Visits to five regional alumni-owned businesses sketch a picture of imagination, optimism, perseverance, and enterprise
By James Leach
Portraits by Andrew Daddio
Her faculty mentor in geography was such an inspiration that when Johanna Ames Coats ’98 graduated from Colgate, she “wanted to be the next Ellen Kraly.” Thirteen years later, after Ames Coats cut short her plan to earn a PhD at the University of North Carolina, she has instead become the next Bud Ames, succeeding her dad as head of a central New York family business that goes back four generations and more than 90 years.
|Johanna Ames Coats ’98
A fourth generation for Ames Linen
By the time Ames Coats had finished her master’s at UNC, she was “a little disenchanted” with an academic life that wasn’t all she’d imagined. So, on a visit home to Cortland in 2000, when her father said the time could be right to see what she thought of working in the family’s commercial laundry business, she agreed to a one-year trial.
“My first day on the job, I was here at 5 a.m., sorting soiled linens, which was a little tough to swallow,” she said. Six months later, after she had worked every job from the production floor to delivery routes, Bud gave his daughter an office and made her his customer service manager.
As she took on more responsibilities, she said, her father asked, “Are you sure you want to work this hard?” When it became clear to them both that the answer was “yes,” the transition continued.
|Ames Linen Service, Johanna Ames Coats ’98, president, was Cortland County Chamber of Commerce’s 2009 Business of the Year.
Together, they bought and refitted a plant that more than tripled their space, modernizing Ames Linen Service and ensuring the business would stay in Cortland. And in 2007, father and daughter agreed to a sale that would keep Ames Linen in the family for at least another generation.
A lot has changed since great-grandfather Harry Ames started his laundry business in Ithaca, making deliveries by horse and buggy. He later purchased Cortland Steam Laundry and the downtown plant that was the company’s base for 75 years. While the business has evolved from doing local families’ wash to a full-service linen rental supplier for more than 500 health care and hospitality providers within a 75-mile radius, Ames Coats will tell you that the emphasis is still on service.
“When an event starts in an hour and a restaurant discovers it under-ordered 200 napkins, or the bride changes her mind at the last minute on what color linens she wants, our customers need a partner that they can count on,” she said.
With that in mind, when Ames Coats and her father designed their new $2.5 million plant, they not only outfitted it with the most modern equipment, they also provided backup at important stations — insurance against the unexpected. Converting to new equipment allowed for efficiencies that improve both energy conservation and the plant’s capacity. In what serves essentially as the engine room of the operation, water is softened, heated to 160 degrees, and recycled, and a maze of tubing delivers chemicals to the washing machines in carefully measured, computer-controlled amounts.
In the adjacent production space, an operator feeds sorted linens onto a conveyor to begin a fully automated washing and drying operation, not to be touched by human hands again until they come out the far end, clean, dry, and ready to be sorted, pressed, folded, packaged, and prepared for shipping. The plant can process more than a ton of laundry per hour.
Ames Coats is especially proud of her family’s record of employee relations. In a business where she says annual turnover rates of 300 to 400 percent are common, most of her staff have been on the payroll for years. “We’re like a family,” she said. The new plant allowed room for a bright and well-equipped area for employees to take a break. Recognition posters paper the bulletin boards. Incentive pay rewards special effort. The management treats to the occasional lunch or donut. And when your kids need linens for their weddings, it’s on the house.
In an upstate community the size of Cortland (roughly 18,000, including SUNY-Cortland’s 6,500 students), Ames Linen Service, with its 50-plus employees and $1.1-million payroll, is an important part of the economy.
Businesses in central New York don’t experience the soaring economic highs that affect other parts of the country, said Ames Coats. At the same time, that provides some insulation from big swings in the market. “We have been extremely fortunate because about half of our business is health care, an industry that tends to remain more stable,” she said. “We’ve been able to hold our own and actually see some growth.” Her biggest economic challenges at the moment are the shortage and record-high price of cotton for the linens, which, after payroll, are her greatest expense.
