Family Business

Amy gave me an awesome coffee table book yesterday called Family Business. I devoured it last night after dinner. She told me it was a Christmas present – if all Christmas presents are like this I might actually start liking Christmas.

Family Business is a story by Mitch Epstein of the Epstein Family businesses (retail furniture store and real estate) in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Mitch tells the story in both words and amazing photographs of how the American Dream ultimately failed Mitch’s father Bill Epstein. It is simultaneously heart warming and heart rendering and probes family, business, and a father-son relationship in unique ways.

As I read the book and looked at the pictures, I kept being reminded of my dad’s father Jack Feld. Jack was the patriarch of our family as I grew up – our own personal Jewish Archie Bunker. Jack died a few years ago but I could easily see Jack in Bill Epstein.

As a kid, we used to trek down to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on a regular basis to visit Grandpa Jack and Grandma Pauline. I was the oldest of the grandchildren (there are four men – me, my brother, and my two cousins) so as the oldest, I got the best and the worst of everything. Last weekend when I was in Aspen with my Uncle Charlie, his kids (Jon and Kenny), my brother Daniel, and our wives, our talk turned to Jack Feld stories one night. My contribution included reminding everyone how – when Jack got home from work at his clothing factory – he’d always kick me out of his chair, which happened to be the one comfortable chair in the living room.

Jack ran a clothing business all of his life. I don’t remember what it was like when he lived in New York (I was too young), but I visited his factory in the worst part of Miami several times. His company was a wholesaler – he made the stuff with sequins and pleats that was bought by clothing manufacturers to turn into retail goods. We used to joke that it was the crap you bought off the rack – he’d remind us that it was “real clothing by the big guys.” His factory was in a warehouse on a run down block that I was scared to walk down alone. There wasn’t a machine in the building made after 1960 (“I don’t trust anything that was done after 1959”) and the air conditioning consisted of a series of huge exhaust fans hung at the top of one wall. Jack got up every day of the work week (Monday to Friday), drove 30 minutes from his house in Hollywood Hills to his factory, worked until 3pm, and came home by 3:30pm. Every day. No matter what.

I was always surrounded by business as a kid. Jack had a company. My father was a doctor who had his own medical practice. He and my mom created a number of companies – Feld Properties (to manage their real estate investments, including a bunch of rental houses my mom managed), Feld Investments (presumably to manage their investments), and other “Feld X” companies I can’t remember any more. It’s probably no huge surprise that my first company was called Feld Technologies (named after my dad – of course) and my Uncle Charlies’ company was named The Feld Group.

Jack always loved to give advice. He lorded over us and encouraging us in his own special and unique way. As a 15 year old, his advice pissed me off, although I never had the courage to say some derivative of “Grandpa – leave me alone” (e.g. “go screw yourself”, or our family favorite “go shit in a hat.”) As a 25 year old, I remember sitting in full attention, soaking up every word about his business, what he did,what he learned, and what I should do.

At some point, his son the doctor (my dad) and the typhoons (me and Charlie who had our own businesses at the time – we were never tycoons – always typhoons presumably something to do with hot air) became the center of his business attention. He was endlessly proud of us, which was often motivating but always endearing.

Growing up, the idea of a family business was central to my way of thinking. I was surrounded by self-made people who created businesses out of nothing but ideas and hard work and who dedicated much of their life to the success of their work. When I started my first company at 19, it never occurred to me to get a job – I just did what seemed to come naturally to me. Twenty years later, as I turned the pages on Family Business, its easy to remember where this came from. As I read, I could hear Jack’s words. As I looked at pictures of Bill Epstein, I could almost see Jack if I squinted just right.

Mitch Epstein – thank you for creating this wonderful book and giving me these amazing memories. Amy – thanks for the Christmas gift. And Jack – I miss you.

  • Jenny Lawton

    You could rework your thinking on Christmas and look at it as a time to give and think of what other people could use.

    My very favorite part about Christmas is thinking about what someone likes/doesn’t like and finding something that is the right fit for them. I love it when the gift is a match and you can tell that it was a true fit.

    The best Christmas gift I gave this year was buying groceries for a friend who had hurt her back and wasn’t able to get out and do all that she needed to for her three kids for Christmas (kid expectations run high!). My other favorite thing is buying presents for our staff (something that is the equivalent of a bonus) and being forced to think about what would be a fit for each person.

    Your mom sent me jingle bell napkin rings that we used tonight and were lots of fun and everyone including the bird loved … but I loved the fact that she thought of us and sent a nice note and that I have a connection to her!

    Big hugs to you and Amy.

  • Hi Brad,
    As a friend of Jenny’s and former employee of Virtuflex (wow remember those days?) I enjoy reading your blog. I can empathize with Mitch Epstien’s book because my father has taken on the family business (a fifty year-old hardware store in Porter Square Cambridge, MA) and competes against big chains and corporate aggression.

    My dad is a brilliant, respected and successful businessman in Cambridge as was my Grandfather before him. However, I see him struggling to survive by winning the customer over with excellent service and fantastic inventory. He cannot compete with Home Depot prices, but he does keep the store busy and the family name strong in the community.

    Unfortunately, my father has seen what the future holds and it looks like the family legacy will end with him. I had my own dreams as I jumped on board the Internet train ten years ago and still hope to stay there even through tough times. But I am finding that keeping vested ties with the family business is getting harder and harder. I tried for a few years to move the retail operation online but Dad prevailed not wanting to stray from a solid and successful brick and mortar operation.

    To make a long story short, my dad was impressed and supportive of my early success during the Internet heyday but predicted the downfall all along. As he gets ready to retire from retail he is gladly looking forward towards a new career even at 65!

    I have learned a lot from both my Dad and Grandfather even though I am not continuing with the family tradition of retail I still hope to be as successful as they are in whatever I end up doing.

  • Jack Feld

    Hi Brad, from Holland is this also a Jack Feld. Nice to read your story. Our provider made a mistake with my name. Made the adress with a V instead of an F (stupid). Did you knew that your family came from Germany and is a very old family? One of your great-great-great grandfathers was the first poet writer in Holland. You knew? When i am in the States, perhaps i am going to look for my family who went years ago to the States. Best Regards, Jack Feld from Holland.

  • I think that Christmas time is a great time for anything having to do with family.

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