Featured photo by Toshi Tasaki
Local businesses create a legacy that spans generations, as these family-led operations around Westchester prove.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the majority of businesses in America are family-owned. Ranging from two-person partnerships to Fortune 500 companies, all family businesses share both advantages and challenges. We spoke with a handful of thriving family businesses in Westchester and found that an atmosphere of support and cooperation is the norm — precisely the opposite of the power struggles and backstabbing one might find in an episode of HBO’s Succession. Family members are working together to create a legacy rather than focusing on individual profits and short-term successes.
Let’s talk about where each of your businesses fits on the generational timetable. Who started your company, and who is in charge now?
Joe Pepe, CEO of Pepe Motors (White Plains): My father, Eugene, started the company in 1968. He had been working in the construction business with my grandfather, but he always liked cars. He bought an Oldsmobile dealership in Mount Vernon and taught himself the business from scratch. In 1970, we got Mercedes-Benz, and everything started to take off. We have seven dealerships now, including Porsche Larchmont, Mercedes-Benz of White Plains and New Rochelle, and Pepe Cadillac in White Plains. I work with three brothers, and my son recently joined the company.
Jamie Shyer, co-CEO/ COO, Zyloware (Port Chester): My grandfather Joseph was a salesman on the streets of New York in the 1920s, selling various items, including eyeglasses. He loved helping people by selling them products that would improve their lives, but he didn’t like his bosses. He decided to go out on his own and treat people the way he wanted to be treated — like family. With a lot of grit and savings, he opened Zyloware Eyeglasses when he was 27 years old. His sons — my father, Henry, and his brother Robert — later took over the business, and now I am the co-CEO/ COO of the company, and my cousin Chris is co-CEO/ president.
“This is not just a job, not just a paycheck; it is who we are to the core.”
—Jamie Shyer, co-CEO/ COO, Zyloware
Mike Wilson, owner, Wilson & Son Jewelers (Scarsdale): My great-great grandfather Morris emigrated from Russia in 1892. We found his name at Ellis Island; he signed in as a watchmaker. We believe he began working as a jeweler, adopting the last name Wilson. He started his own company in 1905, in Washington Heights. Morris’ son Meyer is my grandfather, and my father is Ira. They both ran the business, which moved to Scarsdale in 1932. Now, my brother Matthew and I are partners. My daughter Stephanie has joined the company, along with her sister Allison and their cousin Chelsea.
Bill Taubner, president, Ball Chain Manufacturing (Mount Vernon): My great-grandfather Frank and his son Val founded the company in 1938. My father, Val, is now chairman of the board, and I work with my older brother, Val, and my younger brother, Jim. It’s just one of those things. The three of us brothers always loved it; we always knew we were going to join the family business. It was in our blood.
Did any of you feel pressure to join the family business?
Joe Pepe: No one was ever forced to get in the business. I had offers to do other things, but I really liked our business. It was always exciting… always something new to learn. I have a son, Joe, who graduated from college two years ago; he’s the only next generation. But I told him the same thing I was told: “If you don’t want to do this, please don’t, because the last thing I want is for you to go to work every day and be miserable. You have to love what you do.
Jamie Shyer: Henry and Robert both went to college. There’s a story in our family that the day after Henry graduated from college [in 1952], he showed up at the Zyloware office, and there was a car already packed with his clothes, some eyeglass-frame samples, and a map. That’s how Dad became the sales guy. His brother, Bob, loved making the eyeglasses, the artistic side of it. He ran the factory in Queens. [Zyloware headquarters moved to Port Chester in 2010.] My father loved people, loved knowing he was making a difference in people’s lives. They were incredibly successful. But I don’t think they were given a choice. It was different with my cousin Chris and me. My father and uncle didn’t want us to come right into the business. They wanted us to bring something more to the table than just our name.
Chris Shyer, co-CEO/ president, Zyloware: Our fathers were explicit about it. They did not expect us to come into the company unless we wanted to, but they had rules that we must get experience somewhere else, to learn what it’s like to work for someone else, and not to come into the family company expecting to be the boss.
Mike Wilson: Just like my grandfather and father, I was born and raised in the business. I went right into it. Maybe just a teeny bit of pressure back then, but not very much. We are in the business of helping people celebrate occasions, life’s milestones. Our job is fun. Knowing that we add real value to people’s lives was very exciting to me, even at a young age.
