co-pay is.”
Karen said there was absolutely no hesitation to involve the family in the Hilton Head business, nor its continued success. “We didn’t have any fears because so many of our friends here asked about us. ‘I need someone to explain this to me.’ Health care has always been confusing. Now everyone has to follow the law.”
Grant said he knows he can rely on his staff. He also set up compensation so everyone shares in the business’ success because he remembered what it was like when he was young.
“My career started working with my father. He expected two and half times out of us. He would say, ‘You can put in a half day of work and I don’t which 12 hours it is.’”
SAMPSON REAL ESTATE GROUP
When Charles Sampson started Charter 1 North with two partners in 1994, his wife and daughter weren’t involved.
In fact, his daughter, Angela, didn’t follow the familial real estate footsteps for years, instead graduating from the College of Charleston and going into medical sales.
“I wanted to forge my own path,” Angela Mullis, 39, said.
It wasn’t until she started a family that she decided to join her father’s endeavor.
“I was living in Charleston and my husband and I moved to Bluffton. With two young kids, traveling up and down U.S. 17 wasn’t working anymore,” Angela said.
However, her timing wasn’t perfect. She joined Charles Sampson Real Estate Group, an agency under the umbrella of Charter 1 North, in 2005.
“Right after I joined was the downturn, but we pushed through that,” Angela said. While Angela, Charles and Frances share an office, they aren’t often all in the office at once. Angela’s expertise is in Bluffton real estate, while her parents specialize in Hilton Head Island, where Charles says, “if a house has been for sale once before, chances are I’ve been in it.”
Angela said it was an easy adjustment from medical and real estate sales, both commission driven.
“The difference is with medical sales, you knew who your contacts were,” she said. “In real estate, it is more of who you know and referrals and how many people know you.
There is more cold calling in the beginning.”
Angela said working with family is easy.
“I’ve always gone to my dad for advice. We’re all independent contractors. The nice thing is the support. If I have to do something with my children, or vacation, just like with my dad, he knows there is someone here to pick up the slack.”
Charles is proud Angela is on the team. “She knows the technology,” Charles said. “It is so important today. Just yesterday, we were dealing with a couple in Charlotte that was interested in a listing that went up yesterday.”
They didn’t have time to drive back to Hilton Head, so the Sampson team showed them the house on Skype with their iPad, answering questions as they went through the house.
He said the real estate market is coming back, first the lower- to medium-priced properties and finally the resort property. “There is a lot of pent-up demand. The more people who come to visit, the more people will fall in love with the area and want to move here.”
Angela is pleased business is picking up. “I’m ready to ride that roller coaster up and I don’t want any of those loopedy loops.”
Her mother is just happy to have family involved, in case Frances and Charles ever decide to retire.
“Charles built up this business for so many years,” Frances said. “When you’re ready to do something else, it’s kind of hard to walk away from all those people that you’ve built these relationships with. When you have your daughter in there, you can transition her into handling things after we get to that certain age. Of course, that may never happen (laughs).”
BLUFFTON OYSTER COMPANY
When Jessica Toomer was a kid, she hated going to her family’s oyster factory.
“It smelled bad,” she said. “But my dad always told me that someday I would realize that it smells like money.”
Today, she manages Bluffton Family Seafood House, which complements the factory and vice versa. Her sister, Jamie, 20, works for her while another sister is studying to be a CPA.
“With age and paying attention, I saw how much it took to run it,” Jessica, 23, said. “Then I had a child and was a single mom. That oyster factory is what is feeding my family and I learned the history of it. My parents told us about why they were going to town council meetings.”
Despite the ongoing struggle of controlling development along the source of their livelihood, the May River, Tina Toomer is optimistic about the next 20 years.
“Everyone is working to keeping the quality. The town is working to reverse some the approvals. Bluffton’s appeal is the May River,” Tina said.
But the Toomers realized they couldn’t always be the ones leading the charge to keep the May pristine.
“We just exhausted ourselves. If I went to every meeting that they had, I wouldn’t have a business,” Tina said.
Tina said running the business for the past 25 years hasn’t been easy. Her career began in hotels, where she got her first job at age 13 and moved up to management over the years. In her 30s, she decided to leave the hotel business and go shrimping with Larry.
“I remember going by the Intercontinental where I used to work at sunrise that first morning on the boat, thinking ‘this is my new life.’ We’ve been up and we’ve been down. We’ve hit rock bottom. We’ve been extremely poor and never rich.
“My daughters never wanted to be part of the business because everything stunk. But when they had to come here, they saw how much people loved us.”
