Meet the Next Generation

Meet the Next Generation

Family businesses make up to from 80% to 90% of all incorporated businesses in the United States, according to the Family Business Center, Madden School of Business, Le Moyne College, Syracuse.

They make up 37% of Fortune 500 companies, and 60% of publicly traded firms in the nation.

Family businesses also generate between 50% to 70% of the U.S. gross domestic product and provide approximately 80% of U.S. private sector jobs.

The average life span of a family-owned business is 24 years. About 40% of U.S. family owned businesses transition into second-generation businesses, approximately 13% are passed down successfully to a third generation, while 3% survive to a fourth or beyond.
In our “New Generation of Family Business Owners” feature package, we profile six young people who are part of their family business’s succession plans, and are carrying the torch of tradition for future generations as well.

Luke Boshart

Emil Christmann

Eric M. Cullinan

Carl Byrne

Joe Bright

Whitney Mirabito


Luke Boshart
Luke Boshart

Luke Boshart

Oswego County Monuments in Port City, Barnes Memorials in Baldwinsville on sturdy ground as son Luke succeeds father Shawn Boshart

By Lou Sorendo

In an uncertain world, it seems like very little is etched in granite.

That is unless you are talking about the monument business.

Luke Boshart, the son of Oswego County Monuments’ owner Shawn Boshart, is poised to someday take over the family business.

In 1991, Shawn, a graduate of SUNY Oswego, was working in Oswego as a licensed funeral director. It was at that time he decided to fill a niche and start a monument business.

Shawn learned the business from some of the most experienced, respected stone workers in Barre, Vermont, the granite capital of the world.

Luke said his dad has been a main influence.

“The monument industry is quite niche and you don’t meet a lot of others in the business, so he has been invaluable in learning the business and helping me get started,” he said. “However, in recent years, I have met a variety of others in the business through conventions and meet-ups.”

Luke learned a lot from his father, including how to make sure customer satisfaction is always a priority.

“My dad always went above and beyond to make sure the families we did memorials for were pleased with the end result,” he said. “Even if something wasn’t his or the business’s fault, he would spare no expense to make sure everyone was satisfied.”

In addition to consistently producing high-quality work, this has been the philosophy that has led my father to running a successful business for so many years, he added.

Boshart said the business is not afraid to invest in and try new technology, tools and ways of doing things.

“The monument industry is very old, and it can be easy to think that you don’t need to change the ways that things are done or the equipment that is used,” he said. “However, to truly excel and stand out, I think it is essential. We have been very good as a company at constantly assessing and asking ourselves what we could do better.”

Early introduction

As a youth, Luke would help his father out both in the field and around the shop. He started working for him full-time in the summers after his sophomore year at Roberts Wesleyan College.

After graduating, he was looking for other jobs when the opportunity to buy Barnes Memorials in Baldwinsville came up.

His father acquired the business and offered Luke the chance to independently manage the office.

“I figured it was an opportunity to gain business experience and skills that would be hard to find elsewhere,” Boshart said.

The Oswego native is intent on seeing how far he can take the business in terms of expansion and broadening its capabilities and services.

“So I definitely have an interest in staying with the company and trying to be a part of this next phase of growth and improvement,” he said.

While growing up and working in the field with his father, Luke learned a lot about the manual labor parts of the business. It wasn’t until the last few years that he started mainly working in the office, selling monuments and meeting with customers.

“But I think that having that experience and understanding of how the field work goes definitely helped me in terms of meeting with potential customers since I knew how the process works and could accurately answer a lot of their questions,” he said. “This background gave me credibility in meeting with people and likely helped close sales.”

Boshart’s responsibilities consist of meeting with customers, coming up with design ideas and concepts, then creating those designs into a production ready computer-aided design file.

He also attends to quoting and ordering materials, determining which work needs to be subcontracted, coordinating efforts with cemeteries, bookkeeping, paying bills, writing checks, and sending out invoices.

“My typical day can vary greatly but usually consists of fielding inquiries by email and phone and contacting material suppliers for quotes on materials and shaping work,” he said.

Boshart also monitors the business’ ongoing orders to make sure they are properly proceeding and also sends proposals to prospective customers.

“I also spend a decent amount of time outside of office hours on-site in cemeteries installing monuments and plaques, getting measurements or whatever else needs to be done to keep everything running smoothly,” he added.

Custom made

The most enjoyable aspect of the job for Boshart is developing creative and unique ideas for a customer’s memorial.

“I think that by really listening to what people have to say about themselves or their loved ones can provide an opportunity to create a piece of art that is unique and reflective of an individual’s life, as opposed to just a memorial picked out of a catalog,” he said.

