The apple fell far from the tree


Many fathers hope their sons will follow in their footsteps. Especially if they own a business.

Take Gary Giller. Since he graduated from Emory University in 1980, he has worked for his father, Stuart, on two different occasions. First, he worked at his dad’s Coca-Cola Bottling Co. franchise in Detroit, then he served as president and CEO of Stroh’s Ice Cream Co., a distressed company in Detroit his father bought in 1990.

While Gary went off on his own between those stints — earning an MBA degree from Case Western Reserve University and working for five years at Cleveland’s Nacco Industries Inc. — he says he can’t help but hope that one day his son will work by his side.

“It’s a special relationship working for your father,” says Gary, 40. “What greater mentor or role model can you have in business than your father or grandfather?”

Gary Giller and his brother, Lee, 42, president of Macedonia’s B. Berger Co., a textile company Lee owns with his father, are an example of sons who work for their fathers but march to their own drummers. While many see a family business as destiny — if not duty — others take the business they grew up with in an entirely different direction when they take over, or use it as a launching pad to open a business of their own.

The Gillers buy companies that are in trouble, turn them around and sell them. But the sons took a few detours along the way. Lee, an attorney, practiced law in Akron for two years before leaving to work for his father’s Coca-Cola Co. franchise. In 1988, he returned to Akron to practice law for another two years. In the end, he says, “I decided I would rather be in a family business.”

In 1991, Lee and his father “stepped in at the eleventh hour” and bought the troubled B. Berger Co. with the goal of breathing new life into a corporation they knew had a great name.

“We’ve increased sales since then by four times,” Lee says. “We revived the energy in the company, and it’s back as one of the premiere companies for high-end textiles in the country.”

Gary and his father enjoyed the same success with Stroh’s Ice Cream Co., founded in 1919 by The Stroh Brewery Co. After Stuart bought the company in 1990, he and Gary — who served as president and CEO from 1996 until they sold the company last February — made it the leading ice cream company in Michigan. But none of this could have happened if the father-and-son teams weren’t willing to learn from each other.

“It’s a two-way street,” Stuart says. “I give them direction, and they do a lot to keep me up to speed. I learned that I better get into the new millennium — to become proficient with a computer. I’m learning from them all the time.”

Sometimes it’s not easy.

Phil Dannemiller, 56, always knew he would work for Canton’s Convoy Inc., his father’s company that manufactures industrial containers, “because I’m German and dutiful,” he jokes. But found that his eagerness to take the company into the future clashed with his father’s fears.

“After I graduated from Northwestern University, I worked for a plastic container maker in England for a year,” Dannemiller says. “Europe was ahead of American plastics — way ahead of us. I saw the future and came back … But they weren’t quite ready.”

Fearing that a foray into plastics would cannibalize the company’s cardboard line, Phil’s father, Franklin, suggested they stick to what had made them a success. They decided Phil should go on the road and sell the product, not only to learn more about the market, but to give both of them room to breathe.

“It’s like cooking three meals a day with your mother in the same kitchen for the rest of your life, but it’s her kitchen,” Phil says of working in a family business. “If everything meshes — the temperments and everything — then it’s beautiful. But if there’s a difference of opinion, it’s difficult.”

While the company did integrate plastics into its product line throughout the 15 years Phil spent in sales, it didn’t fully embrace the newest technology until he took over as president after his father passed away.

“There’s nothing more difficult to change than a successful company,” he says. “We were very profitable, and he kept saying, ‘If I’m so dumb, why do we do so well?’ I kept saying, ‘It’s like bald tires on a car. They’re all filled with air, but the tread is going down. I don’t want to wait till they blow and we go over the cliff.’”

These and other reasons — such as different interests — contribute to the fact that many sons inherit their father’s entrepreneurial spirit but choose to work for themselves. Mike Schiltz, 30, co-owner of Massillon’s Milepost Production, a video and multimedia production company, always knew he didn’t want to work for Liquid Control Corp., his father Bill’s Canton company.

But, he adds, “When I worked for him as a kid during the summers, in the back of my mind I thought, ‘Some day, I’m going to do something on my own.’”

