Learning from the best: Father-son businesses share secrets to success

Cousins Scott Hillmuth and Bill Hillmuth armwrestle while their dads, brothers Doug Hillmuth (left) and Billy Hillmuth cheer them on at Hillmuth Automotive in Glenwood.
(Sarah Pastrana, Patuxent Publishing)

Sons learn from their fathers. Whether it's how to throw a ball, ride a bike, shave or tie a tie, the lessons fathers teach can last a lifetime.

But how do those lessons change when a son joins his father in business?


Howard Magazine talked with local father-son teams about how their relationships moved from the family circle to the daily grind, as well as what works — and what doesn't — when it comes to working together.

The Hillmuth family


At Hillmuth Certified Automotive, customers say staff members treat them like family.

But in 1978, when Doug Hillmuth, his wife, Eileen, and brother, Bill, opened the company's first location in Columbia, little did they know just how familylike it would become.

The full service auto repair business grew quickly, opening its second location in Gaithersburg in 1986 and its third location in Clarksville in 1996. As the businesses grew, so did family involvement.

Doug Hillmuth's son, Scott, officially joined the business in the early 1990s. Bill's son, Billy, joined in 2002.
All four worked together in 2010 to open the business's latest location in Glenwood.

Each Hillmuth has his own niche. Doug Hillmuth oversees the management and finances. Bill Hillmuth is in charge of operations. Scott Hillmuth oversees parts orders and helps manage the finances, while Billy is in charge of marketing and helps train service advisors and new staff members.

Working with family has its up and downs, especially when emotions are involved, Doug Hillmuth says.

"You know they're going to be beside you, give you support and give you an honest opinion," he says.

But if that opinion is one the others don't agree with, all four have learned "not to take it personally," Billy Hillmuth says.

"We all have our strengths, and we all have our weaknesses," he says.

Lessons learned

Business is business, and family is family. Leave the business talk inside the business, and don't take business decisions personally, the Hillmuths say.

The King family


Running a restaurant is hard work.

Just ask Bill and Eric King, the father-son duo and president and vice president, respectively, of the Shanty Grille in Ellicott City.

The hours are long, with maintaining customer service, overseeing staff schedules, keeping up the building and the ever-present paperwork. Yet when a business is family-owned like the Shanty Grille, the hours also include plowing snow off parking lots until the early morning, digging trenches at night to pull up disintegrating pipes and sleeping in the office to ensure it all gets done.

"You're not punching a time clock," says Bill King, who opened the restaurant — formerly known as the Crab Shanty — in 1978 with his father, Bill King, Jr.

"A lot of times, you just do what you've got to do," says his son Eric King.

But when you take pride in your business, you don't mind the extra effort, Bill King says.

Eric King witnessed that pride early on. As a teen, he washed dishes and bused tables on weekends, observing his father as he worked.

But Bill King never pressured his son to join the business. In fact, Eric King initially attended West Virginia University to study pre-med. Midway through his studies, though, he changed his mind. He knew the family business, and joining it seemed like a natural fit, he says.

After receiving his master's degree in hotel and restaurant administration in 2004, Eric King officially joined the staff.

Bill King says having his son on board has brought new energy to the 34-year-old business, which in 2011 changed its menu and name. It has also given him more free time to focus on the restaurant's future — and his eventual, bittersweet retirement, he says.

"It's my life," Bill King says. "I started it, and it's kind of hard to give that up. As long as I can feel comfortable that things will run right, there's a time for everything."

With his son's involvement, Bill King says he's confident the restaurant will be around for many years to come.

Lessons learned

Bounce ideas off each other. By combining a long-time business perspective with fresh ideas, it ensures projects are well-rounded and that both father and son have a say in the business' success, the Kings say.

The Kao family

Dr. Luke Kao and his son, Dr. Wynn Kao, each found his own path in medicine.

Early in his career, Luke Kao studied biophysics and how doctors can use certain drugs like Botox to treat neurological disorders. A few years after his son was born, Luke Kao left the research field to open his own neurology practice.

As did his father, Wynn Kao began his career in research. At Harvard Medical School, the University of Puerto Rico and George Washington University, he studied everything from melanoma to human papillomavirus (HPV).  But after his daughter was born in 2010, he began considering a private practice.

"Obviously, that changes everything," he says.

In 2011, both father and son found a way for their paths to merge: Kao Dermatology.

Luke Kao, who started the Maryland Neurological Center in 1977, found some of his Columbia patients could benefit from having a dermatologist on-site. For example, certain patients with muscle spasms and migraines can benefit from Botox, a drug dermatologists can administer. Other patients with vein issues often need both dermatologic and neurologic care, Luke Kao says.

"The (fields) have more in common than most think," he says.

By opening Kao Dermatology as part of the Maryland Neurological Center off Charter Drive, Luke Kao could offer another level of care to his patients, and Wynn Kao could begin his move toward private practice.

So far, they say the pairing is a good fit.

"(Wynn) brings a lot of new knowledge," Luke Kao says. "I bring a lot of experience, so obviously we learn a lot from each other."

Lessons learned

Always do the right thing. In any profession there are people who try to cut corners, Wynn Kao says. His father taught him he can be successful by doing quality work and treating people well. And don't get hung up on the family connection in business, Luke Kao says. At work, the two treat each other as colleagues.

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