Keeping it in the family

Local family-run businesses consider succession plans

David Zammit says he can still remember the day he decided to join the family business.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and he was working a shift at Bernardi’s Antiques, then located on Hillsdale Avenue East. He was “19 or 21” and attending York University. He was frustrated because he wasn’t getting the courses he wanted.

There were other reasons: a history buff in high school, Zammit, now 45 and co-owner of the family business, enjoyed discovering the stories behind the antiques his parents, Paul and Grace, appraised and sold.

“It’s not like there’s a school for this, so I’ve learned as we go,” he said recently.

Nearly four decades after the elder Zammits purchased the store from original owner Sergio Bernardi, it has not only become a Mt. Pleasant Road institution but a destination for many foreign visitors to Toronto. It relocated to 699 Mt. Pleasant Rd. in 1998.

Paul and Grace still play an active role at the store, coming in most days except for two months in winter, when they go to Florida.

“I don’t think they want to retire,” their son laughs. “They’d have nothing to do.”

As has transpired for the Zammits, Ken and Donna MacDonald, owners of The Friendly Butcher, at 3269 Yonge St., are hoping their three sons will be there to keep the business in the family once they retire.

“It’s not just a matter of handing it to somebody,” says Ken, who has been operating the combination café and butcher shop since 1996. “It’s a matter of them understanding business.

“If my son gets out of university and I start handing him $100,000 a year, does he really care what he’s doing?”

The MacDonalds have a daughter and two sons: Lauren, 22, who is studying finance at the University of Toronto, Cameron, 19, who is taking business at Western University, and 16-year-old Zachary, in Grade 11 at Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute.

Like their father, who learned to run his business from the owner of Cowieson’s, a North Toronto butcher shop that closed in the mid-1990s, the MacDonald boys have learned on the job, working at the store on weekends, or whenever available.

“When my kids are at the counter they work there,” Ken said. “They’re not the boss’s son.”

In fact, Cameron is eying helping the family enter the prepared foods business once he is done with university, Ken said.

Sometimes, however, children are interested in other pursuits and the in-family succession plan comes to an end.

Varouj Tabakian, who operates Jewellery by Varouj at 515 Eglinton Ave. West, says in his “heart of hearts” it would be a “dream come true” for one of his two children to take over from him one day, but he encourages them to pursue their own dreams first.

If daughter Melissa, 24, or son Justin, 22, are passionate about something else, Tabakian says, he would rather they be taken by their new passion — the way jewellery took him.

He has been crafting jewellery since he was 14. Armenian by birth, he lived in Beirut, Zimbabwe and Europe before moving to Canada in 1976, and has run his own store on Eglinton since 1995.

Melissa is studying acting at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, while Justin, who has made three pieces of jewellery, is attending Wilfrid Laurier University.

“If I had to put it percentage-wise, I would say about 30–40 percent runs in the family,” he says. “It’s not 100 percent, because sometimes people want to be a lawyer or architect or doctor.”

Not that he plans on retiring anytime soon.

“I’m making engagement rings for my clients’ children now,” he said. “When you get into their personal lives, designing jewellery for people in love, nothing in the world can beat my work.”

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Posted: Dec 9 2014 4:15 pm
Filed in: Business
Edition: Toronto