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Dad and the Family Business

Three Chesapeake families make it work at work

For Father’s Day 2011, we inquired into the family dynamics of three father-founded businesses, all longtime supporters of our own family business, Bay Weekly.

 

Making it Work for Everyone

The Westmoreland Family of Alexander’s of Annapolis Salon and Day Spa

    Working together has been working for Alexander Westmoreland and his family for more than 15 years at Alexander’s of Annapolis Salon and Day Spa.
    Both girls finished high school with ideas swirling in their heads.

Alexander Westmoreland with daughters and business partners Rebecca Hughes, left, and Heather Westmoreland.

    Rebecca dreamed of being a country music singer. Or maybe she’d go to beauty school.
    “You mentioned that in 11th grade,” Alexander recalls. “I said, why not start in 12th grade?”
    “I was lazy,” says Rebecca.
    Heather imagined herself at Salisbury State University. “I wanted to be a systems analyst and do computers,” she says.
    “We were encouraging of whatever they wanted,” says Alexander Westmoreland of how his children were raised. “I told them, I don’t care what you want to do.”
    But his encouragement came with a caveat: “If you want to be a garbage collector, be sure you own the truck.”
    “Dad was loving and tough at the same time,” Rebecca says. “That’s where our work ethic comes from.”
    “We were encouraged to have careers, not just to have jobs,” adds Heather.
    “We were allowed to make our own decisions,” Rebecca says. “But we had to act on them, and act fast.”
    So rather than floating on the winds of chance, both girls followed in their father’s footsteps.
    Alexander had used the GI bill after his service in the Navy for barber college and an associate’s degree in business and accounting. He and his sister had owned salons first in Baltimore, then, after a decade working in other people’s salons, in Annapolis.
    Rebecca followed high school with cosmetology school, Heather with barber college. Soon they joined the family business, as did niece Victoria Dixon and Rebecca’s husband John Hughes.
    Now Alexander’s is a partnership of father, daughters and extended family.
    “I’ve worked with my dad since I was 18, and I’m 40,” says Rebecca, who also manages much of the business end for the salon.
    For Heather, it’s been 16 years. Following her early dream, she’s Alexander’s IT specialist.
    “They’re stylists, but they also manage our bookkeeping, banking, ordering, payroll,” says Alexander.
    “We all could say it’s 99 percent very workable,” Heather says. “But it’s a business, and there’s stress sometimes, which is hard, because you can be sensitive, defensive.”
    “We can get angry and it can be hot,” says Rebecca …
    “A lot of tears,” says Alexander …
    “She made me so angry one day, and next thing I knew, she’s asking What time are you coming over for dinner? I’m not over being mad at you yet, I said,” recounts Heather. But it ends with a kiss, and we’re done.”
    “We do not hold a grudge,” says Rebecca. “We get it on the table and move on.”
    “If you love and respect individuals, whether at a professional or family level, you cannot hold onto a grudge,” says their father.
    “Family is our foundation,” Heather says. “I sincerely have to say that the 16 years I’ve worked with my father, sister and cousin is time I’ve gotten to spend with my family.”
    “We look forward to spending time together and respect one another, whether we agree or not. If you don’t have that …” Rebecca says, holding out her palms to indicate that you don’t have what it takes to succeed.


 

That Unconditional Thing

The Sisk Family of Sisk Auto Body

    “What’s wrong with the green Camry?” Terri Sisk asks her family about a pending issue.
    “What about the Camry?” Doug Sisk wants to know.

Sisters Barbara Chase and Muffy Revel, at opposite ends, with their parents and business partners Terri and Doug Sisk.

    The inkling that business may have been left hanging fires up the semi-retired founder of Sisk Auto Body in the Calvert County community of Owings, just over the Anne Arundel line.
    “I had to feed the baby,” says daughter Barbara Chase, whose presence in the shop and on the job is the reason Dad now has time for hobbies, like making mosaics with sea glass. And time for babysitting two-and-a-half-year-old Claire, Barbara’s older daughter.
    Sister Muffy Revell, 29, looks from face to face. She’s the bookkeeper, for both the business and the family. The one who keeps track, says Barbara.
    “I’ll find out,” says Terri, partner, wife, mother and grandmother.
    Family harmony returns.