The key to customer satisfaction is to make sure the design that is created creates excitement with customers and is something that is personal and meaningful to them, Boshart noted.

“But then after a sale is made, it’s important to make sure all the expectations are clear as far as timeframes and next steps,” he said. “This makes sure they aren’t wondering what is going on and keeps them updated throughout the project.”

There are many challenges associated with the monument business, Boshart noted.

“People often have never purchased a monument before and therefore have no idea as to what they want,” he said. “As a result, you have to quickly guide them and help them decide what they like.”

“There is literally an infinite number of possibilities, so it can be a challenge to try to explain all the options while also not overwhelm them with too much information,” he added. “It can be a delicate balance.”

Boshart added that another significant challenge is switching gears many times throughout the day.

“The scope of what we do is so large that you could be talking with someone about engraving their house number on a rock outside their home one minute, then with someone who just lost a loved one the next, and everything in between,” he said.

Trying to juggle all the responsibilities of previous clients while also being ready to take on new business can be challenging at times as well, Boshart said.

Preferences changing

The 25-year-old noted that cremation has risen significantly in terms of preference over the past 10 years as opposed to full burials.

“However, I have found that most people still choose to have cremations buried in the cemetery,” he said. “A large percentage of the memorials we sell are for those that have been or will be cremated.”

He said this has definitely affected the monument business over the years, but most people still want to have a permanent way to memorialize life.

Boshart noted the monument business is seasonal, and activity is generally quite slow from late fall through winter. It normally picks up between late February and March, which this year featured the advent of COVID-19 and resultant quarantine.

“It was a challenging time to not have the influx of business in early spring that we usually rely on,” he said. “Initially, we had to field inquiries all through email and phone, and we had to learn how to sell monuments entirely remotely.”

Since every memorial and design is custom made, it was a challenge to learn and find the best way to personalize the product.

“We wanted to create as close to an in-person experience as possible, so we improved our website and galleries and created eBooks that go over monument concepts and possibilities,” Boshart noted.

“We all learned how to more effectively communicate the memorial process through phone and email since it was our only option for a while,” he said.

Lifelines:

Birth date: May 24, 1995

Birthplace: Oswego

Current residence: Oswego

Education: Oswego High School; bachelor’s degree in business management and social entrepreneurship, Roberts Wesleyan College

Affiliations: Rotary Club, Baldwinsville

Personal:  Single

Hobbies: Golf — played for Oswego High School and in college for Roberts Wesleyan College; stock market — actively follow and trade in markets; web design and building websites


Emil Christmann
Emil Christmann

Emil Christmann

Following in footsteps of his parents, Oswego native Emil Christmann determined to continue river’s end independent bookstore legacy in Port City

By Lou Sorendo

When family members reach a point when they want to transfer business ownership to the next generation, it’s more than just passing the torch.

It’s continuing a legacy.

Emil Christmann is the manager of the river’s end bookstore, located at the intersection of West Bridge and First streets, Oswego.

His mother, Mindy Ostrow, and father Bill Reilly are current owners of the establishment.

The store opened in May 1998, a month before Christmann’s 13th birthday.

He worked at the store on and off over the years as he attended school or worked other jobs.

“I’ve always been interested in literature, so that and my studies in creative writing certainly lend themselves to the position,” he said. “I’ve worked in kitchens and on farms, done demolition and construction, and installed solar panels. All of those jobs gave me plenty of experience sweating it out, putting in long hours, and working with small teams toward common goals.”

Those positions showed him the importance of healthy communication and how to keep his ego in check.

“I’ve worked with hotshots. I’ve worked with lay-abouts. Both types of worker taught me what not to do on the job,” said Christmann, noting that working as a bike taxi operator when he lived in New Orleans for a while was “great fun.”

“I got a physical workout every time I clocked in, and got to engage one-on-one with people from all over the world,” he noted.

In terms of opportunity, his parents have had a significant influence on him.

“They had me helping out in whichever way I could,” he said. “They’ve never been averse to sharing their thought process when it comes to business decisions and have often included me in many such conversations.”

Christmann recalls the three of them eating dinner at Canale’s in Oswego, scribbling down potential names for the store on a napkin.

“As much as they have shared with me and encouraged me though, I can say that they’ve never pressured me to take over the business just for the sake of keeping it in the family,” he said. “If anything, I feel more of an obligation to our community to keep a good thing going.”

About four years ago, the trio began talking seriously about a succession plan, and Christmann’s parents suggested that he got involved with the American Booksellers Association and the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, national and regional trade associations, respectively.

