What would you prefer: separation of work and personal life, or spending the majority of your waking hours with loved ones running a business? For a number of Cobb Countians, the joys of working side by side with spouses, parents and children far outweigh the challenges. Sibling partnerships, firms jointly owned by spouses and companies founded by parents who now include adult children have created strong alliances, financially sound entities and flourishing enterprises.
From retail stores and online commerce, to dental practices and law firms, entrepreneurs are succeeding by aligning their values, pooling their talents and looking to their families. As businesses have expanded, founders have turned to their families as a strong resource to continue the traditions.
Carrying the Family Tradition
Rob Higginbotham started in the luggage business as a sales rep fresh out of college in 1981. Six years later, he started his own company. “It was not a calculated plan for me to become an entrepreneur,” says the successful international businessman whose company Claire Chase Luggage is based in Marietta. “It was really more of an accident when I began looking for new sources overseas. Soon, manufacturers were approaching me about working with them and we’ve just grown from there.”
Higginbotham frequently traveled between the United States and his suppliers overseas, also building relationships with brick-and-mortar retailers and later, as the internet grew, through online merchandising. When his children were born in 1989 and 1990, he decided to create the Claire Chase brand, named after them. “It had a nice ring to it,” he says, “and so the name has really become our signature.” Today, Claire Chase is sold by Zulily, Brookstone, Wayfair and Amazon, as well as to exclusive fashion retailers.
Daughter Mary Claire worked with her father during the summers throughout high school and college. When she graduated from the University of Georgia in 2012 with a degree in public relations, Rob asked her to help out with trade shows. “His dream has been to pass the company on to me,” Mary Claire says. “He told me, ‘if you want to start learning the business now, come and work for the company.’ And that’s what I did. I’ve never looked back.”
At first, Mary Claire staffed trade shows and developed customer and industry relationships across the United States, while Rob managed manufacturing and operations. He had shifted production to South America, giving him more creative input into the designs, but it was the addition of Mary Claire that helped him see how to expand the company further.
“Until Mary Claire joined the company, most of our products were oriented toward men. For example, we only had five leather bag designs and they were all black,” he says. “She has such a good design eye and persuaded me to start offering products for women as well. Now we have more than 150 products and three to five colors in each style.” Mary Claire brought her communications, public relations and journalism experience to the table and is in charge of designing and producing the company’s catalogues and sales materials.
The company’s goal is to introduce at least 20 new products this year. Additionally, Claire Chase has expanded into two new industries — golf and promotional products.
Mary Claire and Rob have worked out their business relationship and obviously have mutual respect for each other. “He’s my dad, so we have a typical father-daughter relationship,” she says. “We have our own views, but we listen to each other.”
Operating a small family business has its advantages. “We support family and having a personal life here,” Rob says. “We have flexible work schedules, some people bring their dogs to the office and every day is casual Friday.”
Community Roots Run Deep
Long-time Cobb resident John H. Moore had a vision when he created his law firm in 1984 in the former Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Marietta. He’d been practicing law in Cobb for nearly 15 years, but realized that he needed to build the type of practice that could serve the needs of a growing county without relying on large Atlanta firms.
Two years later, and with the help of a family friend, he persuaded Mercer Law School graduate and fourth-generation Cobb resident Robert D. Ingram to leave his position with an Atlanta practice and share his vision. Adding partners William R. Johnson in 1986 and Stephen C. Steele in 1987, the four created a broad foundation of specialties that includes zoning and commercial real estate, insurance defense and workers’ compensation, civil litigation and criminal law that set the tone for one of the largest law firms in Georgia outside of Atlanta. Ninety attorneys and more than 175 employees staff eight Moore, Ingram, Johnson & Steele offices in five Southeastern states.
“Of the more than 45,000 lawyers in Georgia, 85 percent of them are generalists,” says Robert, who served as president of the Georgia Bar Association in 2005. “The practice of law is much like the practice of medicine, and it’s getting harder and harder to be a generalist. There are so many nuances in each area of the law that we’ve found having specialists is the best way to serve our clients.”
Most of the firm’s clients started with the Marietta practice, but as these companies have grown and diversified geographically, the partners have opened offices to serve them. “We’ve never opened a satellite office without a client asking us to,” Robert says. “When they’ve had legal needs in another market we’ve responded.”
The key to the firm’s growth and success is its specialized departments. John heads the Zoning and Commercial Real Estate section; Robert and his department focus on insurance, worker’s comp and probate litigation. William manages civil litigation, insurance defense litigation, worker’s comp defense and product liability defense; he’s also the administrative partner. Stephen is senior partner of the Family and Criminal Law Department.
The firm became multi-generational in 1996, when John’s son Kevin joined the real estate department right out of law school. “Frankly, I tried to talk him out of being an attorney, believing that he could pursue many other avenues,” says John of his son’s decision to pursue a profession in law. “The law can be a jealous mistress and put many demands on you. Having him here has been good for the firm and for me as well.”
