Family business leaders share insights at Family & Closely Held Business Summit

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:20 pm

Brothers Nick and Tony Chiappetta have always had a close bond. Only a couple years apart in age, the two grew up attending the same schools, playing on the same hockey team and even lived together during their years as students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

Their brotherly relationship took on a new significance after college when they both joined their family’s 98-year-old shoe company, Kenosha-based Chiappetta Shoes.

Now as fourth generation leaders, Nick, COO, and Tony, CEO, are tasked with growing the company amidst today’s changing retail industry, while navigating the unique and often-complicated dynamics of working with family. 

Separating family from business is key to managing those issues, especially when conflict arises, said Nick Chiappetta during a panel discussion at BizTimes Media’s annual Family & Closely Held Business Summit on Thursday at the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. About 300 people attended the event.

“You keep it at the door if there is something going on that you disagree with business-wise,” he said. “You leave it, the door’s closed. At the end of the day, you’re family.”

The Chiappetta Brothers were joined on the panel by leaders of other Wisconsin-based family businesses including Dan Ariens, chairman and chief executive officer of Ariens Co.; Jerry Weidmann, president of Wisconsin Lift Truck Corp., part of Wolter Group LLC; and Paul Bartolotta, chef and co-owner, and Keith Trafton, COO and managing partner, both of The Bartolotta Restaurants.

The discussion was moderated by David Borst, executive director and COO of Family Business Leadership Partners.

Paul Bartolotta is no stranger to the dynamics of working alongside a sibling– he founded The Bartolotta Restaurants with his brother, Joe Bartolotta, in 1993 with the opening of their first restaurant, Ristorante Bartolotta in Wauwatosa. 

Joe died in April at the age of 60. He is remembered by many as a beloved restaurateur and local business community icon. 

Paul and Trafton briefly discussed the company’s transition in the wake of Joe’s recent death, acknowledging it is still early in that process. Because Joe endured longtime health issues, including a kidney transplant in 2013, formal succession planning had already been underway, Paul said.

As part of that plan, Paul in recent years gradually became more involved in the business’ day-to-day operations.

A non-Bartolotta-family-member, Trafton often functions as an arbitrator for the company, offering a different, third-party perspective on complicated issues such as familial conflict or the business’ current succession planning process, he said.

Trafton encouraged family business leaders to have a trusted arbitrator at their organizations. He also urged the audience to begin succession planning immediately– starting with any legal formalities– adding

“It doesn’t have to be from a traumatic event like we’re experiencing,” he said. “It’s about how to get ready, how to move forward… the time is now.”

Paul said the differences between him and his brother– in their professional backgrounds, personalities and leadership styles– were an asset to their company.

“We would often joke about it and say, ‘Olive oil and vinegar, great vinaigrette,'” he said.

But as brothers, they were naturally on the same page about what the company’s major core values should be: care for its employees, customers and community.  

“We are two people who got together early on and we said to ourselves ‘let’s build our core values, let’s define what’s important to us,’ and those became very obvious to us.”

Like The Bartolotta Restaurants, Ariens Co. also relies heavily on its core values to remain relevant after more than 85 years in business, said Ariens. Those core values indicate the company pledges to: be honest, be fair, keep its commitments, respect individuals and encourage intellectual curiosity.

“Having core values are so much easier for us to articulate as a private company because we don’t have the pressures of shareholders every quarter,” he said. “We can actually pause and do the right thing for the business and for the family, rather than worrying about this quarters’ earnings.”

Having formal boards of directors at family or closely held businesses was another topic of discussion.

The Wolter Group, which has 13 immediate relatives from three generations involved in the business, is governed solely by the company’s president and owner Otto Wolter, who is Weidmann’s father-in-law.

“We call it the one man, one vote,” said Jerry Weidmann, president of Wisconsin Lift Truck Corp., part of Wolter Group LLC. “The way I augmented that over the years is by joining best practices groups, where peers in the industry get together a few times a year and compare business strategies.”

The event’s keynote speaker, futurist David Zach, kicked off the event by presenting an overview of trends likely to affect businesses over the next five to 10 years, and some approaches to finding opportunities and solutions using both traditions and trends. The goal is to aid business leaders in preparing for future decision-making.

The Family & Closely Held Business Summit was sponsored by by Davis & Kuelthau, The Riverwood Wealth Management Group at Morgan Stanley, National Exchange Bank & Trust and SVA.

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Maredithe Meyer
Maredithe Meyer covers restaurants, retail, tourism, and sports and entertainment. She joined BizTimes in 2015, previously as an intern reporter. She earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University in 2017. When she's not on the job, Maredithe coaches field hockey and loves exploring her favorite city on earth, Milwaukee.

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