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Finding the next leaders for family businesses


Fewer than 30 percent of family-owned businesses make it into the second generation, but several businesses in Greater Des Moines have beaten the odds with family business succession spanning three or more generations.

Josephs Jewelers, one of Greater Des Moines’ oldest businesses, now has its fifth generation of the Joseph family working at the company’s recently opened West Glen store near Jordan Creek Town Center. The American College of Hairstyling is in its third generation, along with Bob Brown Chevrolet, the youngest of these three businesses.

There’s something special about running a business your grandfather founded, said Terry Millis, the president of the American College of Hairstyling.

“I think that with many multigenerational endeavors, there should be, as generations add to the previous generation, a feeling that you are carrying on a trust,” Millis said. “You have a higher obligation to somebody. It’s not as if you just purchased a franchise a year ago. You want to build upon what has come before.”

Millis is the third generation in his family to oversee the barber school. His grandfather, Bert Millis, bought the college in 1911, and his father, Bert Millis Jr., ran it from 1939 to 1976, when Terry took the reins.

John Joseph, vice president of Josephs Jewelers, agrees that operating a long-standing family-owned business requires a high level of standards.

“It definitely makes a difference when your name is on the door,” he said. “You take a lot of pride in your product and try to make sure things are right.”

Having the family’s name on the store is also significant from the customer’s standpoint, said Toby Joseph, president of Josephs Jewelers.

“A lot of people, when they come in the store, they want to deal with the ultimate decision maker,” Toby Joseph said. “They know that you are going to take care of their issue right then because you are one of the owners.”

But working alongside family members can be challenging. Both Toby and John Joseph used to work with their father, Burton Joseph Jr., and uncle, Bill Joseph. When working with family, it’s important to never lose sight of what’s best for the business, Toby Joseph said.

“The real challenge in a family business is to get along,” he said. “Families tend to be a little harder on each other than you would be on an employee. You might not like your brother’s tie that day, or they might do something that you wanted to do yourself, but it doesn’t make a difference. If they set you off, you have to ignore it.”

In May, 22-year-old Jake Joseph joined his father, Toby, and uncle, John, in the business, which Solomon Joseph began in downtown Des Moines in 1871.

Although he is the youngest of Toby Joseph’s three children and the only one to express an interest so far in entering the family business, Jake Joseph said he chose his career because it was a good fit for his interests, not because he felt pressure to continue a tradition.

“Since my senior year of high school, I worked part time at the Valley West store, and then I’d come back from college to work over Christmas or wherever they needed me,” he said. “My dad gave me the job to see how I would like working there, and it felt pretty right, so I went with it.”

Even though Jake Joseph has known for some time that he wanted to work in the family business, he attended the University of Iowa to study accounting. He said he wanted to gain knowledge that would be useful in the business.

“I had the experience of going through the accounting program, and I’m not going to lie, I found it rather dry and boring,” Jake Joseph said. “It just wasn’t exciting. I really enjoy being around people. I thought that this was the best opportunity for me to work with people and use my brain for challenges to figure out the best price and product for customers to meet their needs.”

Unlike Jake, John and Toby Joseph decided to explore other areas before coming to work for their father. It was only fitting, because their father had done the same thing and worked as an attorney before he joined the business in 1946. Toby Joseph, who studied accounting in college, worked for a short time cutting steel forms before deciding to join Josephs Jewelers in 1973. John Joseph joined the business in 1983.

“My father was an attorney before he came back into the family business and that’s actually where I was headed,” John Joseph said. “I was planning to go to law school and I got married and my father and brother offered me a chance to come into the business, and I did it, thinking it would really be short term while finishing college. Here I am 22 years later.

“It’s worked so far that the right people with the right personalities, interests and backgrounds have decided to come into the business and been able to take care of the key areas.”

John Joseph said his background as the company’s controller for 13 years, along with Toby and Jake’s accounting educations, helps the family keep watch over all aspects of the business.

“Being able to take care of the customers is one thing, but you have to watch your back office as well,” John Joseph said.

At one time, Ron Brown, dealer principal of Bob Brown Chevrolet, worked with his father, brother, sister and son. Bob Brown Sr. retired about five years ago from the dealership he opened in 1961. His oldest son, also named Bob, retired this year as the dealership’s general manager. Ron Brown’s sister, Betty Brown, still works there as the fleet manager.

“Particularly in Iowa, it’s common to have multiple-generation dealers,” Ron Brown said. “People stay on and take over the family business, where that might be less common in larger metropolitan areas.”

Ron Brown wanted his son, Matt Brown, to be educated in the automotive industry prior to joining the family business, so he sent him to work for dealerships outside Iowa for seven years before he started at Bob Brown Chevrolet five years ago.

“We thought it would be best for him to get experience outside of the company,” Ron Brown said of Matt, who is the second oldest of four children. Matt Brown is now the sales manager of Bob Brown GMC/Isuzu, which opened in Ankeny earlier this year.

Ron Brown said with about 250 employees throughout Bob Brown’s four car dealerships, each family member working in the business has always had enough room “to spread out.”

“As opposed to a smaller family business, with our size of company, it’s been easier to have enough space for everybody and whatever they’re doing at the dealership,” Ron Brown said.

Nevertheless, there are times when family members disagree, Ron Brown said, especially when major expansions or remodeling are involved. “You may disagree on how you want to do something as family members, but ultimately, the decision has to be made.”

Millis, 61, is the only one from his family who is currently working in the American College of Hairstyling, though several family members have been trained there.

“The family rule is that at the age of 16, you start in the barber school, and you go part time after school and all day Sunday, and then during the summers,” Millis said. “And about the time that you are graduating from high school, you’ve finished the coursework at the school. And then you can do anything you want.”

Millis was about 31 when he decided to help his father out in the barber school, and he is the only one of his father’s three children to work in the business. He had retuned to Iowa after working in Europe for an oil company. None of Millis’ three children are involved with the barber school, and two of them live outside Iowa.

“I must say that when I came back from Europe, I had no expectation that I’d be doing what I’m doing now, and my kids are basically the age now that I was when I came back,” Millis said. “We’ll just see how thing all turn out.

“I have no plans of retiring soon. My dad was 82 when he died, and he had been at the school the previous Saturday.”

Toby Joseph said he also intends to work as long as he can. His uncle, Bill, retired about five years ago in his early 80s. The other Josephs have similar work ethics, which helps keep the business running smoothly.

“We’ve always worked 50, 60 plus hours per week,” John Joseph said. “We’re always here first thing in the morning and when the doors close at night. We don’t take any extra vacation or leave in the afternoon to play golf. We’re here to greet the customers and make sure everything is done right.”


According to Family Business magazine’s compilation of America’s oldest family companies, only 102 companies have remained owned and operated by the same family since 1865. The magazine’s research found that most companies of all types and sizes fail within 20 years, and among family-owned businesses, fewer than 30 percent survive into their second generation, barely 10 percent make it to the third and only about 4 percent to the fourth.

John Joseph, the vice president of Josephs Jewelers, a fifth-generation family-owned business, has ideas on why many businesses suffer during the third generation of family ownership.

“The third generation tends to divorce itself from the daily operations of the business and take money out of the business, but our family has never done that,” he said.

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