Retail giants don’t happen overnight. Sam Ash Music is a prime example. Founded in 1924, it’s the largest family owned U.S. music retail chain, with 46 locations. At 2016 Summer NAMM, COO Sammy Ash and Northeast Regional and Social Media Manager Ben Ash—a father-and-son team—revealed what it takes to run a successful multi-generational family business and achieve longevity.
Sammy Ash explained that founders Sam and Rose Ash lived upstairs from the first store in Brooklyn, N.Y., so customers were often taken care of after hours. That customer-first focus continues until today.
“We have to be as good, if not better, to get the customers to come to us and stick around,” Sammy said.
The Ash family has stayed in business together, sometimes disagreeing and sometimes agreeing—always with a sense of family vision and what they want to accomplish as a business. “We run very lean, and everyone wears multiple hats,” Sammy said. He was quick to point out that the company’s success is due to its employees, all in service of customers. “The true picture is they’re running the business with us,” he said.
Compensation can break up many family owned companies. Sammy and Ben shared a few Ash family stories and financial compensation principles:
• Compensation is equal among the generations. “You’re expected to work your way up to the position,” Sammy said.
• Brothers Richard and Sammy entered the business at about the same time, making the exact same amount but carrying different responsibilities and jobs. ”Times (the 1970s) were different, and there were no rules,” Sammy said. “It was a mom-and-pop business.”
• Ownership shares are only family held.
• Compensation is based on your work contribution and hourly wages versus salary.
What Happens When a Family Member Isn’t Pulling His or Her Weight?
• Sammy related how his father put him in his place by making him punch a clock when he first started and his lack of a work ethic showed. He learned his lesson.
• Family members must contribute. “At the end of the day, the last name is held accountable, and we have to do the best we can to keep the name strong and solid,” Sammy said.
• Termination is taken seriously and doesn’t happen until everyone agrees that it’s the right thing to do for the business. It’s a difficult decision that takes time.
The Boss’ Kid Syndrome
Ben Ash commented on how you go from being the boss’ kid to being a boss.
• Become known for being an outstanding individual first and not riding on your last name.
• Earn respect.
• Take every opportunity to contribute and lead.
• Focus on the customer. Ben mentioned that Sam Ash Music still feels like a mom-and-pop business, just bigger. When you call a Sam Ash Music store, you may be speaking with an Ash family member. “There’s a deeper understanding and connection with the customers,” Ben said.
Family Pride: The Godfather Effect
Sammy referred to his family’s culture and drew on the movie “The Godfather.” “The Corleone family started in Brooklyn, too,” he said wryly.
• He commented that one of the reasons for the company’s longevity is that an Ash handles customer problems and complaints personally. Sammy proudly assumes that role, and his email and phone number are posted in every store, so he’s accessible.
• Sammy acknowledged key people who help run the company. Many have been with Sam Ash Music for decades. “We keep people,” he said.
• Big business decisions are usually family group decisions.
Finally, there’s a sense of responsibility to something larger and the long-term greater good of the business. Family members are motivated by pride, excitement and interest in the business and the music industry.
“We have a story to tell, and the message doesn’t change,” Sammy said.