From Kevin‘s perspective, working with his father was always in the back of his mind, but he also saw the benefits of working for a larger firm. “At the end of the day, I realized that I would have a much more satisfying career working for and with my father and being in the community where I grew up,” Kevin says. He chose the same practice area as his father — commercial real estate — and works side by side with him. “It’s given us an even deeper relationship.”
In 2010, Robert’s son, Ryan, graduated from Mercer Law. “He, too, had opportunities with firms in Atlanta, but just like John and my dad, I persuaded him to come practice with us in Cobb. In both cases, it’s been a blessing,” Robert says.
Ryan admits that he never really envisioned working in his father’s firm. “I always thought I’d be with a practice in Atlanta, but when the economy took a downturn, the practice I was with cut back its newer attorneys,” he says. “The truth is, it’s been a real blessing to be in the same type of practice as my dad, to work with all these excellent attorneys and to live and work right here in Cobb where I was born. Plus, it’s always a motivator for me to live up to his standards and make him proud.”
Robert admits that having second-generation attorneys in the firm can have its challenges. “Anytime a son or daughter comes into a business it can create tension,” he says. “It’s kind of like being the coach’s son, but both of them have worked hard, developed their own clients, do great work and have the respect of everyone here. They’re great lawyers in their own rights, as are all the other young lawyers who come into the firm. Our business model is to hire lawyers who are smart enough to work at the big Atlanta firms, and bring them here. That’s the key to our success.”
Nothing Like Family
Combining his background in advertising and marketing with experience in the jewelry business, Mark Jacobson and his brother, Wayne, opened Cumberland Diamond Exchange as a family business in 1982. “Our vision was to create a fine jewelry store,” says Mark, who owned a marketing and advertising firm in the county before going in-house with a jewelry store client. “We each had good experience, but as we grew, we realized the need to expand our team.” The brothers hired businesswoman Rhonda Akins in 1984 to supplement the operational side of the firm. “It was the best thing we ever did for the business,” Mark continues. “She helped our store grow more than anything that we could have done on our own, from helping us automate to becoming our first graduate gemologist.”
Mark and Rhonda started as friends but soon found they had much more in common. Within two years, they married and she became a permanent member of the team. “My parents had been in the restaurant business, so I had a pretty good idea about what it would be like to work with a spouse,” Mark adds. “And when Rhonda came on board, our business really started clicking.”
For the couple, there was never an issue about being together at work and at home. Each of them focused on their strengths as the company grew from its original 1,200 square feet to its current 4,800. Wayne retired in 2008, and Mark and Rhonda’s daughter Melissa worked with her parents during high school, then earned her degree in communications from the University of Alabama. She returned to Georgia to work in technology public relations in Atlanta.
“I wanted to prove to them and to myself that I could succeed on my own,” says 26-year-old Melissa. But it wasn’t long before her parents urged her to join the family firm, which she did in early 2015. “I realized that jewelry was a lot more fun than software,” she says with a smile. And her talents opened new marketing avenues for the company. After redesigning the website, she launched social media platforms and manages digital and marketing initiatives for the store.
Mark brings it full circle. “I was in traditional marketing when I started Cumberland Diamond Exchange, and now Melissa’s taking over where I left off,” he says. For Melissa, working with her parents has broadened her perspective. “My respect for them and what they’ve done has grown so much,” she says. “There’s really nothing like family.”
Which Dr. Waldron?
Dr. Jon Waldron, DMD, says he had a strong feeling that his son, Blair, would become a dentist, but he readily admits that sometimes working with family isn’t the best idea. “I’ve known other people who brought family members into their businesses and it doesn’t always work out,” says the founder of Waldron Dentistry in east Cobb. So when Blair graduated from dental school, it was not a foregone conclusion that Blair would join the practice.
Instead, Blair purchased another practice, working three days a week there and spending the other two at Waldron Dentistry. As the senior Waldron’s business grew, Blair and Jon merged their practices to be more productive and economically feasible. “The concept of multi-dentist practices came about 10 to 15 years ago, because of the high cost of technology,” Jon says. “It clearly makes more sense.”
The two continued as 50-50 partners in Waldron Dentistry until Jon sold the practice to Blair several years ago. The sale gave Jon the opportunity to focus on the dental staff school that he and his wife, Janet, founded in 2005 to train dental assistants. It also gave Jon the chance to focus on his day-to-day dental patients and turn the management over to Blair.
“It’s kind of like the military,” says Jon, who served as a Navy pilot. “One person must be in charge and when the captain says to turn the boat 90 degrees, that’s what you do.”
Today, the practice has four dentists, including Drs. Ed Schlissel, DDS, MS, and Christopher Lee, DMD, but it’s clear who’s in charge. “I work for Blair now, and he has great management experience. We still discuss issues, but ultimately he makes the decisions.”
Blair is making changes at Waldron Dentistry, including expanded hours to accommodate the many patients who work full time. “I recognize that my dad has a lot of wisdom and experience that’s invaluable to me,” Blair says. “I want to keep an open mind and build on that as much as possible.”