The Road to the Body Shop

    Barbara is back at work for the first day since Daisy’s birth two months ago. Daisy is in the shop, too, in somebody’s arms or sleeping in a swing. Her 11-pound presence makes little difference, except in the addition of delight. Barbara can do her job by heart. She’s grown up in the 32-year-old business, the same age as her.
    “I remember when we first moved from Daddy’s single stall into a big building, today’s paint shop. The floor was covered in fiberglass because it was a boat-building business, and I’d come home covered in fiberglass.”
    Her younger sister grew up there, too.
    “When I was a kindergartner, the school bus would drop me off at the Dash In,” Muffy says, inclining her chin at the convenience and gas store across Rt. 260. “Most of the time, Mom met me there.”
    But apparently not all the time.
    “I still don’t like going to Dash In because I was traumatized when she didn’t show up.”
    “The lady from the Dash In would call to remind her,” says Doug.
    “When you’re working, time gets away from you,” says the adult Muffy, forgiving what she has not forgotten.
    “Let me start this story,” says her mother, whose own plans to stay at home with her children ended when the struggling new business needed four hands rather than two.
    “I was hanging Sheetrock, building a spray booth, when I was pregnant with her,” Terri says.
    Doug Sisk grew up hanging out in his best friends’ parents’ auto body shop. “Young guys like cars,” he says.
    He was always working on cars for friends and their mothers on weekends and evenings while holding down a real job.
    “I didn’t charge much, because some didn’t turn out too good,” he says. “I remember one of the first. The workmanship was good, but,” — he shakes his head ruefully — “it didn’t shine. Everything else was perfect. You learn from mistakes.”
    The inclination to cars isn’t so basic in girls, apparently. Neither Barbara nor Muffy — nor mother Terri, for that matter — longed to spend their lives in a body shop.
    One step led to another, and before they knew it, they’d joined the family business.
    “I started working here at 14, before I could drive. I got a ride from Southern High. Washing cars, filing, addressing envelopes,” Barbara says.
    “She quit a couple of times to be a shampoo girl,” her mother remembers.
    “It’s not like I aspired to work at a body shop,” Barbara says. “In high school, I wanted to be a pediatrician, but I didn’t like the sight of blood. Then I wanted to be a music teacher. But of course you start working, making money, going to college.
    “It just happened. You start your life.”
    Muffy says working in the family business was “her destiny.”
    She worked other places, from a restaurant to an insurance company to Victoria’s Secret. So she already knew that any job could be stressful. Once she moved away from home — and the business needed a new bookkeeper — she decided it was “better working with family than with other people.”
    Doug reached that conclusion early on. “It was genetic,” says Sisk, whose father and stepmother were partners in Sisk Mailing Service, founded in the District in 1953, the year he was born. “It gives you the spirit to go out on your own and try something.”
    His dad told him it wouldn’t be easy, citing small business failure rates. “But he instilled the work ethic in me,” Doug says. “You have to stick with it. You have to be there.”

The Unconditional Thing

    From renting one stall, Sisk Auto Body has expanded into four buildings. From teetering on the brink, Doug Sisk has built a business that supports four children, two in college plus Barbara and Muffy, who, with their husbands, own their homes and live comfortably. That’s his satisfaction.
    “I had no idea it would grow to the point where we could actually employ our own family,” he says.
    “Or have any employees, for that matter,” says Terri. Now seven technicians do all the repairs, from the frame to the painting and detailing.
    Along the way, each has found her own satisfaction.
    Barbara, who’s followed in her father’s footsteps estimating jobs and running the shop, says she likes both “working with all the customers and working with family. When I’m home with the kids, I miss adults,” she says.
    “It gets heated here sometimes, but you just keep going,” Muffy says. “It’s the unconditional thing.”
    “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love working with my kids, my husband, my grandkids,” says Terri, stealing a kiss from baby Daisy.


 

Pushing to Balance Work and Family

The Donovan Family of Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa

    Eight months pregnant with twins, her sixth and seventh children, Mary Lanham is eating right, finishing off a plate of grilled vegetables and beef fillet at Rod ’n’ Reel’s lunch to introduce Cancer Gala 2011’s honorary chairmen — sports magnate Ted Leonsis and weatherman Doug Hill — to reporters.

Wesley Donovan and Mary Elizabeth Lanham work side by side with their parents Mary and Gerald Donovan at Rod ’n’ Reel and the Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa.

    “Mary, is it time to pass out those press kits?” inquires Gerald Donovan, Mary’s stepfather and boss, from across the room.
    Gerald and younger brother and business partner, Freddie Donovan, have sponsored the big fundraiser for 30 years. Today, he’s promised guests to move full speed ahead.
    Mary swallows, gets up and gets the job done.

