Opening a business is never easy. Then, the money, sweat equity and the stress of trying to establish a profitable endeavor is enough to discourage anyone from keeping their doors open. That’s why we are celebrating the history and secrets to success of several local companies who have reached milestone anniversaries in 2011.
KEN MIESNER’S FLOWERS, 40 years
To help pay his way through Southern Illinois University in the ’60s, Ken Miesner took a job delivering flowers for an area florist. Pressed into arrangement duty during a busy Valentine’s Day, it quickly was discovered that Miesner’s talents were being underutilized. “The quality and uniqueness of his work was unmatched, and he became head designer for the rest of his college career,” says Miesner’s longtime business partner, John Sullivan.
That Valentine’s Day was the start of a Miesner’s storied career as a florist. After graduating SIU with a degree in interior design and gaining experience at Famous-Barr, Miesner found a position at Henderson Flowers in the Central West End. The 25-year-old was not there very long before Ed Henderson sold him the business. “I remember people gathering to peer into the shop’s windows at Christmas to see the magical displays Ken created,” Sullivan says. With the opening of Plaza Frontenac in the early ’70s, Miesner took a chance as an initial tenant of the new shopping center. The popularity of the store grew quickly and the florist was hired for lavish events, from a Mexican-themed debut party with a live burro, to a wedding with the entire ceiling of Meadowbrook Country Club covered in white satin, Sullivan recalls.
In 1999, during Pope John Paul II’s visit to St. Louis, Miesner donated the flowers that filled the Cathedral Basilica, expressing his Catholic devotion and instantly creating a highlight of his career.
Miesner’s dedication to his craft and his customers has helped him through the years. “Ken has saved every thank-you note he has ever received. He says they’re like love letters to him,” Sullivan explains.
Even after 40 years in business, Miesner continues maintain the work ethic he developed as a 9-year-old working in a small restaurant in Perryville, and hone the talent he discovered as a college student in Carbondale. “When I first met Ken, I asked him, How do you know where all the flowers should go?” Sullivan recalls. “He said, They tell me.”
GENOVESE JEWELERS, 30 years
In 1981, Michael Genovese opened a small, 900- square-foot jewelry store in the basement of a bank, with one employee and little visibility from Olive Boulevard. Thirty years later, while Genovese Jewelers now occupies 12,000 square feet in its third location, the close rapport with its customers has never changed. “I think the key to our success has been making lifelong relationships with people, so they come back again and again,” says second-generation owner Joe Genovese. “They appreciate that when they walk in the door, we know their names.”
As an eighth grader, Joe entered the family affair, engraving and polishing jewelry before he was tasked with the responsibility of developing the custom jewelry line at age 18. “Next thing I knew, we were melting gold in the basement of my parents’ house,” Genovese says.
The children and grandchildren of customers who bought engagement rings from Michael are now buying engagement rings from Joe, and he hopes their children will buy from his daughter, Sabrina. “My 12-year-old will start working here next summer, the exact age I started working. I’d love it if she took over one day.”
GLADYS MANION, 75 years
At a young age, Stafford Manion was told by his grandmother that he would one day run her company. Since Gladys Manion always spoke her mind, he took her seriously. “I had the luxury of getting to know Gladys as a child, coming into the office,” he says. “She was an active participant in life.”
That passion for life motivated Gladys in 1936, when she opened a rental agency that soon evolved into a thriving residential real estate business. Originally located on Forsyth in ‘Real Estate Row,’ Gladys Manion is one of the few privately owned real estate companies still in business today. “We’ve been able to adapt through the years,” Stafford Manion says. “The business is built on relationships, but it’s very important for us to stay on the cutting edge.” Gladys’ son, James, took over the business in 1959, and ran it until 1994, when Stafford became president. While Stafford looks toward the future and the possibility of a fourth-generation owner one day in the form of his son, Ford, he is happy to celebrate the past 75 years. “There’s been a lot of guts and persistence. I’m very proud of our little company, and I think Gladys would be proud, too.”
STRAUBS, 110 years
Every morning, William A. Straub would take his horse and buggy around Webster Groves, taking grocery orders before filling them and delivering the goods in the afternoon. Through 110 years, that high level of service has paid off, as Straubs has evolved from that one-room store to four locations around St. Louis. “We’ve stayed small, with easy stores to navigate, in neighborhoods with loyal customers whose grandparents shopped with us,” says fourth-generation owner Jack ‘Trip’ Straub III.
The Clayton store opened in 1939, with the Central West End location following in 1948 and Town & Country in 1966. “We want to offer high quality products and we look for items that are different from other stores,” Straub says.
Growing up with the family business, Straub held every position possible, from bagger to store manager. His father, Jack Straub Jr., still comes to work every day, and two of his four children have taken up summer jobs with the company. “There’s a very small group of companies who last until the fourth generation, and we’re very thankful we have,” Straub notes. “Our customers know it’s a special place.”
