The odds were never in favor of small businesses. Data from the Small Business Administration shows that only about one-third of all start-ups make it beyond the first ten years.
While Connecticut manufacturing has had a turbulent history in the last 100 years, state historian Walter Woodward said one important trait has led to the survival of some businesses, even after entire industries were wiped out. “Since the early 19th century, Connecticut has displayed a remarkable ability to adapt to a changing environment,” he said.
Take, for instance, the Waterbury Button Company, now located in Cheshire. It began with buttons, but it kept up with the times by producing door handles, rivets, insulated wire, toys, bomb fuses, and even an experimental aircraft called the Multiplane.
The company still makes buttons, pretty much in the same way it always did. The business got its start when the war of 1812 disrupted the supply of uniform buttons from England. Connecticut entrepreneur Aaron Benedict purchased just about every brass kettle, pan, and pot he could find to turn into buttons that went on military uniforms for American soldiers.
Sal Geraci, who started as an employee and is now a co-owner, said the quality of the stamping is a unique selling point with uniform manufacturers. The company makes stamped buttons for the military, the police and supplies to niche events like the Master’s Golf Tournament, where its buttons are fitted on a single green jacket awarded to the winner.
Geraci said much of the opportunity now is in the high-end button segment. The large market for low-end women’s clothing is not viable. “That business has gone because buttons are more labor intensive and most of that business has gone to China,” he said. “The fashion business that we do are for people like Liz Claiborne, Ellen Tracy, Tommy Hilfiger – that’s where we fit in. We deal with the high-quality houses.”
Each year, the company produces more than 30 million buttons, but that’s not enough to keep sales growing. Diversification is a key strategy for survival and recent acquisitions include a badge manufacturer and a business that provides accessories to the police. Geraci said, “The latest acquisition was a company called Cop Shop which supplies a number of different things to the retail [stores for law enforcement officers]. You gotta keep moving around. Otherwise, it’ll all be over.”
A small beverage company in Willimantic has also lived long enough to see a century. Hosmer Mountain Soda was founded in 1912 as a bottling company. Arthur Potvin, who drove trucks for Pepsi, bought the business in 1958 with his savings.
At the retail store in Manchester, Arthur’s son Bill Potvin gave me a tour. He showed me old fashioned New England flavors: cases of cream, peach, and sarsaparilla sodas, and clear birch beer. I asked him how he competes with the likes of Pepsi and Coke. “Doing unique things like bringing soda to people’s houses and treating people a little better [and] having a wide variety of good soda is helpful,” he said. “When you come to one of our stores, you’re going to find some flavors that you won’t even see in the biggest supermarkets.”
Today, Hosmer’s sales are just under $1 million a year, and the company delivers soda to customers’ homes. I followed driver Peter Baker, who dropped off a case at Carl Blodgett’s house in Manchester. “Well it’s really great for me because I don’t drive anymore,” Blodgett said, adding that he enjoys a little chat with Baker whenever he comes by. “He always brings the drinks through the door for me, because I can’t do that anymore either. I can bring out the empties but not the full ones, but he brings them right in.”
When the historic Hitchcock Chair Company in Riverton closed its doors in 2006, furniture maker Rick Swenson and his business partner Gary Hath felt somebody ought to do something, and they were somebody. Four years later, the duo purchased the Hitchcock name, plans and artwork. Swenson took me to the back of the store to see antique chairs that he’s restoring. Swept in a moment of nostalgia, I sat on one signed by Lambert Hitchcock himself, who founded the business in 1818. “The history, the style, the comfort, [and] the durability is a good selling point,” Swenson said. “But it’s also a very unique look. If you look at the artwork on the chair, the stencil designs and the lines and the style of the chair itself, there’s a certain look that Hitchcock has that nobody else has been able to duplicate.”
Back in his day, Lambert Hitchcock made furniture affordable through mass production. Today, Swenson says it’s tough to compete with the masters of that technique: Ikea and Bob’s Discount Furniture. Hand-stenciling and hand-crafting techniques puts Hitchcock at a higher price point. Economic downturns and fuel cost increases are particularly hard on sales as customers cut back on purchases.
What keeps Swenson going? “A lot of that is stubbornness, an unwillingness to give up when it seems desperate at times and the joy of when things are going well, realizing that we’re doing something worthwhile,” he said. “We’re preserving a company that goes back almost 200 years. We really plan to be here for our 200th anniversary and how many businesses can say that?”
From the early days of the Yankee peddler to the modern day small business, it’s this formula of resilience and reinvention that makes for a great survival story.