Local businesses that keep close to home
If you do much research into the topic of family businesses, you’ll see the same statistics repeated over and over:
• Only about 30 percent survive into the second generation;
• Only about 12 percent survive into the third generation; and
• Only a mere 3 percent survive into the fourth generation or beyond.
Those odds aren’t great. Even the most loving families can discover that working together isn’t the same as living together. Sooner or later family members find themselves at loggerheads, unable to reach compromises over details like succession, division of profits, opening more stores or how much to pay children, grandchildren, etc. as they join the company.
It is no surprise that most of us don’t choose to work side by side with our relatives. Just thinking about the fierce battles that can erupt over whether or not the green bean casserole at Thanksgiving should have slivered almonds makes us realize that mixing work and family isn’t always a snap.
But for some lucky New Orleans families, keeping the business in the family has proved to be a ticket to success. Talk to them, and you’ll hear the same refrain expressed: “We wouldn’t have it any other way.” They tell tales of watching their parents and grandparents work hard, learning to pitch in as youngsters and taking pleasure in watching their elders build strong relationships with their customers and clients.
Getting a business off the ground is hard work, and succeeding generations often say they joined the family business because they wanted to spend time with their fathers and mothers, who put in long hours at the office. They may go off to college or take up another profession, but for these people, coming home to join the family firm was the natural thing to do.
In 1954, Pel and Alice Hughes bought a letter-service business. In keeping with the times, the company was named after the husband, Pel. But he already had a job on the railroad and his wife, who was ahead of her time, actually ran the operation. Today, much has changed about Pel Hughes – its location and services, for example – but you’ll still find a Hughes family member minding the store.
Pel’s son Vic, who grew up and joined the business, married a schoolteacher named Jackie Levy, who worked there on and off. In 1971, the young couple bought the business, which at that time was primarily a printer and mailer. Jackie’s brother, Tim Levy, remembers pitching in when he was just 10 years old, stuffing envelopes for all those mailings.
Jackie and Vic Hughes had four children who grew up around the family business. Their daughter went into the hairdressing business, although she helps out from time to time. Their three sons – Mark, Johnny and Brian – graduated from college with degrees in business and marketing, then went into the family business as well. In addition to Tim, Jackie has another brother and a brother-in-law who work for Pel Hughes.
Like so many other local companies, Pel Hughes flooded during Hurricane Katrina. Instead of folding its tent, however, the business reinvented itself, withdrawing from sectors of the business that were disappearing thanks to new technology and adding new businesses that met the city’s needs. Since the printing business has become more digital, Vic explains, the company switched its focus to marketing, helping companies figure out how to market themselves through the use of many media, rather than just print.
The family opened a flooring store, Floor de Lis, to help the many residents who had to replace flooded floors, and a catering company, Toulouse Gourmet, which did offsite catering. Later, they used some of the space in their 63,000-square-foot building on Toulouse Street as an event space called The Cannery, which can handle events of up to 600 people. Pel Hughes employs between 50-60 people, down from about 125 when Katrina hit.
Tim Levy and Jackie and Vic Hughes say they have no plans to retire. In fact, with six grandchildren, Jackie says she may be welcoming more Hughes family members into the business. It is a positive thing to bring in young people, Tim says; they come with new contacts, new ideas and lots and lots of energy.
Walk into Hiller Jewelry and even before you examine the exquisite items nestled in glass cabinets, you’ll notice the serenity. Joe Biderman and daughter Lisa, president and vice president respectively, prefer it that way.
“We like the one-on-one approach,” Joe says, so instead of a mall location, Hiller sits among the homes, boutiques and restaurants of Metairie Road. Hiller doesn’t seek to be the biggest jewelry store, he says, choosing instead to be the most personal. He and Lisa strive to build long-term relationships with their customers, remembering what they’ve bought before and what their likes and dislikes are. That is in keeping with the nature of jewelry, which is often purchased as a gift for a memorable occasion.
Father and daughter work as a team. Joe is a specialist in diamonds and gemstones, as well as antique or estate jewelry. Lisa handles the marketing end of the business while working with customers to choose unique items that will become family heirlooms. Hiller can also create jewelry for its customers and repair and appraise valuables. They even offer appointments.
Hiller Jewelry began in 1918, when Alphonse Hiller opened a wholesale jewelry business the old Godchaux Building on the corner of Canal and Decatur streets. Within 30 years he had created the largest diamond wholesale business in the southeast region. His son, Jonas Hiller, joined the firm in the 1930s. He oversaw the transition from a wholesale to a retail jeweler.
Jonas’ daughter, Joan, married Joe Biderman in the late 1970s. Joan worked on and off at Hiller, and after their marriage Joe came aboard, learning from his father-in-law and forging relationships with people in the business all over the country. He became president in ’91.