“I’m glad I did, because these organizations open booksellers up to an incredible amount of business strategies, best practices, and cautionary tales,” he said. “Within the world of independent bookselling, there is a truly inspiring level of collaboration among peers.”

Christmann noted his parents each have different approaches.

“Where Bill has been more apt to take certain risks and may have many irons in the fire, Mindy has been more measured and pragmatic,” he said. “I’m fortunate to witness the resulting dynamic, because I think the success exists somewhere within that tension.”

He said his father has always stressed the importance of taking pride in one’s work, and that anything worth doing is worth doing well.

Up for challenge

Christmann said he is on a mission to foster and maintain community engagement, always keeping a focus on the customer, offering various products, and all the while balancing the books and managing day-to-day operations.

“It’s challenging with such a small staff, but we make it work. My wife, Megan, has taken a much larger role behind the scenes,” he said. “So as a team, we’re essentially emulating the division of labor that my parents have been fine-tuning over the past 22 years.”

Christmann is strongly considering the bookstore business as a career, and said it is encouraging speaking about this with other booksellers who are at various points on a similar path.

“Whether they’re about to open a new store or are preparing to retire, there’s an understanding that while it would be great for a business to be exceptionally lucrative, that’s not the driving force behind doing what we do,” he said. “Of course, there’s room for healthy growth, but the heart of our business has always been and will be a love for literature, and sharing that love any way we can with our community.

Christmann, 35, is a native of Oswego. The Martville resident earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English-creative writing at SUNY Oswego.

Up against digital

Christmann said despite the high level of technology that is available to access literature and information, brick-and-mortar bookstores are still relevant today.

“I hear it from our customers all the time: They love holding a physical book in their hands,” he said. “It’s what most of them grew up with and how they prefer to read.”

Christmann said it is crucial to note that technology allows him to sell digital copies as well as have a physical presence.

The river’s end bookstore offers digital audio books and e-books through its website as well.

During the recent lockdown as a result of COVID-19, the store’s online sales grew to cover approximately 85% of its business, with the remainder being orders over the phone.

“When we opened our doors again at the beginning of June, that percentage dropped significantly, but the volume of online sales is still easily two or three times higher than it was previously,” he said.

Customers have created accounts on its website and purchased books from their homes not only in Oswego County, but Onondaga, Jefferson, Cayuga and Wayne counties as well as throughout New York state and beyond.

The river’s end bookstore recently had a highly successful exclusive pre-order campaign for popular regional author Ellen Marie Wiseman.

Readers who ordered with the store got signed copies of her newest book, “The Orphan Collector,” and were invited to join a virtual with her that it hosted.

“So we certainly need to do more of that in the future, working with local, regional, national and international authors and their publishers to try to secure some exclusive offers and events,” Christmann said.

The business can offer that type of community engagement despite the lingering effects of the global pandemic.

“We provide a social gathering place for our community and allow local readers and writers to engage with each other,” Christmann said.

Unequal footing

As booksellers, Christmann and his staff are acutely aware of the immense power that a business like Amazon wields.

Back in the late ‘90s, when the river’s end and Amazon were both new, they were basically dealing in the same merchandise — books and CDs.

But as time went on, Amazon began to leverage those products as loss leaders.

“That means owner Jeff Bezos doesn’t care if he takes a hit losing money or breaking even selling deeply discounted books, because then he’s got people onboard with a Prime subscription and suddenly they’re buying all kinds of other stuff,” Christmann said.

“It sounds too good to be true, and really, it is,” he noted. “Because as convenient as all of that sounds, every time we give money to the giants, that money is leaving our communities. So now it’s not just bookstores that are affected, it’s independent retail everywhere.”

Christmann said what locally-owned independent businesses such as river’s end offer their clientele is the opportunity to get the goods and services they need while keeping money in their community.

He said his customers represent a wide array of tastes, and the business tries to cater to that as much as possible.

“If we don’t have a book on our shelves and it’s still in print, we’ll do our best to get it in,” he said.

Those customer orders have been a significant part of its business since river’s end opened.

In terms of dealing with COVID-19, Christmann said the business is adhering to ongoing safety protocols.

“Our customers have been very willing to adapt with us, whether by using masks and hand sanitizer in the store, or by taking advantage of curbside service or local delivery,” he said.

“We were even offering free shipping on all orders, and pivoted to become practically a two-person fulfillment and distribution center for a little while,” he added.

“Our shipping game is a lot tighter as a result of all that. Our web and social media presence has naturally improved as well,” he said.