Stephanie Wilson-Fink (Mike’s daughter): When I was in business school, most of my friends were going into accounting or banking, but I felt that working in the family business would be a much more meaningful career. After graduating from Fordham, I became a gemologist and worked at Tiffany for four years to gain experience. Once we opened the new store in Scarsdale, in 2021, I came back and joined our business.
Bill Taubner: We were encouraged to do whatever we were interested in. We just found that we loved the business. We are proud to be the only U.S. manufacturer of ball chain in the country and the largest in the world. [Ball Chain Manufacturers produces three million feet of ball chain each week, which has myriad uses, from plumbing fixtures to fine jewelry.]
Tell us about some specific ways in which you handle the potential challenges of working with family. Any thoughts on bringing the next generation into the business?
Mike Wilson: One thing you never want to do is come into your family’s business with any sort of entitlement — it’s just not good for company culture. Everybody has to start at the bottom, sweeping up, cleaning showcases. I’ve owned the business for 30 years, and I’ll still clean glass; I’ll still wipe a showcase, do a basic repair. It’s very important.
Jamie Shyer: We are happy that we have hit a milestone of 100 years in business. We’re always open to the next generation coming in when they are old enough. But no pressure. I want my children to follow their dreams. If their dreams take them this way, great. If not, I will support that decision.
Joe Pepe: My son is very proud of the business, but I chose not to manage him directly. I had him mentored by a person I trust. I am not going to give [my son] raises; I am not going to reprimand him. It’s up to his mentor to turn him into a good owner/manager/employee. I think it’s important for him to learn what he needs to know without it coming from his father.
Chris Shyer: Jamie and I found it worked better for us that if we had to make a decision that would affect one of our fathers, we would let each cousin talk to the other one’s father, to prevent it from ever feeling too personal.
Family businesses are known for being more frugal and taking on less risk than other companies. Does that ring true?
Chris Shyer: It’s natural for family businesses to be fiscally conservative because decisions impact a lot of people who are personally close. You are impacting a child’s life or a parent’s legacy. At the same time, that is probably part of the reason some places don’t carry on. It’s because they are too conservative. But overall, there’s a positive effect: If you have a good relationship with your family, you have a vested interest in one another’s success.
Jamie Shyer: Chris and I have a choice: We can take money and put it in our own pockets or invest in the business. Out of 10 times, we invest in the business 9.8 times. The business comes first. If we’re successful, everyone wins.
Joe Pepe: There’s definitely a feeling that you are using or investing your own money. It’s incredibly important that you watch every dollar, because it’s coming out of your pocket, as opposed to at a publicly traded company, where you are using someone else’s money.
Stephanie Wilson-Fink: When you’re in a family business, you’re working for the livelihood of multiple generations. The stakes are that high, and you feel it.
What does working in or running a family business mean to you?
Joe Pepe: Employees expect more out of you when your name is on the building. We have to be held to a higher standard. My brothers and my son and I are responsible for all the other people who are working here. It’s also about being available to employees and customers. With our company, there is a face to the business. There is a Mr. Pepe you can actually talk to.
Stephanie Wilson-Fink: When people come here, we feel like we are inviting them into our home, and now a new home [Wilson & Son recently moved to a new Scarsdale location, at 10 Spencer Place.] We are currently focusing on elevated hospitality. We make sure our customers have a beverage, make sure they feel comfortable, make sure they want to return.
Mike Wilson: You want to support unconditionally the community that supports you. I sit on the board of Feeding Westchester. As a family business, one that has been embedded in this community for over 90 years, philanthropy has always been a very important part of what we do. I think it’s all part of the emotional side of being in a family business.
Jamie Shyer: My father and his brother took the initiative to work with [famed Italian actress] Sophia Loren, who said that glasses made her look that much more beautiful. We think our glasses do make people look more beautiful. I love that part of it. I’m also working with people I love to be with. We have a relationship that transcends dollars and cents. Traditional “corporate” is very different. Not to say one is better, but personally I prefer the family business. We put our heart and soul into it. This is not just a job, not just a paycheck; it is who we are to the core.
Bill Taubner: The big thing for me is, I really love what I do on many levels. I love the people I work with. I consider myself fortunate on so many different levels.