The Ames family has a long record of service to the Cortland community. “My grandfather and my dad taught me that was an important role to play as a business owner,” said Ames Coats. “As someone who’s living here, I’m invested.”
In addition to her volunteer work for the Cortland Regional Medical Center and the Cortland County Business Development Corp., she also serves on the board of the Family Health Network. “We run a series of federally funded health clinics for the under-served populations and some of our rural communities.”
In recognition, the Cortland County Chamber of Commerce named Ames Linen Service its Business of the Year in 2009.
Central New York has always been home for Ames Coats. “I like being in a small town, that sense of community. You make those connections. I’ve had a lot of opportunities that I don’t think would have come my way if I hadn’t had grown up here.”
Ames Coats and her husband, Matt (an assistant athletic director at Cornell), have a 2-year-old son, Mason. When asked if Mason might some day become the fifth-generation owner, Ames Coats didn’t make any assumptions — but she did say that the company’s service manager of 14 years gave his 25-year notice when he met Mason for the first time.
From the window of his winter home at Covewood Lodge on Big Moose Lake, C.V. “Major” Bowes ’41 watched eagles feeding on deer carrion in the yard. “I’m glad I’m here. I’d like to do it all over again,” he said of his nearly 60 years (and counting) as proprietor of the historic Adirondack camp.
|C.V. “Major” Bowes ’41
Adirondack host and advocate
Built in the 1920s by legendary Adirondack architect/builder Earl Covey, Covewood was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. As other resorts in the south central Adirondacks have come and gone, Covewood has operated continuously, with only three owners over its history.
The hospitality business has changed during those years, and Bowes and his wife, Diane, have adapted to keep pace. The American plan with its three meals a day in the dining room has given way to housekeeping cottages where guests have more control of their schedules. The hotel no longer does its own laundry. Summer crews once staffed by U.S. college students now draw largely from countries such as New Zealand, Scotland, Lithuania, and Colombia.
|C.V. “Major” Bowes ’41 has been operating the historic Adirondack
resort Covewood Lodge in Big Moose just shy of 60 years.
“I’m from the pipe wrench generation,” said Bowes, “and I still know where all the plumbing is — more than a mile of it. But Covewood now is run by buttons — the website, online reservations, and the like — and Diane takes care of that. I couldn’t run it without her.”
Still, the central character of Covewood, with its one-of-a-kind structures, game-preserve setting, and family appeal, has not wavered, as the families who have returned for three and four generations attest in stories and photos on the pages of the lodge website.
A third-generation Mohawk Valley native, Bowes was introduced to the Adirondacks at the family
camp on Seventh Lake, not far from Big Moose. During his undergraduate days, Colgate professors sometimes joined him there on hunting trips. He fell in love with the mountains.
After graduating, Bowes joined his father’s insurance business, which served clients in New York and New Jersey. “I hated it,” said Bowes. He enlisted in the Navy at the height of World War II. “It’s ironic to say this, but the war saved my life,” he said. “I dreamed about this place every day I was away.”
The options were limited, as he saw it: logging, or the resort business, “and I needed something to justify my education.” He enrolled in cooking school at Cornell, and when he graduated, his father helped him establish a business. Following a short stint operating a camp at Darts Lake, just down the road from Covewood, Bowes purchased the hotel that became his life’s work.
A fellow Colgate alumnus, the late Allen Wilcox ’29, who ran the Mohawk Hotel on Fourth Lake, helped Bowes get established, even assisting with his first buffet.
Earl Covey and his wife had run a spartan operation at Covewood, and the hotel’s second owner had followed suit. When Bowes took over, he recalled, “We were offering good meals and good lodging for eight bucks a day. When I raised the rate to nine, the fellow next door asked, ‘What are you trying to do, pay for this all in one year?’”
Still, the guests kept coming. Many of the names in Covewood’s 2010 guest register are of third- and fourth-generation descendants of families who visited in the 1950s. Ninety percent of his guests are repeat visitors. The late Dick Meltzer ’42 and his wife, Amy, became so attached to Covewood that they left instructions for their ashes to be buried there. And they were not alone.
