Perspectives from ISB

The rumours that swirled around the American east coast city of Baltimore in 1895 were grossly inaccurate. The word on the street was that the Loane family business had shut. So Javez Loane, who at the time ran the business that made sails, window awnings, tents, flags and wagon covers, distributed a flyer to set the record straight.

The family business was instead thriving back then, and is still in fine fettle today, now known as Loane Bros. It’s not a bad achievement for an enterprise that started by making ships’ sails in 1815, and over the next 202 years moved to its current focus on party tents, equipment and window awnings.

With a Loane at the helm, the business has survived six generations of family ownership. The word “survive” can be appropriate for any such business, given the added burdens that working with relatives can bring, such as exactly which nephew should inherit the hot seat.

The company has about 85 employees and a yearly income of about $5m (£3.7m). In addition to hiring out tents for everything from wedding receptions to conferences, it hires a host of other things required for a big bash, from tables and chairs, to wine glasses, plate sets and even a dance floor.

“We are still always learning to improve on what we do and how we do it,” says Bryan, who initially went to college to study teaching. When he was about 24 and teaching in Spain, Bryan got a call from his father Morgan who announced he was thinking of selling the business. Within weeks, Bryan came back and started work under his father. About 20 years ago, Morgan retired and Bryan took over.

“It’s sad to say, but I enjoyed it a lot more after he left,” says Bryan. Bryan says it gave him a chance to put his own stamp on the family business, just like his father had done when he became boss. Morgan still helps out occasionally by sitting in on a sales call, or driving his son to meetings in nearby Washington DC, so that Bryan can get work done in the passenger seat.

Whether Loane Bros will continue with family ownership over the next generation is uncertain. Bryan’s two children have interests elsewhere, and he is careful not to put pressure on them to come into the firm. “I would be amazed if my son or daughter came into the business,” he says. “We will cross that bridge later, but I’m not planning on it.”

Loane Bros is constantly approached by investors wanting to purchase it. but Bryan says he has seen other family businesses go down that road and it isn’t good. “The whole company just vanishes after a while,” he says. “They say they will keep all the people on, but they don’t.”

Many employees at Loane Bros have worked there for decades. They might be the ones Bryan chooses to sell the business to, so it becomes employee-owned. If no one in the family wants to take it over, Bryan sees selling it to its staff as the best way to preserve the legacy Joseph Loane started all those years ago.

Source: Solomon, Serena., December 27, 2017;