Lifelines:

Birth date: June 21, 1985

Birthplace: Oswego

Current residence: Martville

Education: Leighton Elementary School; Oswego Middle School; Oswego High School; Bachelor of Arts degree, English-creative writing, SUNY Oswego

Affiliations: Member, American Booksellers Association; member, New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association; member, 610 Stompers (New Orleans)

Personal: Wife, Megan Irland; son, Rowan Christmann; dog, Sugar

Hobbies: Playing music with friends; hiking, sailing, and of course reading


Eric M. Cullinan
Eric M. Cullinan

Eric M. Cullinan

Co-owner, funeral director at Dain-Cullinan Funeral Home in Oswego carries on family tradition that extends back to 1865

By Lou Sorendo

Keeping the family business alive might not seem like too daunting of a task.

That is unless that family business began in 1865.

Eric Cullinan is in position to be a fifth-generation owner at Dain-Cullinan Funeral Home in Oswego.

He is a licensed funeral director at Dain-Cullinan, and co-owner-president of Keysor-Dain-Cullinan Funeral Service, Cato; Becker-Keysor Funeral Home, Red Creek; and Farnsworth-Keysor Funeral Home, North Rose.

His father, Michael J. Cullinan, and partner Christopher C. Dain serve as owners-licensed funeral directors. The two have a combined 73 years experience in the business.

The funeral home is one of only a few businesses in Oswego County that has existed since the 1800s and never left the family.

The Dain and Cullinan families have been in business since 1865 and 1882, respectively. After 100 years of competition, the two businesses combined and eventually consolidated into their current location on East Second Street, Oswego.

After John F. Dain founded the Dain Funeral Home in 1865, the business has passed from father to son for four generations, and the Cullinan side is welcoming its fifth generation as 31-year-old Eric assumes his father’s business in the coming years.

Cullinan said the history of the business and manner in which it has continued from father to son “has made me very proud to continue on with what we have always done.

“The ongoing business is much bigger than myself and my career.”

Cullinan graduated from Simmons Institute in Syracuse in 2013, served his residency at Dain-Cullinan, and then became licensed in July of 2014.

“It was a good small school, and prepared me to pass the National Board Exams,” Cullinan said, noting both his grandfather and father also attended Simmons.

He said his father and Dain have been “great mentors to me and are always available for questions when I come across things I have not encountered yet.

“I also learn from them the manner is which to best serve the families we work for.”

Cullinan said he has always wanted to be a funeral director. “I looked up to my father growing up and I still do,” he said.

In order to be successful as an owner and funeral home director, Cullinan said it is “essential to stay on top of things and don’t let the workload build up.

“And of course, get up early in the morning and get after it,” he said.

He recalls his father always telling him, “No one is self-employed. You work for the people you work for; they are your employer.”

Round-the-clock availability

The Oswego native and resident said he is on call 24-7.

If he does take time off or plan to do something with family or friends, he must have his father, Dain or another funeral director on standby when a call does come in.

“Some days for me can be pretty intense and involve travelling between funeral homes, at home deaths, nursing homes, hospitals, doing prep work on the decedent, meeting with families and facility maintenance,” he said. “We do all of this ourselves, on top of running the day-to-day business.”

During his late teens through mid-20s, and while in college, he operated a small landscape business. His crew at one point took care of 55 lawns, attending to tasks such as trimming hedges, landscape design and planting.

“I am a good multi-tasker, which comes in handy when things get busy,” he said. “I enjoy what I do so it comes easy at times.

“Things need to be ready to go all the time, and being organized is key. The small things need to get done for everything to work.”

The business now features three other locations besides its original Oswego facility — Keysor-Dain-Cullinan Funeral Service, Cato; Becker-Keysor Funeral Home, Red Creek; and Farnsworth-Keysor Funeral Home, North Rose.

He worked at Ontario Orchards throughout his teen years and was mentored by owner Dennis Ouellette.

“Dennis would tell me, ‘When opportunity presents itself and it seems like a good move, you make it happen’,” he said.

Cullinan said it is difficult to find licensed funeral directors in what is a changing industry.

A wave of retirements among seasoned funeral directors has reportedly occurred, and there are not enough trainees in the pipeline to replace them, in part because the children in many family owned businesses are choosing other paths.

Gaining an edge

Cullinan said the business has always done its best to stay on top of the competition with technology that is available.

“Social media is here to stay. We offer Facebook live and recorded services at no charge to families we do work for,” he said.

He said the internet has been a useful tool for getting obituaries out to the public.