Mike’s main inspiration? Seeing how happy his father was going to work every day.

“He wasn’t waking up every morning saying, ‘Damn, I have to go to work,’” he says. “Now he has a multimillion-dollar corporation employing 100 or so people with plants in different states, and I have a three-man operation in Massillon, Ohio. But I’m doing what I love, and he’s doing what he loves.”

Mike’s brother, Mark, 32, is also doing what he loves — working as an applications engineer for his father.

“I always knew I didn’t want to work here,” Mark says with a laugh. “I saw myself working outside or moving out of the state.”

But when Mark got a job working at Canton’s Rice’s Nursery after attending Kent State University, his father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“I had just bought a duplex. I was pretty serious with a girl. And he was concerned about my financial well-being,” Mark says. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come to work for me?’ It was his approach that made me think about it and take him up on it … He’s been a good teacher and friend all my life.’”

Today, Mark is working his way up in the company with the hopes of one day running the whole operation. But Akron’s Mark DiFeo, 47, says he never planned on taking over DiFeo & Sons Poultry, his family’s well-known Grant Street business which was founded in 1918.

As the oldest of seven children, “I always thought a lot of people expected me to be the one,” he says. “But when I went to college, I thought, ‘What can we do with this family business? There’s seven of us. How are we going to survive?’”

His idea? Cook the poultry and serve it inside.

“Prepared foods. The wave of the future,” he says.

His father resisted.

“He was real leery about it,” Mark says. “He thought it might compete with our own customers. So for the first three years, it was a secret. We couldn’t advertise.”

In time, however, the business grew so much that Mark relocated to Fairlawn, where he says the concept exploded.

“They’d line up and order a half chicken and a pint of mashed potatoes,” he says. “Not only did they want it for lunch, they wanted it for organizations. ‘Could you put somebody on the grill and cook steaks for us? Could you get someone to park our cars? Could you get someone to decorate?’”

After throwing a successful fund-raiser for then-Gov. George Voinovich, he says, “I asked myself, ‘Why am I continuing to do this day-to-day work when I ha
ve clients that are willing to do these types of events?’”

In 1987, Mark founded Corporate Caterers by Mark DiFeo, and his business has been going strong ever since. So are his brothers’.

Bob and Ed recently bought DiFeo & Sons Poultry from their father, Alfonso; brother Jim owns DiFeo Catering Inc. in Akron; and brother John operates DiFeo’s Chicken Carryout, which Mark started before moving to Fairlawn. Sister Lisa manages a health food store. The only sibling who works outside of the food business is Joe, 46, who started DiFeo’s Cellular Specialists in 1983 — a GTE wireless cellular phone agent which last year was named the top agent for GTE in the Akron and Canton areas.

Asked why he didn’t dig his heels into DiFeo & Sons Poultry, Joe says, “It just wasn’t in my blood.”

But that was OK with dad.

“I think my father recognized the fact that there were a lot of people who wanted to be a part of the business, and it wasn’t going to be able to support everybody,” Joe remembers. “He realized that this was probably a good thing.”

And sometimes, Mark adds, that’s better for the family.

“It’s hard for one brother to take orders from another brother,” Mark says. “It’s hard for one brother to be another brother’s boss. Some work longer hours. Some work less. Some run businesses in a different way. This way, with each of us having our own business, we are able to share ideas.”

Still, Joe adds, the reason each of them has that entrepreneurial spirit is because their father taught them to be independent thinkers.

“We all want to do it ourselves,” he says.

And it seems as if Alfonso’s grandchildren will eventually want to do it themselves, too.

Asked whether his children will eventually take over his catering business, Mark DiFeo begins a slow laugh.

“They’re young yet, and in a way they like it,” he says. “But when people ask, ‘Are you going to take over your dad’s business?‚ they say, ‘No. He works too hard.’”

How to reach: B. Berger Co.: (330) 425-3838; Mark DiFeo’s Corporate Caterers (330) 869-8787; DiFeo’s Cellular Specialists: (330) 773-6077; DiFeo & Sons Poultry: (330) 773-7881; Milepost Production: (330) 837-9251; Convoy Inc. (330) 453-8163.