2016 Family Business Awards: Business of the Year, Midsize Firms

Gold: Decagon Devices; SIlver: Nakanishi Dental Laboratory, State Roofing

Decagon Devices
Location: Pullman

Renowned Washington State University soil scientist Gaylon Campbell worked part time to blend an engineering background with customer needs and create an instrument that measures water potential. Decagon Devices, soon to be Meter Group Inc., makes instruments to test plant-available water in the soil. They are used in environmental monitoring and research. The company also manufactures water activity meters for food manufacturing and safety. Since its founding 30 year ago, the company has averaged 12 percent revenue growth each year. Four of nine next-generation Campbells are among Decagon’s 170 employees, including Scott Campbell, the president; Tamsin Jolley, board treasurer; Colin Campbell, a soil scientist and vice president of core markets, and Julia Mumford, a marketing manager. Grandchildren work in a new internship program that Gaylon Campbell says will help them “connect to the mission of our business in a fundamental way.” Campbell says the company has improved corporate governance and avoided duplication by focusing the executive team on managing the firm day to day while having the board of directors oversee long-term strategy. Decagon has sold water-activity meters to such companies as Kraft and Nestlé but expects growth to come from providing quality-assurance labs with full digital systems to replace written records for safety inspections. 


Nakanishi Dental Laboratory Inc.
Location: Bellevue

Judges were impressed with Nakanishi’s thoughtful operation of a family-owned dental appliance business that employs 60 people. Nakanishi relies on an outside executive coach to help navigate decisions and mitigate issues that might interfere with the business. When there are potential conflicts, preserving family relationships always get first priority. Grandfather Ray Nakanishi, a talented dental technician, started the business in 1953. He was followed by his son, David, who added technical strength and management expertise. Now, the next generation is layering in customer service and digital-age manufacturing perspectives. Together, those capabilities resulted in record-breaking sales in 2015.  

State Roofing
Location: Monroe

For 48 years, State Roofing has addressed client needs by applying vast experience to the installation of quality roofing, windows, siding and decking that requires little maintenance and is tough against the Pacific Northwest climate. Founder Cole Smith started in 1968. State Roofing has since installed more than 50,000 projects. Nephews Lance and Brad Smith, who started working on roofs, bought the assets and built the business into one of Washington’s largest roofing firms, with 60 employees. Multiple family members work in the operation: Brother Marty runs the mechanic shop while Nancy, Lance’s wife, is CFO. In the next generation are Michelle, working in finance, and Kevin, who is general manager. 


2016 Family Business Awards: Heritage/Legacy Award

2016 Family Business Awards: Heritage/Legacy Award

Winner: Bartell Drugs

Bartell Drugs
Location: Seattle

Sometimes, the best course for a family business managing succession is to reach outside the family for expertise while it prepares for the next generation to assume leadership. This happened to Bartell Drugs in 2015. With third-generation family leaders George Bartell and Jean Bartell Barber retiring and the five fourth-generation Bartells mostly still in college and not yet ready to take on leadership positions, the 126-year-old company hired longtime REI executive Brian Unmacht as CEO. 

Now those five young adults are actively involved through quarterly family council meetings to learn about stewardship of a family business. 

Eldest cousin Evelyn Merrill, 29, works as Bartell’s senior marketing manager. She’s the daughter of Jean Bartell Barber and niece of former CEO George D. Bartell. Although her cousins are coming of age and each has their own career passions, Merrill says one thing all family members agree on is that the company should remain in family hands. Merrill says the family all feel a commitment to their shared family history going back to 1890, when young pharmacist George H. Bartell Sr. bought a storefront in Seattle’s Central District. 

As a teenager, Merrill first got a sense of the Bartell legacy as a cashier clerk, a job all cousins have held. She spent a year working in various departments, from marketing to human resources, and that’s when she felt a calling. “I saw a commitment from employees to our family that was really inspiring,” says Merrill, who earned an MBA and worked for a Seattle-area ad agency before joining Bartell in August 2015. She focuses on digital marketing. One of her first projects helped improve the online interface for the company’s 10 walk-in medical clinics. 

Merrill credits Unmacht with taking the company farther and providing a key component to family succession planning. “I see us as a business moving faster, in part thinking more strategically,” she says. “But it’s more about setting our business up for success.”

Bartell has 2,000 employees and 65 stores in greater Seattle. It plans to add new stores in fast-growing urban areas like Ballard and the International District.  

Unmacht says the willingness of the family council to bring in an outsider shows its commitment to maintaining the vitality of the business. “My primary goal is to run a $600 million company in a very competitive space,” says Unmacht. [And] I’m very conscious of where I can help the next generation learn the business.”

That dedication, Unmacht notes, remains crucial to Bartell’s ability to maintain family ownership far into the future.