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Economy pushes recent grads to join the family business

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Jodi, Georgia and Steven Solotoff, owners of family-owned PIP Printing and Marketing Services, in Livingston.
Jodi, Georgia and Steven Solotoff, owners of family-owned PIP Printing and Marketing Services, in Livingston.

When Callen R. Springmeyer walked out of Fairleigh Dickinson University with a master's degree in business in the spring of 2010, he entered a job market where college graduates struggle to get a foot in the door. He had worked each summer since high school at his family's bath and kitchen business, and his father had suggested he get some experience in the outside world before joining the company.

"But then I went on a couple of interviews and realized there were not many jobs out there, and the economy was terrible," said Springmeyer, 25, who majored in management and entrepreneurship at FDU.

He joined U.S. Kitchens and Baths more than a year ago, taking the family business into the hands of the fourth generation. "I have the opportunity to make a difference here," he said. "And there is no better way to learn small-business management than under your father's wing."

His is hardly an unusual story, said Harold Sobel, a member of the Sobel & Co. accounting and consulting firm. "I know of three or four incidences of this happening, and with the way things are going with the economy, I will not be surprised to see more," he said.

In some cases, they've had to return to school for the skills they need to contribute to the family business, "like an education major getting a finance degree," Sobel said. For some recent graduates, "the choice may be no job, or go work in the family business."

Springmeyer brought U.S. Kitchens and Baths into the social media
age through Facebook and LinkedIn, and is putting his marketing knowledge to work as he expands relationships with the home improvement contractors who dominate the bath and kitchen renovation business. During the housing boom, half the company's business came from homeowners strolling into the showrooms in East Hanover and Hackettstown to pick out a new kitchen or bath; these days, he said, the majority of leads come from contractors.

Jodi Solotoff took a longer road to her family's business. After a 19-year
career journey to vice president at KWI — a software service provider to retail stores — she quit her job last July and joined PIP Printing and Marketing Services, the business her parents built in Livingston.

She describes her decision to join PIP as "an epiphany" she reached last
year at her father's 65th birthday party, where she spent a lot of time
talking shop and discovered the printing business has a lot more going on than she'd realized.

"We do a lot of marketing and other services, in addition to printing," she said. Besides creating a printed product that looks good, "we look at how we can spread the word to your customers." And while spending time with her parents, she learned her father, Steve Solotoff, "was thinking about the rest of his life."

Solotoff realized if she didn't get involved, the business eventually might be sold outside the family — and she didn't want that to happen.
Of her parents, she said, "People respect them for all the good they have done in the community; this is a tough act to follow, and I want to do it. I am proud to have the name Solotoff, and I want to continue the family legacy, the impact they have on the community. This is noble and honorable."

The family business has taken on a new luster since the devastating economic crisis hit a few years ago, experts said.

"As the world gets a little scarier and employment becomes a little harder, what was always Plan B — 'well, I'll go into the family business' — has now become more of a Plan A," said Chris Lipper. He leads the northern and central New Jersey region of The Alternative Board, which brings together the CEOs of small businesses for regular meetings that function like a board of directors, where CEOs air confidential business problems and get advice from their peers.

When someone's been let go from a job, or faced rejection during a job search, "the family business becomes much more interesting," Lipper said. "Someone else has started the momentum, and you can jump in and keep it going."

Lipper said his first job out of college was at his father's Wall Street institutional trading firm. "I was always paid the least and worked the hardest," he said. "I would get in at 6:30 and leave at 10 at night. I was 20 years old and I was paid as a kid — as I should have been."

R. Dean Springmeyer, president of U.S. Kitchens and Baths, said his son knows the business from having worked there while in school, and has been able to step into a range of roles, from overseeing the shipping department to dealing with vendors. If the job market were stronger, he would have wanted his son to join another company right out of school "to get exposure to a different environment, culture and management style than we have here. I think that adds to a more complete background for anybody thinking of coming into a family business."

R. Dean Springmeyer said the company was founded in 1834, in New York, as the Union Stove Works, manufacturing coal stoves to heat railroad cars. When his grandfather acquired the company in the late 1920s, he expanded into the sale of kitchen appliances — which at the time were iceboxes and wood stoves. In the 1960s, the company expanded into kitchen and bath cabinet sales, design and remodeling, and in the early 1990s the company changed its name to U.S. Kitchens and Baths, although the corporate name remains Union Stove Works.

He credits the company's longevity to "everybody being on their toes and being pretty agile. We went from selling coal-burning stoves to selling modern appliances, which is totally different," then evolved into a kitchen and bath designer. "We have to stay on our toes, realize that changes are taking place and be ready to change direction."


E-mail to: bfitzgerald@njbiz.com

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Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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