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At some businesses, success passes to new generations
Family-owned firms are alive and well

Robert Cohen, the owner of United Men's Fashion on Bailey Avenue, followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

It wasn't easy. He started working at the men's clothing store -- which takes up half a city block in the Kensington-Bailey area -- at age 15, and took ownership along with his mother, Joan Friedman, when he was 21, six years after his father's sudden death.

"So now all of a sudden, this kid that longtime employees had known since birth was in a position to be their boss. It was very difficult," Cohen said. "My dad was fantastic. He was very well-liked by customers, by employees and he died when he was 46 years old. The bar was pretty high."

For Cohen, it was an example of the unique burdens as well as rewards that go with owning multi-generational businesses.

Conditions eventually improved as employees retired or left the business and Cohen hired new employees to work key positions. Cohen said he also tried to let his actions speak loudly.

"I'm comfortable leading by example. You roll up your sleeves and jump in with everyone else. There's no prima donnas," he said.

Cohen's experience is typical of generational ownership, said Harold Star, a strategic management professor at the University at Buffalo.

The person who inherits the business often works harder than anybody just to prove they deserve to be there, he said.

"Because you have inherited the business, the employees tend to think of you as somehow second rate, and it becomes a burden at least until the first generation exits the business completely. They will always be suspect in every dimension -- intellect, judgment, 'Would the old man have done it this way,' 'It was better when the old man ran it,' " Star said.

"It's a very heavy burden."

At Pacer Funeral Home, fourth-generation owners Paul and Todd Pacer bought the company from their father, Frank, in 2008. He's still president of the company, and James Pacer, an uncle, is also very involved. But both brothers say they don't feel like they're under scrutiny by employees to measure up to their father.

"What we have done is take the business and expand it," Paul Pacer said.

The funeral home opened in Depew around 1919 when the brothers' great-grandfather, also named Frank, began the business and their grandfather -- another Frank -- expanded into Buffalo's East Side in 1936. Their father later opened a third location.

Under the Pacer brothers, the funeral home now does embalming and preparation for many area funeral homes, and owns several hearses and limousines also used by others.

There are family issues, sometimes, but that kind of comes with the turf, Paul Pacer said.

"There can be tough times dealing with family, dealing with your brothers or sisters, but like anything else, it's family, you get over it and move on," he said.

"This is your family. You don't always get along but that doesn't mean anything. Sometimes you can show it more because it is family."

Star said family members who purchase a business, as opposed to simply inheriting it, are often seen as having more credibility.

"If the person buys the business, it doesn't mean they're any more competent, but at least they are at more risk, and are seen as more legitimate," Star said.

Pamela Marsh took the reins of Marsh's General Store in 2003 in the Town of Niagara, near the former Whistle Pig restaurant, after buying the business from her parents, Carl "Bud" and Katherine "Katy" Marsh, who had purchased the business years earlier from Carl Marsh's parents.

Pamela Marsh said she found it difficult when she was put in charge as a teenager, but not when she later became owner.

"The older employees didn't care for having a teenager tell them what to do, or that maybe I knew more than they did," Marsh said. "But when I took the business over, there were no problems at all."

Among the rewards with family-owned businesses that continue through the generations is a deeper relationship that is forged with the community, Paul Pacer said.

Cohen said United Men's Fashion has maintained a loyal and expanding customer base -- including strong regional business -- even as the neighborhood went through changes and few true men's stores stayed open in the Buffalo Niagara region.

"We went from work clothes to fashion, with a pit stop in Ivy League in the '60s. If somebody is looking for dress-up type clothing or special occasion, we're a one-stop store," Cohen said.

Serving the same families through the years has been particularly gratifying, Cohen said. His grandfather, Morris, opened the store in 1929 in its current location at 3082 Bailey Ave. When he died in 1960, Cohen's father, Marvin, ran the store until his death in 1969. Cohen took ownership in 1975.

"There is a certain pride that you have in a family business that has been passed on three generations. We have people who came in as children and are now coming in with their children," Cohen said.

"That's the case even in terms of the level of service you want to give people. It's not that you want to see somebody once; if you want repeat business, you want people to believe in the store the way you believe in it."


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