Success & Succession: Howard County family businesses share life lessons

Some of the most valuable lessons don’t come from textbooks. They come from experience. And as is the case in many family businesses, gems of wisdom are passed down from one generation to the next. Whether it’s the secret ingredient to the spaghetti sauce, how to win over hesitant clients or where best to plant the crop, time-tested knowledge helps a family business thrive.

Howard magazine asked five local family enterprises to share their stories -- along with both life lessons and tips of the trade.

Elkridge Furnace Inn

Two and a half centuries ago, visitors knew The Elkridge Furnace Inn as a tavern and iron smelting furnace. Today, the furnace is long gone, but the inn has been revived and is prospering, thanks to a pair of Howard County brothers.

Established in 1744 on the banks of the Patapsco River, the inn had fallen into disrepair by the late 1900s and was owned by the state. In 1988, Daniel and Steve Wecker leased the inn from the state, which was planning on demolishing it, and agreed to restore it.

They opened a part-time catering business in 1992 and a part-time restaurant two years later. By 1997, both operations were running full time.

Steve Wecker left the business after several years. He and a different brother, Rob, now operate another well-known Howard County restaurant, the Iron Bridge Wine Co. in Columbia. But plenty of Weckers remain at the Elkridge Furnace Inn.

Besides Daniel Wecker, 54, a trained chef, the staff includes his father, who works as a handyman; his wife, a hostess who also does marketing; his daughter, a pastry chef; his son, assistant restaurant manager and assistant catering manager; a son-in-law, a wedding salesman; and a nephew, who is a line chef. “Plus, we’ve had our fair share of nieces and nephews working here,” Wecker says.

Life lesson:
“My father would say, ‘The customer is always right. Sometimes they’re a son of a gun, but they’re always right.’”  -- Daniel Wecker

Tip of the trade:
“Make every customer welcome. Engage the customers. Don’t just say, ‘Here’s your food,’ but, ‘How are you?’ Try to visit every table.” -- Daniel Wecker

Vertical Connection Carpet One

In the mid-1970s, when Steven and Kathy Joss went looking for vertical blinds for the new house they’d just bought in Columbia, the young couple was shocked by the store prices. When a cousin in New York, who manufactured blinds, told them he could get them what they wanted at a fraction of the store price, they had an idea.

“It was like a light bulb went off,” their son, Adam, says, recounting his parents’ start in business. “They thought, ‘There’s an opportunity here.’”

In 1977, the couple began selling discount blinds out of their Columbia home. Business was good, and a few years later they were able to rent retail space and quit their day jobs.

The business kept growing, and The Vertical Connection Carpet One now operates out of a larger space on McGaw Road and sells a variety of window treatments and floor coverings.

Steven and Kathy still work at the family business, Steven as president, Kathy as vice president. But son Adam, 33, joined the business four years ago, quitting his job as an investment banker in New York City, and is now also a vice president.

“Every family business has its ups and downs, but we make it work,” he says. “I decided to do this four years ago, and I’ve loved it every day since.”

Life lesson:
“Take care of your customers. Make them happy, whatever it takes.” -- Adam Joss

Tip of the trade:
“Take your time and double-check your work. This is especially important for us, because everything we do is essentially custom -- custom-fit, custom measured.” -- Adam Joss

St. John’s Jewelers

Forty years ago, St. John’s Jewelers opened in Ellicott City’s St. John’s Plaza. Twenty years ago, the shop moved into its own space on Route 40.

But much else about St. John’s Jewelers remains the same. It is still a boutique, niche jewelry shop. And it is still very much a family business.

Irwin Farber, now 89, and his wife, Charlotte, 84, started the business in 1973, moving from the Historic Ellicott City shop where he had worked as a watchmaker into their own space. Both still work at the shop: Irwin part time fixing watches, Charlotte keeping the books.

Their daughter, Linda, worked at the store as a child, but left Maryland after high school, traveling to Florida for college, then to California for a degree in gemology. But she returned after several years to work again at the family business. And now, at 52, Linda Miller is president of the store.

Two of her daughters also work at the shop: Margaux Winnard, 22, a part-timer doing social media and sales, and Nicolette Miller, 15, a summer employee.

“We’re a full-service jewelry store, but we’re a niche store -- very boutiquey,” Miller says.

Life lesson:
“As a second-generation jeweler and growing up in a store, I saw firsthand how important my parents’ dedication was to the success of St. John’s Jewelers. I will always remember their strong work ethic and commitment to each and every customer as I continue to grow my business with my daughters.” -- Linda Miller

Tip of the trade:
“Before my customers make a buying decision, I feel the best service and advice I can give them is education about what they are buying. Whether they are buying [or] designing an engagement ring or resetting a stone, I tell them everything they need to know so they can make an educated decision.” -- Linda Miller

Larriland Farm

When Larry Moore and his daughter Lynn -- then fresh out of high school -- planted their first acre of strawberries at their Woodbine farm, the family already had been farming for more than a century.

Moore’s grandfather was a farmer in Baltimore County when, after an especially bountiful crop of turnips, he bought 127 acres on Berger Road in Howard County and planted an orchard.

When his son, Larry Moore, took over the farm in the late 1940s, he started a dairy farm. And when The Rouse Co. bought that farm in the early 1960s to build Columbia, Larry Moore bought 250 acres of farmland at the family farm’s current site on Woodbine Road.

It was 1973 when Lynn Moore and her father planted that first acre of strawberries. Over the ensuing 40 years, Larriland Farm has evolved and expanded into an extensive pick-your-own fruits and vegetables business, featuring everything from strawberries, blackberries and peaches to spinach, beets and pumpkins.

Lynn Moore, 58, is now president of Larriland Farm. Her brothers, Guy and Fenby, are vice presidents. Her husband also works on the farm, as do the Moore siblings’ several children, at least during the summer -- and at least for now.

“The next generation is still in the ‘looking-around-at-life’ stage,” Lynn Moore says of the family’s future in farming. “They all know it’s their own choice -- and they all know they’re all welcome here.”

Tip of the trade:
“Pay attention. Don’t just plant something and expect it to bear fruit a few months later. Pay attention throughout the process -- even in the dormant season.” -- Lynn Moore

Life lesson:
“What I learned from my dad is that it is very important to be honest, and to do the job correctly and at the right time. Timing is everything.” -- Lynn Moore

Eyre Bus, Tour & Travel

Eyre Bus, Tour & Travel, the Glenelg business that now serves 800,000 passengers a year, began 65 years ago with a single used school bus.

“My dad bought it from his uncle,” recalls Ron Eyre, 67, who took over as company president 25 years ago when his father retired. “My mom was the first female school bus driver in Howard County.”

In the following half-dozen decades, more school buses were added before the company shifted to the bus tour business and, in the 1970s, the commuter business, ferrying workers back and forth between the growing city of Columbia and Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

Today, about 65 percent of Eyre’s business is charters and tours, and the remaining is commuter contracts with the state. The company owns 58 coaches, employs about 125 people and is a full-service travel agency as well.

Still, it’s a family business: Ron Eyre remains CEO, and his oldest son, Matthew, 38, took over as president two years ago.

Tip of the trade:
“My dad taught me to keep in touch with your customers. There are going to be problems in this business -- human errors, mechanical errors. The owner should always be the one reaching out, making the call to customers.”  -- Matthew Eyre

Life lesson:
“It’s all about the people and the employees -- recognizing them and appreciating them for what they do.” -- Matthew Eyre

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