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

Gold: Fitterer's Inc.; Silver: Plemmons Industries, Morpac Industries
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GOLD AWARD:
Fitterer's Inc.

Location: Ellensburg

Established in 1896, Fitterer’s Furniture has its roots in the founding of Ellensburg. Brothers Phillip and Frank Fitterer came to Yakima from Minnesota in the late 1880s and then moved to booming Ellensburg to work for the pioneering Horton House hotel. When it closed in 1896, they began operating a secondhand store to sell the hotel’s furnishings as well as excess supplies sold by contractors on the railroads. No-interest financing helped boost sales. By 1909, the Fitterers had built a large brick building to house a new store. Big window displays attracted locals shopping for home furnishings. Hot coffee around a potbellied stove provided added inducement. Today, the store has a mattress studio and an interior design space and Fitterer’s delivers its furnishings statewide, but the zinc-plated cash register reminds visitors that Fitterer’s Furniture has a long history. In  the late 1980s, fourth-generation descendants Brad and Jon Fitterer bought out Jon’s dad, Joe. In 2011, they agreed that Brad would acquire Jon’s share. Brad now operates the store while his wife, Connie, serves as a corporate officer. Both encourage employees to serve nonprofits and community organizations to continue the Fitterer legacy. In 2002, the Fitterer family was inducted into the Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame in recognition of its many years of enthusiastic support. Says Brad Fitterer: “Giving back to the community is an important part of what makes a person whole.”

 

SILVER AWARD
Plemmons Industries
Location: Kent

Sweat equity comes naturally to three generations at Plemmons Industries, which owns and leases warehouses, offices, retail spaces and homes. Founded in 1965 by Jim Plemmons, the company now has 12 employees. Two sons and a daughter, who began their careers laying foundations and painting homes, continued their roles in the company after college. Younger generations must hold outside jobs before returning to the company to start at the bottom. The business continues strong growth as King County’s population expands. Adding an industrial storage option in the past two years opened another client base.

SILVER AWARD
Morpac Industries Inc.
Location: Pacific

Four sisters and a brother operate Morpac, a custom manufacturer of specialized equipment for electric utility and electric valve actuator markets. The business was started in 1956 by Lloyd Morgan, who died in 2011. Today, Morpac has 42 employees, including 18 at headquarters, where the company makes electric motor actuators used on Navy ships, and 24 in Tucson, where the company makes switches for substation equipment. The Morgans take a team-management approach, says President Heidi Morgan. Her brother, Pete Morgan, is sales manager, sister Gretchen Morgan, purchasing manager, and sister Christine Dixon, human resources manager. Sister Erika Morgan is retired and serves on the company’s board. 

2016 Family Business Awards: Heritage/Legacy Award

2016 Family Business Awards: Heritage/Legacy Award

Winner: Bartell Drugs
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WINNER
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.