The Family Jewels

The Family JewelsWhen I was a little kid and used to ask my dad about his job, he told me he counted paperclips all day and ordered more when it was time. In actuality, he ran Stusser Electric Company, one of the largest electrical distributors on the West Coast, with branches in Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

The company was founded by my grandfather, Leslie Stusser, who, in 1919, put his shingle up on 3rd and Madison in Seattle and helped light a young and growing metropolis. Sending both his sons to Stanford University (my father Herb, and my uncle Pat), he fully expected his investment to pay off when the boys returned to work in the family business. And that’s exactly what happened.
The Family Jewels

After college (and the military), Leslie’s lads returned home and began working for their dad, eventually growing a small business into a powerhouse, selling to Boeing, helping build the Kingdome, and the Alaska (boondoggle) pipeline.

I worked summers at Stusser Electric, stocking shelves, learning about wattage and breakers, and how to drive a forklift into things. (My favorite activity was going through the salesmen’s desks after hours and collecting gum and Lifesavers.) The summer before college, I was put under the tutelage of a grizzled, bearded, barrel-chested lumberjack of a man named Rab, who ran the wire department. Union all the way (everyone in the warehouse was union… and my dad made sure they stayed there), Rab had been with the company for 20-plus years and taught me about inventory, wire gauge, and how to make the most of your three 15 minute coffee breaks. He also had a way of asking direct (and obvious) questions and expecting direct answers: like whether I could see myself running an electrical wholesaling business. A year away from retirement, Rab was pondering the big picture, and making me think about it too.

In this town, subsequent generations tend to go into the family business: Nordstroms work for Nordstrom’s, Goldfarbs take over Goldfarb’s, Blethens run the Seattle Times, Bartells keep the pharmacy chain going, and, if little baby Gates doesn’t go into the family firm, he’s …well, he’s got billions, so it really doesn’t matter what the little tyke does. The question in our own family was which kid in the next generation – if any – might take over the ship.

My Uncle Pat had three girls, and they weren’t interested in taking over the family biz (especially a macho, sexist one based on male-bonding and chauvinist contractors). We have three kids on our side too – my older sis, Pam, who worked in the business for years, and, though she clearly had the brains, wasn’t never put on the fast-track; the middle brother Alan, who – let’s just say – wasn’t suited for the job (or any job, for that matter). That left me, the Prince, as last heir to take over the family throne. The cards were on the table. The ten-ton elephant in the room was whether I would join after graduating college.

The plan started to go off course when I accepted an offer to attend the University of California at Berkeley. I might have considered the more conservative and family legacy choice of Stanford, but they failed to let me in (perhaps after reading my satirical and irreverent entrance essay).

Like my father’s father, my dad paid for my college education, but our contract was never quid pro quo. Four years of Cal pointed me on a different path than selling electrical supplies – or selling anything, for that matter. My choices after college were between an environmental group (CalPIRG) and Club Med. I chose saving the planet, and my father’s influence was all over that decision – he and my mother introduced me to Mt. Rainier National Park, and so many more awe-inspiring wilderness areas through the day-hikes they forced me to take on weekends.

Looking back, I realize that my father’s lack of pressure over the years was the most noble thing he’d ever done for me. Knowing who I was, he was letting me be me. (His ongoing generosity has also enabled me to be a not-so-starving artist.)

As it turned out, Pops and his brother sold the biz for a bundle in 1993, and it was a win-win for all involved. Where my lack of interest may have driven the empire into the ground, the lack of an heir forced his hand, and got him out just in time. But I can tell you this: if things had turned out differently, and the old man was still toiling away at 76, competing with Home Depot (.com) over pennies, I’m not sure my conscience would have allowed me to stay out of the kingdom.

Michael A. Stusser is the author of The Dead Guy Interviews (Penguin).


Image by: Jos van Galen, SXC

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