With three funeral homes located in rural districts, newspapers there are distributed on a weekly basis. In response, the funeral homes post obituaries on their websites and also send out emails so community members do not miss notices on services.

Cullinan said in terms of competitive advantage, customers always get the assistance of an owner thanks to the business being family owned.

“It’s nice to have Chris, my father or myself be able to meet with every family that calls upon us,” he said.

Recently, the business also began offering a military and first responder discount.

“This is an effort to try and give back to those who have served our country and local fire and police departments,” he said. “We keep our prices low and do our best to keep overhead low so we can afford to do that.”

In terms of trends, Cullinan said a viewing of the decedent before cremation is what a lot of families are turning to, using a rental casket to keep the cost down.

He said the company works with many vendors so it can offer an affordable price to customers.

“We never try to up-sell. We don’t want people putting themselves in a tight spot,” he said.

As far as job gratification goes, Cullinan said it “can be a satisfying job in that you are helping people at an emotionally hard time.”

“Being flexible is important. If people feel more comfortable meeting at their own home, we will meet with them at their kitchen table to get the information and decide what to do to move forward,” he said.

Coping with COVID-19

Meanwhile, the specter of COVID-19 has loomed over many sectors of the economy, and the funeral home business is no different.

Cullinan said with travel not an optimal choice and families being spread out throughout the country, the use of live-streaming and recorded services is playing an important role.

“This has helped people be able to watch services and see family members at the funeral home or graveside,” he said. “It’s been a difficult thing to deal with for families; not being able to get into the nursing homes and hospitals to see their relatives has really taken a toll on people.”

In response to the global pandemic, the business has been routinely doing deep cleanings, requiring face masks, having hand sanitizer available throughout its facilities, and even making sure clean pens are available at the register book.

“It seems like this is the way it’s going to be for a while, and is certainly not something I expected when this all started,” he said.

The New York State Department of Health says congregant-attendee capacity is limited to no more than 33% of the maximum occupancy for an indoor area.

Outdoor funerals of 50 or fewer individuals are permitted, provided that social distancing protocols and cleaning and disinfection protocols required by the DOH are adhered to. Any drive-in or remote funeral service may continue in excess of the 50-person limit so long as there is no in-person contact between participants.

Lifelines:

Birth date: Oct. 28, 1988

Birthplace: Oswego

Current residence: Oswego

Education: Attended SUNY Cobleskill, SUNY Oswego for business; mortuary science degree, Simmons Institute, Syracuse

Affiliations: National Funeral Directors Association; board member, Friends of Oswego County Hospice

Hobbies: Bow hunting, duck hunting, boating, spending time with family


Carl Byrne
Carl Byrne

Carl Byrne

Succession plan flows smoothly as third, fourth generations of Byrne family play key roles at Byrne Dairy, Sonbyrne

By Mary Beth Roach

Seven members of the Byrne family — three from the third generation and five from the fourth — are following in the dairy business that patriarch Matthew Byrne founded in 1933 in Syracuse.

After World War II, the elder Byrne turned it over to three of his sons — Jack, Bill and Vincent.

Today, Vincent’s son, Carl, is the president and CEO of Byrne Dairy, and his brother, Mark, is president of Sonbyrne, which oversees a convenience store chain that numbers about 65 locations that are spread from Watertown to Elmira and from Rochester to Utica.

Tom Byrne, a corporate sanitarian with Byrne, also represents the third generation.

The fourth generation includes Kate Byrne, sales and marketing for Byrne; Bailey Byrne, customer service representative for Byrne; Ryan Elliott, Ultra Dairy plant production manager; Stacey Byrne, processing supervisor at Byrne Hollow Farm; and Peter Elliott, director of purchasing and marketing at Sonbyrne.

Carl’s division oversees the operation of its three plants — its ice cream plant in Syracuse, its Ultra Dairy plant in East Syracuse, and the Byrne Hollow facility in Cortlandville that produces Greek and conventional yoghurts and sour cream — along with two warehouses.

They also buy milk and cream for their products and have contact with major customers, which include some of the big supermarket chains in the area.

They sold Byrne’s original milk plant to Upstate Niagara Cooperative in 2019, but have a long-term contract with the new owners to bottle fresh milk for the Byrne stores.

Between the plants, warehouses and stores, Carl estimates they have about 1,700 employees.

When Carl was a senior attending Babson College in Massachusetts in the 1980s, he decided to enter the family business. He had worked there while in high school, on weekends and holidays.

“I sat down with my Dad and said, ‘I think I’ll give it a shot instead of going somewhere else,’ and that’s what I did,” Carl said.