A few years ago, Jessica said if they would open a restaurant, she would help run it. “We need another outlet to showcase our product,” Tina said. “But a restaurant is the toughest business in the world. It has complemented each other. We made it through two years. It’s not making us rich, but it’s giving people jobs.”
Tina said blending business and family requires certain skills.
“You have to remember when you open the doors in the morning, you can’t worry about hurting people’s feelings and you have to include yourself in what needs to be improved. I have to be careful disciplining my children in front of employees and let them take chances.”
She also knows her daughters are acting in the best interest of the business.
“When you can’t be there, you want someone there you can trust. I don’t want someone to just clock in and watch the clock. You want it to be fun.”
Jessica is learning those same lessons.
“When we’re at home, we’re family, when we’re at work, we’re not. It took a while to learn how to do that. I hate to be firm,” Jessica said.
But making sure the business is a success is even more important now.
“It feeds my family, me and my parents. It’s our way of life. Our success reflects on our whole family.”
HERITAGE FINE JEWELRY
Late May at Heritage Fine Jewelry means the Braddocks are preparing their customers for their brief absence to attend the annual JCK Las Vegas jewelry show.
“Our customer base doesn’t like it when we leave them,” Doug Braddock said. “We’ll be bombarded this week before we leave.”
Heritage Fine Jewelry has that effect on people. It feels like family on whom you can always depend, thanks to Patti Catalano-Braddock, 66, and her children, Pat, 43, Doug, 40, and Jen, 33.
“Every year, we get more and more customers who come from big cities — Chicago or Atlanta — and do everything with us,” said Patti. “They fly down here for a son’s engagement ring or anniversary jewelry. I’ll get a call, ‘can I send this down to you? I broke a prong and I don’t trust anyone else.’ We mail out 25 packages a week.”
It is a far cry from Patti’s first store — a counter really, with a dozen pieces of jewelry in it — in Florida 37 years ago.
“I started with nothing,” Patti said. “I remember the first $100 day I had. I thought, ‘I will be so thrilled if I could do that every day.’”
These days, Patti must be ecstatic. “It overwhelms me, the support from this town,” she said. She came to visit and then moved here. Her first year in business on Hilton Head Island was better than any year in Florida.
As the business grew, one by one, her children joined her in the store.
“I think all of us considered something different first,” said Doug and Jen.
Son Pat, who was the most artistic, was a natural for the jewelry store from the beginning.
“It fit him,” Jen said. He joined the store soon after high school.
Jen was going to the University of South Carolina, studying international business and Spanish, when Patti needed some help.
“This business is weird, you can’t hire people easily, not just for security,” Jen said. She was drawn back to the business in 1999.
“It’s second nature. She needed bodies in the store. It was easy to just step back into it.”
Doug went into construction and later started his own business.
“But my body was getting tired after 15 years in construction. Like every business, you can’t just point your finger. You have to do it yourself, too.”
The last family hold-out, he joined the business full time about 10 years ago.
It’s that family atmosphere that makes Heritage so successful, Doug thinks.
“Business has always been good. There is no doubt, it’s because we’re all family running this business. We’re all invested. We greet the customers like they’re like family, and they are. We’ve known these people for years.”
And like all families, a rare spat might arise. “I might say, ‘there is a better way to do that,’ but we all try to stick to our niche,” Jen said. “Sometimes it takes a little family meeting. At this point, we don’t really do that very often. We don’t have time for that.”
“Sometimes mom will put us in our corners,” Doug said.
Patti said her dad said when there is a fight in the family, it needs to be taken care of and there should be a little separation.
“We usually end up laughing about it,” Patti said. “It doesn’t happen very often. For 10 years, all of them have been here. The only problem is when someone thinks they are working harder than the other two. When they have it easier, they don’t notice it so much. But we get along great. never dreamed that all three would work here. They don’t want to do anything else.”
The next generation is growing up in the store, too. “My brothers have kids and they bring them in,” Jen said. “We see each other five days a week, so don’t spend time together outside of work.”
But there’s no place Patti would rather be. “It’s always changing,” Patti said, “Because of all of the people moving to the island, it’s never boring. Everyone has different tastes. When I design something really special, I want to see their face. That immediately tells me if I guessed right. All you have to do is talk to us. We want you to walk you out of here thrilled. Jewelry is so personal.”
Her customers can breathe easy. Retirement is not on Patti’s horizon. “There are no signs of mom retiring,” Jen said. “She just had eye surgery so she‘s ready to go. She loves it. This has been her life.”
And her family.
As Patti said, “Everyone calls me ‘mom.’