During the winter off-season in those early years, Bowes ran natural history tours in Cuba, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. He and Diane stopped giving tours in the 1970s when the first of their two daughters was born.
That was when Covewood started its winter business, beginning by renting a couple of cottages to snowmobilers. That evolved to serving snowshoers and cross country skiers, some 50 to 60 of whom would gather at the hotel most winter weekends. As the winters have become milder (“We used to have snow until mid-April”), Covewood shut down its winter operation about five years ago.
Now the season runs from May through October, with peak business in June through September. The nation’s poor economy had an effect on the resort business the past couple of seasons, although Covewood’s repeat clientele helped the hotel weather the downturn.
Bowes is an advocate and proactive defender of the Adirondacks. He marshaled other landowners on Big Moose to post their property from the road to the lake’s edge, creating a de facto game preserve that is now written into the state syllabus.
When airborne industrial wastes from Midwest manufacturing operations rained down on the Adirondacks, turning some lakes (including Big Moose) acidic, he experimented by first adding limestone to his springs, and later by blasting tons of limestone into one of the lake’s bays. Major television networks, as well as Sports Illustrated, reported on the project. It worked, but was such a massive undertaking that the project was abandoned. Today, largely the result of clean-air regulations and shifting weather patterns, the lakes are coming back (“They called them ‘dead,’ but of course they weren’t”), and Covewood’s guests are once again catching largemouth bass and brightly colored native trout. Colgate geology professor Rich April and his former student Michele Hluchy ’81, now a professor at Alfred University, continue to monitor the acidity of Covewood property as part of a study funded by the National Science Foundation.
And Bowes has paid careful attention to preserving the architecture of Covewood, in particular the main building, which he describes as “a collector’s item.” It is said that Covey had thought about the building for so long that when he finally started construction, he needed no formal plans, referring only occasionally to details sketched out on paper sacks.
Given the economic and regulatory challenges today, Bowes said, “If you wanted to go into business for yourself, you’d probably pick a business other than this one — it would be more profitable. Yet it’s such a beautiful place to live. I can’t think of any place I’d rather be, or anything else I’d rather do. But if it were real enticing, there might be a few more of us left.”
Hard as it may be to imagine that one of the country’s best running shoe stores could be found in a city that’s snow covered half the year, that is exactly what Ellen (Strohm) Griffin ’83 and her husband, Ed, have achieved with Fleet Feet Sports in Syracuse.
|Ellen Griffin '83
A running living
At last November’s annual conference of running store retailers nationwide, the print and Internet publisher Competitor Group named the Griffins’ store one of the top four, and the best in the east. Stores are ranked on 20 criteria that range from community service and vendor evaluations to the in-store experiences of a team of “secret shoppers” dispatched by the judges.
While the Griffins’ store is part of a national franchise, the corporation’s commitment to on-site owner-operators fosters the idea that individual stores will take on the character of their owners. The Syracuse store is one of the most successful — enough so that last year, while the U.S. economy was floundering, the Griffins moved out of the location they had leased for 10 years and into their own facility with more than three times the floor space. With 30 employees — half of them salaried, full time — and an annual payroll exceeding $500,000, the store is, as Ellen put it, “a real business.”
|Despite the sour economy, Fleet Feet Sports in Syracuse, co-owned
by Ellen Griffin ’83 and her husband, Ed, tripled its space last year.
A national wave of interest in running to stay fit has expanded the marketplace, she said, adding, “The challenge from a business standpoint has been how to reach out to people who don’t regularly run races. They’re a whole separate market from the traditional running community.”
And the Griffins also serve customers beyond those with an interest in running to compete or stay fit. “We don’t even call ourselves a running store anymore,” said Ellen. “We’re a footwear fit store. We are fitting people who are doing everything from going to the gym to walking to, frankly, just needing a comfortable pair of shoes.” Area orthopedists and podiatrists refer their patients daily. “We’ll have people in their eighties in here who’ve got bunions
or hammer toes or plantar fasciitis — not that footwear is always the cure, but it can relieve a lot of their symptoms.” Thus, the Griffins’ emphasis on getting their customers into the right shoes, starting with fit.