To keep a family business running for decades, Carl said it takes a combination of luck, a solid work ethic, accountability, the ability to challenge yourself and your team, a knowledge of developments in your field, and the ability to determine the best track for family members based on their skill sets and interests.

Depending on the size of the business, you have to answer to someone, he said. He answers to a board of directors, for example.

“We meet regularly and take notes about expectations, goals and dashboards, and it’s pretty easy to see after a period of time who’s doing what, how it’s getting done and how successful they are,” he said.

“It is also important to be willing to make necessary changes, even if it’s a departure from how previous generations did things,” he noted. “It’s hard to move away into something that’s unfamiliar unless you’re really challenging yourself,” he said.

Carl said by measuring your business, how it’s doing against the competition, and its place in the market, “you’ll quickly see that the best folks and the best companies are constantly evaluating their position in the marketplace,” he pointed out.  “And once you make that a practice, you’re able to see ‘we need to do more of this, and we need to do less of that.’”

Toward that end, Carl is continually working to develop a team that brings together the best experience.

“As we’ve grown, we have had a lot of good, long-term employees develop into very good managers and become part of senior management. We’ve also recruited from the outside to work for Byrne and bring their talents to Byrne,” Carl said. “That’s very helpful to put a mix together, so you not only have what we know and what we’ve grown up with, but the experience of others around the states and sometimes around the globe.”

Its Ultra Dairy is undergoing its fourth expansion since first opening in 2003, and it will make shelf-stable milk that doesn’t need to be refrigerated and can last up to 13 months.

Carl anticipates the company will ship not only throughout the United States, but around the world. “We’re getting into that business because that area is growing not only in the States, but globally,” he noted.

Continued reinvestment in the business is part of future plans, and that will include prepping for the next generation.

“My brother and I plan to continue to develop the fourth generation,” he said.

Lifelines:

Age: 56

Birthplace:  Syracuse

Current residence:  Skaneateles 

Education:  Babson College, Massachusetts

Hobbies: fishing, whitewater kayaking, traveling


Joe Bright
Joe Bright

Joe Bright

Fourth generation owner of Dunk & Bright Furniture continues tradition of excellence

By Mary Beth Roach

Jan. 1, 2020 marked a new beginning for Joe Bright as he closed on purchasing his family’s business — Dunk & Bright Furniture — from his father, Jim, who was retiring after 26 years in the business.

Joe was ready to represent the fourth generation of the Bright family. He became owner of a store that has been on the city’s south side, between Brighton Avenue and Colvin Street, since 1927.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit several later, and in mid-March, Joe had to shut down.

Joe has brought experience to his position, but there’s no real preparation for a pandemic. He hired back his dad, who he credits as a master strategist and marketer, for several months to help him navigate through these unchartered waters.

His worst fear, he said, was the business his great-grandfather opened more than nine decades earlier was going to close just three months after he took over.

“I did think we were going to go out of business.  All that weighed on me a little bit,” he said.

But his worries never came to be. The store has reopened and is flourishing, said the 30-year-old.

With families spending more time at home during the pandemic, Joe explained, they have been making changes to their décor.

And as more people work from home, there is a desire and need to renovate rooms into office space.

Another trend he sees are the empty nesters welcoming their adult children back home, and new furniture has to be purchased.

The pandemic has seen some college kids returning home and some younger adults who are now working remotely opting to move back in with their parents to save on rent.

Joe moved back to Syracuse in 2017 in preparation to run the business. He had been working for a medical device company in Los Angeles, and had been in Syracuse visiting his family over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2016. It was then his father asked him if he was interested in taking over the furniture store.

After some thought, he said yes. Wishing to put in a few more months of work at the California firm he was at, he wrapped things up and returned to his hometown in September of 2017.

Both father and son thought it was important that the younger Bright purchase the business, instead of Jim just handing it over to Joe. So, while a valuation of the business was done and Joe got a financing package together, he worked alongside his father until the transaction was completed earlier this year.

That Joe would take over for his father was not necessarily a foregone conclusion.

“My dad would say, ‘The key to a successful family transition is to not assume it will happen’,” Joe recalls. “He felt strongly that I should somewhere else, decide whether I wanted to be part of the family business and not feel like I had to do it.”

Upon graduating from Westhill High School in 2007, he studied business at Cornell University and took a job with Aldi as a district manager. He helped operate four stores around Watertown before relocating and having four stores in the Elmira-Southern Tier area.

Of his work with Aldi, he said, “I felt fortunate to get that job with management experience. They hire recent college grads and give them management experience. That was really valuable for this position.”

