Not your average mom-and-pop stores
Keeping it in the family pays off for three big companies
By Leslie T. Snadowsky
Could your mom-and-pop business become the next Fortune 500 success story? According to a February report by SCORE, a nonprofit division of the U.S. Small Business Administration dedicated to helping small businesses, family enterprises generate 64 percent of America’s gross domestic product (GDP), employ 60 percent of the U.S. workforce and create 78 percent of all new jobs.
It may be hard to imagine your hardware store could become the next Lowe’s or your eatery the next Panera, but family businesses tend to thrive when there is good governance, clear succession plans in place and when they are customer and employee-oriented.
Here are a few big companies that started from humble beginnings and rich family histories.
It all started in Rogers, Arkansas, where one store opened by brothers Sam and James Walton in 1962 grew into a multinational retail giant.
According to Walmart corporate, the company grew to 24 stores within five years and in 10 years was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. By 1980 Walmart reached $1 billion in sales, and in 1987 the Walton Family Foundation was established. Walmart was declared America’s No. 1 retailer in the 1990s, and Sam Walton attributed his family business’s success to its mission of “saving people money so they can live better.”
When he died in 1992, 50 percent of the company’s equity was passed along to his wife and children, and his son, Robert, became chairman of the board. He retired in 2015.
As of January 2023 Walmart’s financial reports show the family business owns and operates 10,635 stores and clubs in 20 countries, operating under 46 different names, with an annual revenue of more than $572 billion.
There are still Walton family members working at Walmart and serving on its Board of Directors.
In 1945 Ruth Campbell Bigelow concocted a custom brew in her New York City brownstone that blended black tea with orange rind and sweet spices. This specialty tea garnered raves from her friends, so she and her husband, David Bigelow Sr., went into business as the Bigelow Tea Company.
David Bigelow Jr. took over in 1970 and with his wife, Eunice, pioneered the explosion in variety teas that Americans enjoy today. They built Bigelow into the country’s No. 1 specialty tea company, started to market their products to grocery chains, introduced the foil pouch that protects their tea bags’ freshness and flavor, and oversaw the production of 150 different tea blends.
According to Bigelow’s corporate communications, David and Eunice’s oldest daughter, Lori Bigelow, is credited with steering the 2003 purchase and restoration of the Charleston Tea Garden in South Carolina, “saving it from the developer’s wrecking ball and restoring it to its former grandeur as America’s only working tea farm. The farm’s visitors’ center documents the tea growing, harvesting and withering processes, giving over 60,000 people who visit annually a newfound appreciation for this remarkable beverage.”
Located on 127 acres on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina, the garden was, at that time, the only commercial tea garden in America.
David and Eunice’s youngest daughter, Cindi Bigelow, is the third-generation president and CEO stirring things up at the family business, steeped in annual sales just shy of $200 million.
S. Truett Cathy’s restaurant empire was hatched in 1946, when he and his brother, Ben, opened the Dwarf House diner outside Atlanta. Capitalizing on its success, Cathy founded and opened the first Chick-fil-A restaurant in Atlanta’s Greenbriar shopping center in 1967. After testing out hundreds of recipes, Cathy is credited for perfecting the “Original Chicken Sandwich” with two pickles on a toasted butter bun. Nearly 20 years later Chick-fil-A ventured outside the food court model and became a free-standing enterprise.
In 2006 Chick-fil-A sales surpass $2 billion, and today there are more than 2,600 restaurants across 47 states, Washington, D.C., Canada and Puerto Rico.
Founder Cathy, who died in 2014, was lauded as a family man who was married to his wife, Jeannette, for 65 years, and had three children, 12 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren. His son, Dan, was appointed as the company’s CEO in 2013, and Cathy’s grandson, Andrew, serves as the current Chick-fil-A CEO.
Cathy was well respected among his employees. Since 1973 Chick-fil-A has donated more than $35 million in college scholarships to Chick-fil-A restaurant team members wishing to pursue higher education.
According to Chick-fil-A’s corporate communications, “Truett Cathy always maintained he wasn’t in the chicken business, but the people business. From knowing his customers by name to forming lifelong friendships with his employees, Cathy viewed his business as more than a source of revenue for him and his family; it was a source of encouragement to others.”
Chick-fil-A is currently the third-largest fast-food chain in the U.S.