There’s nothing hurried about the process. Off come a customer’s shoes and socks as the interview begins. “Any particular problems? How will you use your shoes?” For runners: “How many miles are you doing? Any events coming up? What kind of times are you running?” And, as the customer is answering, the salesperson is evaluating not only the customer’s answers, but also the condition and shape of both feet, including length, width, and arch while seated and standing. After factoring in the customer’s gait, the salesperson might recommend an insert to correct a condition such as flat feet or placing too much weight on the inside or outside of the foot.
With all those variables taken into account, the salesperson heads off to the stockroom to select from the more than 6,000 pairs on hand and returns with a variety for the customer to try. The trial includes running or walking on the store’s section of indoor track, always under the salesperson’s watchful eye.
At checkout, the customer is offered the opportunity to join the Griffins’ e-mail list and register for discounts on future purchases. A handshake closes the deal. And that’s what Ellen means by “full service.”
The competition, which comes from big-box stores and Internet sales, “almost hasn’t been a factor,” said Ellen. While chains and online merchants may price their shoes a few dollars less, they can’t match the Griffins’ level of product knowledge and personal attention.
Recognizing that service is what sets their store apart, the Griffins spend upward of two months training each new employee before turning that person loose to work the floor alone. A big investment of time, Ellen acknowledges, “but we don’t have people work for us for a month and then leave. We try to make it a place where people want to come to work every day.” As employees gain experience, they take on additional roles, in the personnel department, or marketing, or purchasing. Hours can be made flexible to accommodate the schedules of competitive runners on staff, like Fred Joslyn who qualified in February for the 2012 Olympic marathon trials. But everyone — Ellen and Ed included — continues to work on the floor, staying in touch with customers.
Communication with the running and fitness crowd doesn’t stop at the point of sale. In the community room attached to their store, the Griffins are hosts to regular events such as organizing sessions for local benefit runs and training sessions for athletes, from first-time 5K runners to elite triathletes. The store’s website is a clearinghouse for information on the local running and fitness scene, and the newsletter shows up each Monday morning in the 16,000 e-mail inboxes in the database.
Ellen took up running at Colgate “to lose the freshman fifteen.” She met Ed when he was broadcasting Colgate hockey for a Norwich radio station, and one of their first dates was lining up for the old Lake Moraine Run, a 5-miler.
“I’m not a competitive athlete,” she said. But she, like Ed, has the trim build of a runner, sustained personally and professionally by regular outings on those central New York roads and trails that are covered in snow from November until April.
Above the clatter, Dick Najarian ’63 tells a story for every pattern being woven on the 40 jacquard looms at the heart of his mill in Greene, N.Y.
|Dick Najarian ’63
Made in Greene, U.S.A.
There’s the elegant Godiva logo woven into ribbon that will adorn boxes of the chocolatier’s finest assortments. Black ribbon with orange script and ghostly images spins out of an adjacent loom, destined for one of Godiva’s seasonal offerings.
A rich gold braid developed on spec for the Navy could be a reliable long-term product if it wins approval for the trim on dress blues.
Patterns that seem strangely familiar become instantly recognizable when identified as the bands for venetian blinds.
|While his competition has moved to Asia, Dick Najarian ’63 still
operates high-end ribbon manufacturer L.A. Najarian, Inc., in Greene.
Reflective tape will be applied to the woven flame-resistant day-glo lime and orange bands that will make roadside workers highly visible; the U.S. Postal Service has a fancier, personalized version of its own.
And a well-known philan-thropist will distribute as bookmarks the inspirational messages woven into ribbon on two of the looms.
Alongside the looms, cones of colorful yarn are stacked high, waiting to be wound onto spools to form the warp and weft of the next intricate pattern. Cardboard boxes of samples arranged on metal shelves nearby make up the library of Najarian designs across the years.
The ancient hardwood floor and massive wooden pillars hint at the building’s early life as a silk mill and then a warehouse. In 1937, Najarian’s father — Leon Aram (L.A.), a 30-year-old Armenian émigré from Egypt — adapted it to its current purpose.