It’s a We Deal

    Family, vision and efficiency are the hallmarks of the recreational kingdom the Donovan brothers have rebuilt in the resort town of Chesapeake Beach on foundations laid by their grandfather — and continued by their uncle — 75 years ago. Freddy oversees the maritime elements, Gerald the restaurants, gaming parlor and hotel. And, until 2008, the town of Chesapeake Beach as well, as mayor for 25 years — after seven on the town council
    “It’s not me, it’s a ‘we’ deal,” Gerald Donovan likes to say. “Success has lots of fathers, and failure is an orphan.”
    We includes 300 “team members” helping Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa pull off the daily feat of satisfying every guest. But without his indefatigable wife Mary — and increasingly her daughter and namesake Mary Lanham and his son Wesley — 300 would not be enough.
    Serving the town of Chesapeake Beach through politics and hospitality was bred into Donovan. His grandfather was mayor as well as founder of Stinnett’s, which stood from 1936 into the 1990s. His grandmother was a political powerbroker. From the way he describes her, he’d have had to leave town to avoid her vision for him.
    He stayed, with visible results. In Chesapeake Beach, he says, “we got a more beautiful community from landscaping, signage, cleanliness, a water park, a Bay beach, a better environment for everybody to live in.”
    At Rod ’n’ Reel, the Donovan brothers have expanded to three restaurants, two marinas with almost 200 slips, a big charter and headboat fishing fleet, a hotel — and largesse left over to support a 30-year gala that’s raised more than $4 million to fight cancer.
    Family was the third value the Stinnetts and Donovans lived by. So continuing a family business completes the three achievements that make Donovan proudest.
    “We have two children who are progressing in management to the point where one day, with brother Freddy, they’ll be running the whole show.

Following Two Tough Acts

    Mary Donovan has forged her own legend.
    “This is the nature of my wife,” Gerald says. “When her feet hit the floor, she can’t wait to get here. Especially in the morning. She’ll be here when Saturday and Sunday breakfast starts, and she’ll be here until we close because she loves working.”
    “Unless,” Wesley cracks, “she’s here to get away from you at home.”
    Following in Donovan’s footsteps means moving fast and thinking creatively.
    Both Little Mary, as Donovan calls her, and Wesley got an early start: at 14.
    Bingo was Mary’s first job, and she worked it all through high school.
    “I couldn’t wait to grow up and move away from this little town. But at a certain age, I realized this little town had a lot to offer, and how much I loved it,” she says of the route that led her to managing the resort’s gaming operations and marketing.
    At the College of Southern Maryland, she studied marketing while working full-time.
    “I always wanted to finish school first then get married,” she recalls. “So when finishing college took an extra semester, I postponed the wedding.” Graduating in December, she married on January 21. At Rod ’n’ Reel.
    Little Mary was too busy to plan her own wedding. Her mother handled all the arrangements.
    In work, Little Mary — like Big Mary — thrived.
    “My passion was gaming and the bingo business, because a lot of the clientele was older, and I love to be around older people. I get to handle all the fun stuff,” she says.
    Big Mary came from a family of 10 children, and Little Mary continues that tradition as well, joyfully managing each addition to her family as her job grows.
    “I’m well organized,” she says.
    “She reminds me so much of myself,” her mother says. “I’d be in the kitchen and Gerald would find me and say, We’re going out to dinner. Let’s go. I can’t, I’d say, I’m busy.
    “Mary’s the same way,” her mother continues. “I’ll call her when I have the children and say, It’s time to come home. She’ll say I can’t leave yet!”
    “When you get here,” Little Mary says, “you get pulled into things. There’s always something going on you have to stay for.”
    “Some call that hard-headed,” says Wesley, whose cracks add comic relief to the family’s work-fueled earnestness.
    He started bussing tables as an early teen.
    “When you’re a 14-year-old kid, you just want to have fun, including at work,” Wesley says.
    Working in Stinnett’s drive-in liquor window, he realized work could mean a lifetime of fun.
    “That’s when I fell in love with dealing with the public, seeing what my role could be in improving Stinnetts at the time and then beyond. When I was 21,” he says, “I saw the way to my future.”
    Wesley Donovan has since expanded the family holdings with a dozen Papa John’s pizza franchises, from Arnold to Leonardtown. Now, Gerald says, “Wesley helps in all phases of management.”
    That means Gerald and Big Mary now have time to spend in Florida and Freddy more time to spend on his boat.
    “When Wesley decided he was going to work with his dad, it was one of Gerald’s happiest days,” Big Mary says.

Family Tradition

    Wesley laughs off his stepmother’s earnestness.
    “They were having a hard time finding good help, so they started breeding, kind of like Mary’s doing now,” he jokes.
    “We’re almost up to 10,” Little Mary replies, counting Wesley’s first child, a son, due about the same time as her sixth and seventh.
    Raising a business and children is easier for Little Mary and Wesley than for earlier generations. For that, Little Mary gives credit to her boss and stepfather.
    “It’s a big commitment when you’re here,” she says. “But Gerald is always pushing us to balance work and family life.”