This semester, Assistant Professor of History and Associate Dean of Hobart College Chip Capraro and Assistant Professor of Economics Warren Hamilton are teaching a class that explores the meaning of wealth through a variety of practical and philosophical lenses. Titled “The Emotional Life of Wealth: Family, Business, Money, Power, Love,” the course provides students with entry points into the overarching discourse on acquiring and maintaining wealth in relation to emotional well-being.
Carrying that conversation into a localized context for students, Capraro and Hamilton recently hosted a panel of Geneva-based business owners who shared their perspectives on what it means to operate multigenerational family-run businesses. The discussion featured Tom Burrall, owner of insurance agency C.S. Burrall & Son, Inc.; Bob DiDuro, owner of DiDuro Painting; and Bernie Lynch, owner of Lynch’s Furniture Co.
“Students taking this course have not only gained an understanding of the theories, but also see the concrete realities of what it’s like to be in a family business as described by the panelists,” Capraro says. “It’s very real, and students get to hear all of the particulars from the business owners. While students can study the general patterns articulated by scholars, it’s interesting and unique to hear directly from the speakers about the details of the businesses, including their histories, the family connections and the other complexities they may face.”
The panel discussion, Capraro says, helped to fulfill one of the primary goals of the course: encouraging students to bridge ideas discussed in the curriculum to their own values and experiences through the notion of “connected knowing.” Having the students make those links to their own lives is extremely powerful, he says.
During the panel, the three local proprietors each conveyed their own unique take on the idea of operating a longtime family business in Geneva. The topics ranged from the opportunity for generation-to-generation business succession, understanding the family dynamic in the context of a business environment, and meeting the expectations of customers in an increasingly competitive marketplace that includes online shopping and megastores.
“When the name of the business owner is on the door I think it creates a very distinct feeling,” said Burrall, a fifth-generation family business owner. “The challenge that a lot of us have now is determining how we perpetuate our own businesses with consumers where family values and local service prevail, but buying something using the convenience of the Internet is possible. How do we show our strengths to this generation and demonstrate that shopping locally has an impact on all of our lives?”
Burrall said Elisha J. Burrall got their family started in the insurance business in the 1850s. He said Elisha was the son of Thomas D. Burrall, who came to Geneva in 1812 and was a part of the founding of Hobart College.
Addressing the subject of business succession, Burrall said if a family business happens to cease operation that it does not always mean the business failed. He said it very likely could have been the end of succession, a circumstance in which no other family member desired to carry on the line of work.
DiDuro, whose family painting business began in the early 1940s, said nearly 100 percent of the company’s original customers lived in Geneva. Over the years, particularly in recent decades, DiDuro said the family painting service needed to expand its reach across the state in order to meet business objectives.
Owner of a fifth-generation furniture store founded at the turn of the 20th century, Lynch agreed that adapting to changes from one generation to another is part of the survival of a family business, adding that the Lynch’s Furniture Co. name is a brand that serves the entire region and beyond under independent family locations.
Receptive of the insights shared by Burrall, DiDuro and Lynch, students of the class remarked on the importance of understanding the family-run business in the context of today’s marketplace, not only from an economic perspective, but also a historical lens.
“It was very exciting to hear from the local Geneva business owners about their economic perspectives and how business worked in late 1800s and 1900s,” says Subin Nepal ’15, an international relations and political science double major. “Likewise, it was fascinating to hear about the founding histories of some of the biggest family-run businesses of Geneva and the challenges they face to keep themselves alive in the 21st century where everything can be bought online. It was a great experience and truly met the focus of our coursework.”