Dunk & Bright Furniture began in 1927 when Joe’s great-grandfather, William Bright Sr., teams with William Dunk Sr. to launch the business.

According to the company’s website, Bright bought Dunk out, and when Bright passed away in 1939, brother-in-law John Monahan took over until he died in 1952.

At that time, A. Patrick Bright Sr., Joe’s grandfather, became president in 1952.

Joe credits his grandfather for the initial growth of the store. He was “laser-focused” on the design aspect of the business, Joe said. He was also adept at marketing, his grandson added.

He knew his customer base and how to market to them.

“He had some serious swagger,” Joe said of his grandfather.

And during Jim’s tenure, the business would grow both in space and community involvement. He added a 25,000-square-foot expansion, moved its eight-story warehouse out of Syracuse and into a one-story facility in Liverpool, and he converted space at the Salina Street store and started renting it to the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University for a low rate.

Called the Southside Innovation Center, the site serves as an incubator for fledging businesses.

His father and grandfather, a talented group of employees, and loyal customers all account for the store’s longevity, according to Joe.

“I have to really tip my hat to my grandfather and my dad. They both bought vacant tax delinquent properties adjacent to our property, expanded the footprint here, built what is now the largest store of its kind in New York state and combine that with a good reputation in the community,” Joe said.

Some of the employees, Joe said, have been with the company for 30 years and remember him when he was a baby.

And although Joe worked at the warehouse during high school, he thought joining the business as president might be a little challenging. But he said it’s been smooth, adding that it’s helped that the employees understand that he’s sticking around.

Lifelines:

Birthdate:  Nov. 10,1989

Birthplace: Patterson, New Jersey (moved to Syracuse when I was 1 year old)

Current residence: Syracuse

Education: Cornell University, business major, B.S.; University of Virginia M.B.A.

Personal: Single.  Mom and dad live in Central New York.  Two sisters, one is an ER physician and one is a pediatrician; one brother, who works in real estate in New York City.

Hobbies: Tennis, sailing, skiing and hiking


Whitney Mirabito
Whitney Mirabito

Whitney Mirabito

Fourth generation family business owner eager to keep grocery store tradition going

By Lou Sorendo

Whitney Mirabito was practically born into the family grocery business.

She became involved in one of the longest-standing family businesses in Oswego County “as soon as I was able to walk and talk.

“My sister Morgan and I grew up in the stores; they were our home away from home,” said Mirabito while referring to both the first Broadway location in Fulton and Village Market IGA in Hannibal.

While her parents worked, the sisters were given tasks like sorting invoices and filing them away alphabetically.

“However, we spent our fair share of time bugging the deli girls for snacks and playing supermarket sweep at the empty register,” she said.

After many years of owning and operating the Village Market IGA, Jim and Cindy Mirabito along with their daughter Whitney opened the Save-A-Lot store at 364 W. First S. in Fulton in 2017.

Whitney, 30, serves as vice president-store manager.

The first Mirabito store opened in Fulton on Erie Street in 1928 by Jim’s grandfather. That marked start of a family business that has withstood the test of time for more than 90 years.

Several members of the family have owned and operated Mirabito grocery stores throughout the area since.

Whitney said she considers it an honor and privilege to carry on the family tradition.

On a regular basis, she meets members of the community who share stories about her dad, grandfather, great-grandfather and relatives.

“To hear about the impact they have had on individuals and this community is amazing, and I am honored to be a part of that,” Mirabito said.

Of course, her parents were a significant influence on her as they presented the opportunity for her to explore the grocery business.

“My parents were a huge influence. I grew up seeing the way they interacted with the community and the impact they had, the relationships they created and the result of their hard work,” she said. “Having three generations before me in the business definitely had an influence but seeing my parents hard work and their love for the business was by far the biggest influence.”

Mirabito has learned some valuable lessons from her mom and dad in terms of how to sustain a successful business.

“Anything in life is attainable as long as I work for it and believe in myself, and if I fail, to learn from my mistakes and move on,” she said. “No matter what, they will always be there for guidance, support and encouragement.”

Shift to new model

For Mirabito, the biggest challenge has been adjusting to a different business model.

Even though Save-A-Lot is a grocery store, it is significantly different than any other store her family has owned and operated.

“We were accustomed to a conventional model with a bakery, deli, and a focus primarily on customer service — focusing on individual customer needs,” she said. “Hard discount models like Save-A-Lot focus on needs of the masses and not as much individually. As a result, they cannot support a bakery and deli.”

Mirabito said finding the balance between the two models has been the greatest challenge.

