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Monday, March 29, 1999
 
Running a family business has its own unique set of challenges

by Tyrone Beason
Seattle Times staff reporter

In some ways, Doug Norwood and Brian Boyett lead parallel lives.

Both came of age in their families' businesses and eventually took them over.

In Norwood's case, the business is a landmark Pioneer Square toy store opened by his father in 1972.

Boyett runs the oldest clock- and watch-repair shop in Seattle, Ballard Time Shop, started by his grandfather in 1925.

But where Norwood had to learn to love working under his father at Wood Shop Toys, Boyett knew as a teenager that he was bound to follow in his grandfather's footsteps.

Like thousands of small-businesses owners, both men have found that running a family business comes with a unique set of challenges. But neither would have had it any other way.

Sense of belonging

Two signs hanging near the checkout counter at Wood Shop Toys set a tone for the Norwood family business right away.

One says: "Help wanted! Gentle but somewhat nasty ogre to help control permissively reared children."

The other reads: "Avoid Embarrassment - Adults wishing to purchase toys for their own use may receive them in a plain brown wrapper at no extra charge."

In truth, there is no reason to walk on eggshells inside this toy store. From the moment you enter, you are one of the family.

As a family-owned business, Wood Shop Toys possesses an independence of spirit that some people find in short supply at large toy-store chains.

"We don't have a department store telling us what to do; we don't have a merchandiser telling us what to sell," Norwood said. "We hold the place very close."

The business is not dictated by the bottom line, Norwood said. When difficult decisions have to be made, "we do it from here," he said, patting his gut.

Still, Norwood, with an assist from his mother, Marcia Norwood, must be very careful choosing which goods to sell, to prevent overstocking less popular toys, yet having just enough of the hot items that keep customers coming back.

Even though the life-size wooden "dancing lumberjack" still stands on the sidewalk outside the store, wooden toys now account for less than 10 percent of sales, Norwood said. His customers these days want Beanie Babies instead.

At 37, he runs the shop with the gusto of a grown-up child in an overstuffed playroom.

It's a talent he picked up as a teenager when his father, Will Norwood, controlled things. The adolescent Norwood would perform puppet shows for patrons. Soon people came to the store just to see his routines.

"I had my own stage behind the front counter, and I still do," Norwood said.

But while Norwood says he always loved being part of the store, after high school he had reservations about working for his father. He wanted to establish an identity and livelihood of his own.

Norwood says the allure of spending lots of time with loved ones, however, finally convinced him to delve into the business.

Slowly, he went from cleaning up and stocking shelves to becoming more involved in the business as his father moved toward retirement.

By the early 1990s, the health of both of his parents began to deteriorate. Adding to the personal problems, the store's sales were slipping. The fate of Wood Shop Toys rested mainly on Norwood's shoulders. But he was newly married and planning on starting a family.

The Norwoods met with a broker to discuss selling the store but ultimately decided against it. The store was a part of the family by then.

"We never could pull the trigger," Norwood said.

In the same week four years ago, Norwood's first child, Marlena, was born, and his father underwent a heart transplant. But Norwood was determined to make everything work. Norwood's mom, who was struggling with cancer, stayed home with his father, while his own wife, Susan Norwood, worked. Norwood took care of the baby at the store.

The experience drove home the true meaning of "family business."

"I'm proud of the fact that I was able to help when they were having hardship," Norwood said of his parents, whose health is better now.

Today, Norwood is the legal owner of Wood Shop Toys. But in a family business, legalities often cannot supersede the loyalties in one's heart.

"From the emotional side of things, it will never be just my decisions," Norwood said, "not as long as both of my folks are still around."

"We've been doing this so long, we know what each person's going to think," Norwood added.

Despite the success of running Wood Shop Toys with family, Norwood doesn't envision his two children taking over the store when he retires.

"I would love for them to be able to have the experience of the store," he said, "but when it comes time for them to choose a career and a life path, I want them to have a passion for something that I didn't."

The more things change

Brian Boyett's Icelandic grandfather, Johann Straumfjord, a watchmaker by trade, put up a message board of his own for customers at Ballard Time Shop. The little blue-velvet sign read, "We hope to please you always."

It's a simple strategy that has kept the repair shop going for most of this century, and Boyett is determined to preserve that tradition into the next.

Boyett purchased the shop from his grandfather for $7,500 by making monthly payments to him in the late 1960s. Unlike Doug Norwood, he knew at an early age his life would revolve around mechanical timepieces. Boyett, 51, started helping around the shop when he was 12 or 13.

"I pretty much learned by taking stuff apart, no formal education," he said. "I always had a fascination with it, watching grandpa hunched over the workbench fixing watches."

"After a little while, he saw that I had a love for it and kept after me," Boyett said.

Later, Boyett would help his grandfather set up grandfather clocks for customers of the old Fredrick & Nelson department store.

"We used to do house calls" in a big 1964 Lincoln, Boyett recalled. "I drove and he told me to slow down."

One of the toughest aspects of taking over a family business that has been run a certain way for years is dealing with changes, Boyett said.

In the mid-'70s, as rents rose and the cost of timepiece parts increased, he made the difficult decision to raise the shop's prices. Inside, it bothered him a little.

"Grandfather would never charge much," Boyett said. "He didn't want to lose any customers."

In the end, he said, "I think it made his heart feel good to see that I was taking control."

Now Boyett's daughter, Tracy, does repairs and helps customers part time at the shop. She practically grew up there.

Boyett's wife, Donna, also works at the shop. They say the experience of working together has made the whole family stronger.

The Boyetts say two qualities are needed to run a business with family members: patience and an ability to forgive when conflicts arise.

"We leave it right here," Donna Boyett said. "We never take our work home."

Tyrone Beason's phone message number is 206-464-2251. His e-mail address is: tbeason@seattletimes.com

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