As a teenager, L.A. had learned weaving and ribbon making at the Chenango Ribbon Mill. By 1932, he had begun manufacturing his own ribbons on two looms in a rented barn.
L.A. passed the skill of ribbon making along to his sons Jack and Dick. There were no spring college breaks to warm climes for the Najarian boys: “We went home to work in the mill,” Dick said. “Dad put us with the employees, and we did what they told us.”
When L.A. grew ill in the 1960s, recent college graduates Jack and Dick moved back to Greene to help in the family business. Jack oversaw the weaving in those days, and Dick managed the business affairs.
After their father sold the business in 1970, Dick stayed on to help the new owners fine-tune their looms and relocate their operation to Pennsylvania. A career move to Montreal followed, to manage a mill for the largest ribbon maker in Canada.
“I learned a lot in Canada,” he said, “but we still wanted to do something else.” So in 1978, financed by a loan from the Small Business Administration, he bought a dozen looms from England and reopened the family mill in Greene. He, his wife, and his nephew were the original workforce, but the business grew steadily and he was soon up to a staff of 10, working two shifts.
He bought more looms and in 1979 began making hatbands for a mill in Alabama. With three people working one shift, Najarian said he was out-producing 28 people working two shifts at the Alabama plant. The Alabama mill bought Najarian out in a profitable arrangement that assumed his loan and allowed him to continue managing the operation.
The Alabama mill was, in turn, bought out by the nation’s largest ribbon manufacturer, Berwick Offray, with Najarian and his group’s focus on fine ribbons included as part of the deal. “It soon became obvious it wasn’t a fit,” said Najarian. “A big company automatically figures if a small guy were smart, he’d be big. I told them we stay small because we cater to small markets.” He had all the business there was to be had for his specialty.
So in 1984, for the second time, he bought back the family business and started L.A. Najarian, Inc., over yet again. This time, he was literally starting from scratch.
“The landscape had changed,” he said. “Our traditional customers — apparel manufacturers — had moved to other countries.” At first the competition came from the Japanese in the ’60s and ’70s. Then ribbon manufacturers followed the apparel mills to Taiwan, Korea, China, and eventually into Thailand and Vietnam.
As his traditional markets moved offshore, he adapted by selling specialized ribbons and labels such as those on his looms today. “We are pretty much the last mill in the States operating warp jacquard looms,” he said.
Fate intervened in 2000 when Najarian’s wife, Pat, his partner in business and in life, died after a brief illness. He took time away to regroup, and when he remarried in 2003, he left the day-to-day management of the business and moved to Hilton Head, S.C.
But the market continued to decline, bottoming out a year ago, Najarian said. Last fall, it became clear that the only way to save the business was to downsize. And the only solution he saw that would allow a reduction in staff and still keep the skills necessary to operate was for him to return to what he had been doing at the mill 15 years earlier. “I had the skills to do any of the jobs, and I was willing to work for nothing,” he said. So he committed to return to Greene for three weeks each month through the end of 2011 to redirect and reenergize the company.
The same optimism that motivated Najarian the first two times around is evident again today. “There’s a return to high-end manufacturing of some apparel in this country,” he said. “Being the only producers in this specialty, we should see an uptick. And we don’t need a lot of extra business to make it worth doing.”
To make his business more visible in the 21st-century market, Najarian is turning to a 21st-century solution and reengineering his website.
“You have to adapt,” he said. “It’s always been one thing or another. In this day and age, we won’t see a new massive user. The domestic manufacturers who’ve decided to stay here will continue — now our thrust is to find them and determine what size the business has to be.
“What an odyssey,” said Dick Najarian, whose history is the history of his company.
|Kingsley Wratten ’64 and Harold Davies MA’65
Appetite for the arts
Painter Kingsley Wratten ’64 tells the story of how a course at Colgate led to the creation of a fine French restaurant, and how now — 35 years later — that restaurant will nourish the arts.
Wratten’s sophomore core class brought together music, visual arts, and architecture. All were subjects that had interested him since high school, but he had never before clearly seen the connection between them.