“The key is operating a successful hard discount store without sacrificing the quality customer service our family is accustomed to providing,” she said.

Mirabito maintains all human resources files, and handles the hiring, training and onboarding of new employees.

“I am responsible for ordering, communicating with vendors, setting up displays, and essentially almost all aspects of the business,” she said. “No two days are the same for me.

“I have my essential daily duties. However, every day is different and the only constant in the grocery business is change. That is one of the reasons I love this job.”

Mirabito attended St. John Fisher College, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration and played women’s lacrosse. Also during college, she waited tables, bartended and worked her way up to management.

After graduating, she worked for GLC Services, a company contracted by law firms to support their mail services.

She was then hired by Davidson Fink, LLP as a legal assistant and worked her way up to a paralegal, managing a team of three legal assistants.

“My previous experiences allowed me to meet so many people with different personalities and backgrounds,” she said. “The single most valuable lesson I learned was how to effectively communicate.”

She said the strengths and skill sets she has that will lead to success in the grocery business include communication, teamwork, adaptability, perseverance, motivation and a strong work ethic.

In terms of the future, Mirabito said she intends on continuing to reinvest in the store.

She said the last three years have been spent updating to an eco-friendly refrigeration system, investing in all LED lighting and installing a new produce floor, efficient display cases, and HVAC system.

Technology’s impact

Like its impact on all sectors of the economy, technology is changing the face of the grocery business.

Save-A-Lot features its own Facebook and Instagram page, while apps like Instacart and Amazon Locker are gaining popularity and changing the shopping experience.

“So many people are shifting to buying groceries online, which has resulted in an even more competition,” she said.

In terms of competitive edge over other grocery stores, Mirabito said Save-A-Lot features a quality meat department and affordable pricing.

The store has at least one meat cutter in house seven days a week to provide fresh product.

“Their knowledge and combined 80-plus years’ experience is a huge asset to the store,” Mirabito said.

She said when customers shop at a full-service grocery store, they look for cleanliness, quality products and stellar customer service.

Mirabito said the ability to serve the community and interact with many different people on a daily basis are the more satisfying aspects of being involved in the grocery business.

She added the partnerships she has created with local clubs, companies, charities and programs — such as Blessings in a Backpack — has also been a gratifying experience as well.

Blessings in a Backpack is a nonprofit organization that feeds school children in the U.S. who are fed during the week on the federally funded Free and Reduced Meal Program and are at risk of going hungry on the weekends.

She said learning about the organization’s service to underprivileged children in the community and being a part of helping has been an honor.

Countering COVID-19

Dealing with COVID-19 has presented a challenge. “These have been some scary times. In all the years my family has been in the business, neither my parents nor grandparents have seen anything like it,” she said.

“Overnight, our sales more than quadrupled,” she said. “We were incredibly short-staffed and exhausted working 16-plus hour days. However, I am forever grateful and proud to say that every single employee pitched in and helped out tremendously.”

Everything has been affected by the pandemic from staffing issues, product supply, pricing and the customers’ shopping experience, she said.

“In May, meat pricing almost tripled overnight to outrageous costs,” she said. “We did our best to absorb as much of that cost as possible.”

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Save-A-Lot ordered two to three half tractor-trailers of product on average every week.

In the first few weeks of the pandemic and shutdown, Save-A-Lot was ordering five to six full tractor-trailers of product per week.

“I believe because we are a small business and have the ability to institute changes immediately, we were able to quickly adapt to the dramatic increase in business,” she said. “We quickly utilized our local vendor relationships, allowing us to better supply our community than many of our corporate competitors.”

She said there are lingering effects of COVID-19, including the coin and aluminum shortage.

Many product lines are being cut or reduced due to pandemic-related issues within production facilities, Mirabito added.

“For example, I was just informed that our Boardwalk soda brand will be cut to four flavors down from 14 flavors due to issues with staffing and material acquisition at the production facilities,” she said.

She said the supply chain nationwide has been severely affected by the pandemic and it will take several years if not longer to fully recover.

Lifelines:

Birth date: Jan. 11, 1990

Birthplace: Syracuse

Current residence: Fulton

Education: Bachelor of Science degree in business administration, St. John Fisher College

Affiliations: Graduate of 2018 Leadership Oswego County

Personal: fiancé Sean Latulipe of Sodus (the couple met after college while working at NY Davidson Fink, LLP, a law firm in Rochester)

Hobbies: Time spent with friends and family, golf, traveling, exercising, hiking at Great Bear in Fulton with her new puppy JoJo, a Rhodesian Ridgeback