MARQUARD’S CLEANERS, 80 years
Marquard’s Cleaners has preserved 100-year-old wedding dresses, restored World War II uniforms, and cleaned delicate gowns. It is a specialized service that has not changed over the dry cleaners’ 80 years in business. “John Marquard started it when he opened the business in 1931 and he passed it on—the attention to detail and quality,” says Marquard’s VP Ken Rimell, who is also the ‘clothes doctor’ at the company.
In the mid-’60s, Marquard sold the cleaners to one of his employees, Harvey Rimell, Ken’s father. Ken and his brother, Steve, assisted their father in the business since they were “as tall as the spotting board,” developing an enthusiasm for the trade that has carried over into their years of ownership. “We have a real passion to serve other people,” Rimell says. “My father used to say, Treat the garment as if it’s yours, but better than if it was yours.”
With long-term employees at the two locations in Delmar and Town & Country, Marquard’s marks its eighth decade as strong as when its namesake opened the business, Rimell observes. “I think our longevity comes from our reputation and the consistency of the product we put out.”
BUTLER’S PANTRY, 45 years
In 1966, stay-at-home moms and one-income families made catering largely unnecessary, so Richard and Anita Nix were taking a risk when they opened Butler’s Pantry, a café and catering company. “They were a little ahead of themselves,” says their son and current owner, Richard Nix Jr.
With Anita’s talent in the kitchen and Richard Sr.’s restaurant experience, Butler’s Pantry was able to endure. “Our focus remains on the clients and giving them what they want,” Nix says. “We tailor and design our events around our clients’ needs and budgets.”
After growing up with the business, Nix took over the Butler’s Pantry in 1994. However, Richard Sr. remains active in a consulting role to “make sure we’re still on the straight and narrow,” Nix jokes.
The company continues to grow, with the opening of the Palladium Saint Louis event space and Bixby’s at the Missouri History Museum, which Butler’s Pantry operates. “Reaching this 45-year anniversary lets people know that this is a strong company,” Nix says. “I’m looking forward to celebrating 50 and 75 years!”
WELSCH HEATING AND COOLING, 116 years
For 116 years, a ‘George Welsch’ has owned Welsch Heating and Cooling. Four generations of Georges have kept the business going since its inception in 1895. “I’m proud that we’re still here and we’ve stayed successful through difficult times,” says current owner George “Butch” Welsch.
After Butch’s great-grandfather opened the furnace installation business, his grandfather ran the company until passing away from cancer in August 1929. Just a sophomore in high school, Butch’s father, George “Vincent” Welsch took over and was quickly greeted by the stock market crash in October 1929. “He had a real baptism by fire,” Welsch says. “I’m not sure how he did it, but they managed to survive.”
By the end of the ’50s, the company incorporated air conditioning installation, moving to the Westport area from the city in 1970 to embrace St. Louis’ westward expansion. The business ventured into the service and replacement market in the ’90s. With more than 5,000 existing maintenance agreements and 75 employees, service has become a large part of Welsch’s business. “We’ve always taken the approach that the customer is the most important thing.”
LAURIE’S SHOES, 60 years
Who knew bomb shelters and shoes could go handin- hand? In 1951, when the fear of communism and atomic attacks was widespread, Wally and Joan Waldman, along with Wally’s father, Morris Goldman, saw a way to meet two needs in St. Louis when they opened Laurie’s Shoes in Glendale. “They saw for a need for a family shoe store, and the bomb shelter provided a community service, as well,” says Mark Waldman, who currently owns the business with his siblings, Scott and Patty.
Named after Mark’s cousin, the business focuses on fashionable and comfortable footwear in a variety of sizes and widths. “We actually fit shoes to people, which is a white elephant today—today’s generation is growing up self-fitting their shoes,” Waldman explains.
Laurie’s Shoes has now expanded to six stores around the metro area, from Chesterfield to Fairview Heights, and each location has varying merchandise to fit the customers’ needs. While none of the three co-owners had any intent to enter the shoe business, each was eventually drawn in by their parents’ passion for the trade. “It’s in our DNA,” Waldman says.
ALBARRÉ JEWELRY, 35 years
Thirty-five years in business is a hard concept for Albarré Jewelry owner Barry Sherman to grasp. “It just doesn’t seem physically, mentally, emotionally possible that all these years could have passed. It has flown by.”
Sherman opened Albarré in 1976 with $10,000 after convincing Ted Bakewell Jr. to take a chance on him and rent him a 655-square-foot store. He had entered the business after leaving his teaching job at Kirkwood High School. Sherman ran his fledgling store solo until he was able to hire employees. “At first, we’d have two customers a day, but they became loyal clients. I must be on the fourth generation of customers by now,” Sherman says.
The store doubled in size in the ’90s and with six employees now, Sherman has been able to weather the ups and downs. “We’ve gotten more creative with the Internet and advertising.”
With no plans to retire, Sherman looks forward to the next 35 years. “Jewelers don’t retire, they die behind the bench. I love this business—I wouldn’t know what else to do.”