Clovis News

Valley businesses adapt, survive to 100

In the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, just staying alive is a challenge for small businesses. But some companies are not only surviving, they're celebrating a milestone: 100 years in business.

The Sunnyside Country Club hits the century mark this month and, like most companies its age, it has survived by adapting to a changing marketplace.

It joins the ranks of a handful of Valley companies that have lasted that long, including grain and commodity business J.D. Heiskell -- which will celebrate its 125th anniversary this month -- and heating and air conditioning company Brott Mechanical.

The ability of companies to adapt is key to their survival -- whether it's reacting to changing customer desires and tough economic times, or planning for a younger generation to take over the company, said Steve Geil, president of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation.

"A company that isn't changing is a dying company," he said.

Indeed, longevity is no guarantee that a company will survive tough times.

Gottschalks, for example, made it to 105, but filed for bankruptcy shortly after as shoppers turned to discounters during the recession.

The retailer was sunk by the same economic challenges that businesses of all ages struggled with in recent years. Business bankruptcies more than tripled between pre-recession 2006 and last year in the eastern district of California's U.S. Bankruptcy Court, which includes the Valley.

The exclusive club of century-old businesses that still thrive illustrates how longevity can be a matter of being nimble in the face of challenges.

Many changes

J.D. Heiskell was founded just a few years after the community of Tulare was born and the railroad came to town. It started as a storage warehouse for grain that was shipped north and milled into flour.

As more people moved into the area, it became more profitable to sell wheat and barley locally as animal feed, said Scot Hillman, chairman of the company's board of directors and the founder's great-grandson.

And as animal nutrition became a priority, workers began mixing the grains to get the desired fat and fiber content. In 1972, the company went from mixing by hand to its first computerized mill.

In order to stay competitive, the company renovated its facility in 1989 so it could handle full trainloads of grain from the Midwest. Shipping costs were discounted by accepting all 100 cars at once, Hillman said.

Changes in leadership also helped the company survive.

A carefully planned handoff to the younger generation can help a business flourish, said George S. Vozikis, director of Fresno State's Institute for Family Business.

"You don't just pass the baton," he said. "You've got to rejuvenate the business."

In finding the right leader and getting employees on board, the company also is planning its future, he said.

At J.D. Heiskell, Hillman's father brought in professors from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, to help with the transition.

"My path was laid out," Scot Hillman said. "It was laid out for the employees. I was brought in in a very planned, measured and calculated way."

He would eventually turn to outside management, hiring top executives from outside the family.

Growth exploded in recent years after the company bought a competitor in 2000. Today the company operates feed plants in seven states and exports commodities such as corn throughout the world.

Ongoing transformation

Brott Mechanical in Tulare, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning business, has transformed itself several different times to stay profitable over its 100-year life-span.

The 32-employee business turned 100 last year and celebrated the milestone this spring as a company that looked vastly different from its early years.

It started as a tin and residential plumbing shop in Kansas, moving to Tulare in 1935. It eventually turned to plumbing and air conditioning for large-scale new construction projects such as schools and prisons.

In 1994, Brott Mechanical made a drastic change.

Getting paid for such large projects had become difficult, said general manager Dax Brott, great-grandson of the company's founder. The industry had turned cutthroat, and Brott executives found themselves fighting to be reimbursed for cost overruns necessary to complete projects, he said. Rather than maxing out its $1 million credit line and often not getting paid for its work, the company left the construction business.

It went from 125 employees to about 15.

"We're a much different type of company than we were back then," Brott said. "[We're] working with smaller numbers. In the last 10, maybe 15 years, we haven't touched a line of credit."

Now it focuses on servicing its heating and air conditioning systems. It also installs computerized energy management systems that help its customers save money by turning off equipment when no one is working.

Humble beginnings

Sassano's Mens Wear on Pollasky Avenue in Clovis looks vastly different today than when it opened in 1907 as a shoe repair shop in a 10-by-10-foot building.

Over the years, the business morphed into a store selling pre-made shoes.

The company eventually turned to selling clothes for the working man. Many customers lived in isolated areas in the foothills and used Sassano's as their source for pants, boots and hats.

"They'd come in once a year and buy five pants and grandpa would hem them up," said Greg Sassano, great grandson of the founder and co-owner of the store with his dad.

Today, the pants are sent out to a woman who hems them.

The store has retained its focus on its core male customers, but it changed its merchandise as their tastes evolved. It added Ben Davis pants that were beloved by truck drivers in the 1970s. And when the John Travolta movie "Urban Cowboy" opened in 1980, sales of western wear "went nuts," said longtime manager Bob Parks.

Today, the city of Clovis is a big customer. The store bids each year for contracts to sell pants and steel-toed boots for city workers, Sassano said.

At times, challenges have almost spelled the end of the business. The store closed for five months during the Depression.

And even after it reopened, the family had to make management changes to keep the business alive.

Back when the business was named Sassano Brothers, it became clear in the early 1950s that the store couldn't support both the brothers who ran it. Rather than drive the business into the ground, one of the brothers stepped down and found a different career, Parks said.

New to the club

The newest member of the 100-year club, Sunnyside Country Club, has adapted to some of its toughest challenges in recent years.

As families deal with pay cuts and layoffs, members have cut back on how often they play golf, with some dropping their membership altogether, said Steve Menchinella, general manager for 42 years.

To make up for the drop in revenue, the club has cut expenses and launched an effort to get new members.

They've laid off employees and shortened the hours the country club pool is open. Even the annual flowers in the gardens get replaced less often, Menchinella said.

The club lowered its upfront fees and created new, less-expensive types of memberships. Fees for social members -- who use the pool, tennis courts and clubhouse but don't golf -- were slashed in half.

And they've pushed the country club, near Butler and Clovis avenues in Fresno, as a site for weddings and banquets. The increase in those events is helping sustain the business, he said.

The changes have brought in more members, but one thing remains the same, Menchinella said.

"Our No. 1 commodity is the golf course, and we've made very little cuts there," he said.

The recent changes were difficult to swallow, compared to the easy ones made over the past 100 years

They included going from nine holes to 18, and lengthening the space from the tee to the hole as athletic ability increased, along with technological advancements in golf clubs.

And even though Fresno's population has steadily moved north since Sunnyside opened, members are still loyal to the club, he said.

"We have such rich traditions people still want to be associated with the oldest club" in the Valley.