A year later, studio professor Arnold Herstand recommended Wratten to a Yale summer program for painters and musicians that fostered his emerging awareness of how the disciplines relate, but left the artist longing for more interaction with the musicians.
Back at Colgate for his senior year, Wratten found a kindred spirit in writer Harold Davies MA’65, a graduate student who had spent a year studying baroque art and architecture in Madrid. “We began to dream about a utopia where a painter like myself, a writer like Harold, and a musician like my girlfriend and wife-to-be, Roberta, would sit down for dinner and discuss the ideas and feelings and experiences that went into their art,” said Wratten.
|Kingsley Wratten ’64 and Harold Davies MA’65 are layering an art
colony onto their Leonardsville restaurant, The Horned Dorset.
Through graduate school and their early careers as teachers, the three remained close and kept their dream alive. At the same time, “We got tired of working for someone else,” said Wratten. A restaurant, they decided, might help to bring their ideas together.
With little to invest, their options were limited, but they saw possibilities in a century-old, abandoned building across the highway from the auto repair shop in Leonardsville, a village of 150 souls about 20 minutes from Colgate. “The building didn’t even have a roof,” Wratten said. “We bought it for an offer on the overdue taxes.”
Roberta continued teaching to help meet living expenses while Davies, Wratten, his brother, and two friends, funded by a loan from the Small Business Administration, began a two-year project restoring the building. “The commitment was all and labor was zero,” said Wratten. “We were pretty gutsy.” They fashioned a bar and public and private dining rooms, a music room, and a library, accenting the spaces with architectural details reclaimed from urban renewal.
The Horned Dorset, named for the sheep they raised that became one of the house specialties, opened in 1977. Davies, who had some cooking experience, was chef. Wratten was maître d’ and bartender. Roberta played the harpsichord on Thursday and Sunday evenings. Their former students and a few Colgate undergraduates waited tables and staffed the kitchen.
Word of mouth and the reviews were all the advertising they ever needed. “Who comes to eat?” asked New York Times critic Jane Perlez in a 1985 rave: “A white stretch limousine idled outside one night. Bankers, doctors, and lawyers travel from Utica and from Syracuse.” Add gourmets from Cooperstown, Albany, Ithaca, Binghamton, Hamilton, New York City, and points in between.
As their restaurant prospered, they restored a nearby Italianate mansion to add four elegant guest rooms. The buildings are listed together as The Wheeler House Complex in the National Register of Historic Places. Years later, they established Utopia, an adjacent bookstore that became both a commercial enterprise and a venue to foster conversation about the arts.
Even as they developed their properties in Leonardsville, the partners had begun exploring sites in the Caribbean where they might build a luxury resort. In Rincón, on the western shore of Puerto Rico, they found their setting and began construction of The Horned Dorset Primavera, which opened in 1987 with guest rooms and suites featuring private pools and balconies on the waterfront. Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List describes the hotel as, “intimate, like a friend’s elegant oceanside estate, with service that really takes care of you.”
In 2011, their story is coming full circle with the founding of the Horned Dorset Art Colony, centered around the properties in Leonardsville.
The energy and enthusiasm that has resulted in two hugely successful commercial ventures is now being directed to creating a self-sustaining place where writers, musicians, and visual artists can come together to learn from one another as they practice their art. They will live and have studio space in a collection of restored homes within walking distance of the restaurant. In the evenings, they will gather at the restaurant, along with the Horned Dorset’s other guests, to discuss their work. Artists in other disciplines may be added to the mix as the colony matures.
Students will be chosen based on exceptional aptitude. Scholarships will assist those who cannot afford the cost of a four-week residency. Professional artists will be chosen on the strength of their work and their willingness to exchange ideas and experiences with students in a working environment.
The Leonardsville Horned Dorset will be closed this year as the partners visit other arts initiatives, explore funding possibilities including the creation of their own foundation, and work on the property that will become their campus. They are determined to create a program that can have a lasting impact on the area and survive beyond their day-to-day involvement. “But it’s not like we’re retiring,” Wratten said, reflecting the vitality of three partners who continue living their lifelong dream.