Lisa, a graduate of the University of Colorado, returned home after Katrina to join Hiller. She remembers helping out at the store during her childhood, wrapping gifts at Christmas, and says learning the ropes from her father has been a pleasure.
“He’s been a great mentor,” she says. Her brother, Adam, owns Company Burger on Freret Street. Her aunt, Patti Hiller Lengsfield, also works at the store.
Joe’s expertise in antique and estate jewelry has led to an enjoyable niche business, he says. When people inherit jewelry, they usually have questions about what they have, what it’s worth and what to do with it. He can give advice on the options, including redesigning the pieces in a more contemporary setting or selling it through Hiller’s wide network of dealers, brokers and buyers.
Mothe Funeral Homes
Planning a funeral is an inevitably stressful endeavor. Families have to make lots of decisions at a time when they’re coping with grief and sorrow. Often, what makes the process easier is help from funeral professionals whose roots go deep in the community.
For six generations, members of the Mothe family have helped their neighbors when a funeral must be planned. “Our family has cared for the West Bank community for more than 120 years,” says Boyd Mothe Jr., current owner of Mothe Funeral Homes. Today, the firm owns three funeral homes on the West Bank and seven others in the region, as well as several cemeteries. The company’s success is due largely to its close connection to the communities it serves, he says. “Our profits don’t go to Wall Street. They go to Main Street.”
Boyd Mothe Jr.’s sister, Laurie Mothe Knowles, also works in the business, and their father, Boyd Mothe Sr., remains active as well. Boyd Jr.’s three children – Nicole Mothe Lawson, Kathryn Mothe Illg and Boyd “Beau” Mothe III – comprise the sixth generation of Mothes who work for the family concern.
The company had its start in the French Quarter, when Guillaume Mothe opened a funeral services business. His son, Emile J. Mothe Sr., opened the first funeral home operations on the West Bank. That home was destroyed by a major fire in Algiers in 1898. Emile’s son, Emile J. Mothe Jr., bought the home on Vallette Street, which is still in operation. His son, Boyd Mothe Sr., expanded the business, confident that future generations were waiting in the wings. It remains a family-owned business, unique in an industry where consolidation has done away with many such companies.
Boyd Mothe Sr. says he remembers the days when wakes were held in a family’s home and when visitation might take place all night. Today, he says, things are less formal. Boyd Jr. says one trend he’s noticed is toward individualization; Mothe’s offers such touches as dove and balloon releases, a Harley Motorcycle Hearse and harpists or bagpipers.
The frantic pace of life today makes it difficult for families to appreciate the necessity of allowing sufficient time for mourning. “It’s time to slow down and reflect,” Boyd Jr. says. If families can take the time to share stories and pictures, he says, the result can be talks of a lifetime between several generations.
Since Michael Langenstein founded his grocery shop at 1300 Arabella St. in 1922, the business has thrived by selling the best of fresh and prepared foods, locally sourced whenever possible. The recipe has proven successful; by ’54, the store outgrew its original spot and moved to 1330 Arabella St. In ’94, the Metairie Road shop was opened, and this fall a new Langenstein’s will open in the River Ridge area. The family also owns Prytania Liquor Store, which is operated in the grocery’s original Arabella Street location.
Fourth-generation owner and President H.D. Lanaux Jr. (who discovered the Better Cheddar that has become a Langenstein’s hallmark), says he tells his employees, “People are relying on us for a meal for their family.” If something isn’t good enough for his family’s table, he says, it won’t be put it out for sale to his customers.
Lanaux’s father, H.D. Lanaux Sr., married Ethel Langenstein, the founder’s granddaughter. Their sons, H.D. Lanaux Jr. and Mike Lanaux, each entered the business after studying business and accounting. Lanaux Jr.’s son, Trey, and Mike’s son, Ellis, have also joined the firm.
Division of labor has been one secret to the company’s success, Lanaux Jr. says. He oversees the Metairie Road store, while Mike Lanaux oversees Arabella Street. Trey and Ellis will be handling the new store. And each has his own strength; Ellis Lanaux, for example, is extremely adept at the technical side of the business, which has grown tremendously as scanners and other innovations have emerged. And patriarch H.D. Lanaux Sr. still puts on the black-and-white outfit staff members wear and checks out the stores.
For Langenstein’s, it was all hands on deck when Hurricane Katrina hit. Although the stores didn’t flood, family members and several employees worked feverishly to throw away spoiled food and sanitize every nook and cranny so they could open for business. H.D. Lanaux Jr. says he still remembers how grateful – and gracious – people were to find even a pared-down inventory for sale in those traumatic days.
Like other local business owners, Lanaux Jr. says the family knows that New Orleans shoppers like to shop at independently owned businesses, and they develop a loyalty that persists down through generations. That is one reason the family likes to hear from its customers. “Our customers travel a lot,” he says. When they suggest products they’ve sampled elsewhere and enjoyed, Langenstein’s is always ready to give them a try.