Bruce Roper never planned to start a business. As a teenager, he wanted to be a Beatle. As an adult, he moved to Chicago after a brief stint running a music store and began fixing guitars. Over the next quarter century, Bruce built up a modest but steady one-man business repairing and building instruments, as well as teaching guitar building. Bruce’s students come to him seeking the secrets of making guitars, but he’s the first to say there are no secrets. It’s just a matter of doing it, and there’s no substitute for the decades of experience Bruce has accumulated.
Jewelry tells a story. For Kathy, the owner of a 90-year-old jewelry store in Berwyn, Illinois, every piece of her jewelry adds up to a larger, richer history about the business that she joined as a 16-year-old part-time employee and ended up running. A lot of small businesses are labors of love, but the story of Kathy and Hursts’ Berwyn Jewelers is a love story in more ways than one.
The neighborhood appliance store is all but gone from the American retail landscape. But on Chicago’s north side, Cole’s Appliance and Furniture Co. has been selling refrigerators and sofas from the same corner since 1946. The Krasney family, which has owned Cole’s for three generations, has learned how to outlast big box stores, online competition, and the booms and busts of the housing market.
When the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series, Jim Piko Jr. wasn’t just thrilled as a longtime fan of the team. Marathon Sportswear, the screen printing company his father started in the family garage in 1980, began printing tens of thousands of officially licensed Cubs t-shirts as soon as the team won the championship. It was the equivalent of a farmer’s bumper crop for Jim. Being prepared for that moment took weeks of advance preparation—and years of slowly building a business, one t-shirt at a time.
In 2009, as Chicago manufacturer Wiegel Tool Works was emerging from the recession and wanting to hire again, company president Aaron Wiegel noticed that his job ads for tool and die makers were going unfilled for months. That realization led to his restarting an apprenticeship program, which he pitches as an alternative to college—especially at a time when the cost of higher education looks increasingly to be a bad deal.
Otto Wiegel founded Wiegel Tool Works the day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. This year, his three grandchildren mark the manufacturing company’s 75th anniversary. The family business, which specializes in precision metal stamping, has survived succession issues and dislocations in the global economy to become somewhat of a rare species: A midwestern American manufacturer in growth mode.
The products that AR-EN Party Printers makes—customized items like gift tags and coasters—are a luxury and not a necessity, but that doesn’t make them any less important to the company’s customers. AR-EN can’t afford to misprint a couple’s monogram or get a color wrong. In this mini episode, business owner Gary Morrison recalls one memorable incident in his company’s early history.
When Gary Morrison’s mother and her best friend got into the foil-stamped napkin business in 1979, the two women were just looking for a side project that would make them some extra money. Decades later, Gary is running AR-EN Party Printers, a company that custom prints cocktail napkins, coasters, matchboxes and more. He’s the first person to acknowledge that no one really needs what he’s selling, yet he’s figured out how to make a sustainable business out of disposable personalized favors.
From seagrass caskets to biodegradable urns designed for water burials, there is a growing number of options when it comes to burying the dead. In this mini episode, Claudette Zarzycki of Zarzycki Manor Chapels, a 101-year-old funeral home, talks about how approaches to mourning are evolving.
Four generations of the Zarzycki family have lived behind or above their funeral home, starting with founder Agnes Zarzycki, the first woman funeral director of Polish descent in Chicago. Today, 101-year-old Zarzycki Manor Chapels is still run by women, who are upholding old traditions—like conducting funeral services in Polish—while bringing in new ideas to keep their business going for the next century.
It takes a lot of work to make a dead body appear healthy and lifelike. It also takes a lot of chemicals, like the kind manufactured by 124-year-old Frigid Fluid. In this mini episode, learn more about embalming and some of the strange phone calls that the company gets.
The modern practice of embalming started in the U.S. during the Civil War, and Brian Yeazel’s family got into the embalming fluid business a few decades later. Frigid Fluid, the company his great great uncle founded in 1892, is also the inventor of the automatic casket lowering device. Brian, who took over in 2013, has discovered that even a business based on life’s only certainty—death—isn’t nearly as steady and predictable as it may seem to outsiders.