Tech's Strongest Backbone


It's all in the family at many IT solution providers


t one of my first writing jobs out of school, the CEO of the company gave me an assignment I have never forgotten. He told me to cut the grass next to the company's headquarters and then pick his wife up at the airport after I was finished. On Saturday.

I cut the lawn, all right. Trimmed the hedges, sprayed toxic herbicide on a patch of poison ivy and then drove to the airport in the executive's car to pick up his wife. When she saw me at the curb, she smiled warmly but admonished me for running late. When I sighed and wondered how much longer I would write for the company, she took a second look. Maybe it was the matted, sweaty hair or the clothes littered with grass clippings. Despite the smell of spilt gasoline, she extended an open bag of red licorice my way with a gentle rocking of her hand as if to say, "I appreciate the effort, son."

"Thanks, Mom," I said. "Good to see you home."

Aah, family business, the backbone of American commerce. Estimates vary, but family-owned businesses are believed to comprise an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of all enterprises in America. That's millions of companies from Bangor, Maine, to San Diego. Family businesses run farms, produce beer, sell tires, keep books and care for the sick. They also solve technology problems for every type of company imaginable.

Gary and Brian Sims, for example, build networking solutions out of Cisco gear for customers in and around tiny Scott Depot, W.V., and they do it rather well. In our Nov. 28 issue, the two brothers were showcased in the pages of VARBusiness as one of the 2005 VARs of the Year (page 42). What makes their company, Advanced Technical Solutions, interesting is the presence of not only the two Sims brothers, but their father as well. Gary Sims Sr. joined the duo in July after a career managing retail pharmacies. Every Monday at Gary Sr.'s house, the family still gathers for dinner, though not necessarily to listen to Dad. "To be able to make observations and recommendations is one thing, but to have to accept their decisions is another," he says, with a mixture of pride and frustration. Fortunately for all, "the boys" are growing the company at a rate of 40 percent per year.

Then there's Brian Russell, who sometimes wonders about his life at his family-owned business, Central Telecom. The company was started 25 years ago by his father, Ray, in Overland Park, Kan. Like many places, father and son work together side-by-side. They also travel together. I recently bumped into them, along with their wives, in Las Vegas at a Toshiba partner event. In a shuttle bus, Brian confided some of the joys and frustrations of working for a family business. There are unrealistic expectations, personal sacrifices, complex allegiances and a lack of privacy, to name just a few. Some of what he said reminded me of things my brother, Christopher, who now runs the business my father started in 1969, says. Like my brother, Brian began working for his father's business while in school. He helped his father repair PCs, and learned the ins and outs of the business before graduating from Kansas State University. Despite his laments, Brian knows how fortunate he is to be able to endure what he does. And, like my brother, he spends more time with his father in a week than I do with mine in a decade.

Unlike me, however, Frank Mogavero Jr., doesn't wonder about the decision he made not to work for his father's company. A successful orthodontist in Southern California, he is the son of Frank Mogavero Sr., a recent inductee to the Computer History Museum and CRN Hall of Fame. Frank Sr. is the chairman and founder of Data Systems Worldwide, one of the longest-running VARBusiness 500 companies in the country. Since founding his business in 1971, Frank Sr. has survived heart attacks, bankruptcies and other setbacks. And yet, he has persevered, thanks in no small measure to the help of his family. Son Phil now runs the day-to-day operations of the company, while son Michael oversees sales and marketing. It's ironic that they joined and not Frank Jr., considered to be the family's top technologist. (For example, he hand-built the servers that run his dental practice.) Regardless, all were on hand when their father was honored in front of his peers at a recent gala event hosted by CRN.

Seeing the business honored like that was a sight to behold. Knowing the tax strategies, succession planning and sibling arrangements behind such transitions makes one appreciate the unique aspects of a family business even more. So here's to all you brothers, sisters, fathers, sons, mothers and daughters that make companies great. Cheers.

T.C. Doyle is senior executive editor at VARBusiness. You can reach him at tcdoyle@cmp.com.