There are a lot of challenges in running a family business, and chief among them is keeping the business in the family.
But Centre County is rich with examples of families that have defied the longevity odds.
Only about 30 percent of family businesses, according to the Family Business Institute, survive into the second generation, and 12 percent are still run by a third generation. Only 3 percent of family businesses operate into the fourth generation.
Harkins Family Dentistry in Philipsburg is run by third-generation family dentist William K. Harkins.
Balfurd Cleaners in State College is owned by Bob Fogelsanger and his daughter Monika Mantar, who is a fourth-generation owner, as is Frank Wetzler, of Wetzler Funeral Home in Bellefonte.
The chances of running a company for multiple generations aren’t promising, but Way Fruit Farm, which may be the longest-running family business in the county, has beaten those odds with six generations.
“I’d never thought of that, but wouldn’t that be special?” co-owner Jason Coopey said. “We’ll hit 200 years in 2026.”
Coopey’s wife, Megan, represents the sixth generation of Ways to run the family farm and market in Halfmoon Township. The Family Business Institute offers no statistics for that.
Megan Coopey reflects on her childhood around her family’s business. It was a big deal when she and her sister Sara got to sell fruit at farmers markets.
“That was a big reward when you got dubbed ready to go to the market,” she said. “That meant a lot to us.”
Harkins started out in the family business early on, too, doing small chores around his father’s dentistry practice.
“I started working at 13 or 14 years old, and I just usually cleaned up,” he said. “Have you ever had those models taken in your mouth? Those had to be trimmed, and I learned how to trim them, clean them and model them, but I usually did whatever needed to be done like running the sweeper or getting the mop out.”
Fogelsanger learned from watching his father work.
“When we’d get a new piece of equipment in or if we put piping in I helped him, and I was very good at handing him the tools,” he said. “I started working in the summers when I was 13, and I was doing every job that had to get done.”
Wetzler recalled his father’s advice when he began to work at the funeral home.
“He told me that we had to have compassion and patience with people,” he said. “He always said, ‘It doesn’t cost a nickel to be polite.’ ”
Having a successor
Family-business owners stress the importance of having patience with their children and, even moreso, giving their children the freedom to choose their own careers.
“If our children become dentists, it’s not from any pressure from us,” Harkins’ wife, Michele, said. “I’m a dental hygienist. My husband is a dentist and so were his father and grandfather. I don’t know, but maybe it’s genes. We really just don’t want them to feel pressure, because if you do it you should love it.”
People expected him to grow up to be a dentist, and William Harkins says he loves his work and spends off days in the office. But he said he won’t pressure his daughter Madison, 15, or son William, 13, into taking over the family business.
The Coopeys echoed similar sentiments.
Their children — Emma, 8, Katherine, 7, and Evan, 2 — spend time at the farmers markets and live on the farm, but they’ll make their own decisions.
“My brother, sister and I grew up knowing from our parents that if it’s not something we wanted to do, we didn’t have to,” Megan Coopey said. “My dad is a very passionate farmer and would probably live in a tractor if he could. But my brother, for example, is a computer scientist and loves it. He’s not a farmer, and there wasn’t any pressure for him to be a farmer. We’ve all done what we wanted to do.”
Fogelsanger and Wetzler have no doubt who their successors will be. Mantar, however, wasn’t Fogelsanger’s heir apparent until a few years ago.
She became a guidance counselor, but realized she wanted to continue the family business.
“Growing up, I said I’d never work at Balfurd, and I think that can be a commonality for children with parents who have a family business,” Mantar said. “I wanted to have a choice and make my own path, and I did that. I made my own path, and I loved being a guidance counselor, but I chose Balfurd. There’s a lot of pride involved in this for me.”
She joked that her daughter Joelle, 2, will take over the business and will make her younger twin brothers, toddlers Matthew and Daniel, her first hires.
“I’d love to see them involved, but if not, that’s OK,” Mantar said.
Wetzler’s son Dylan, 21, said it’s his dream to be a funeral director.
“I’ve wanted to do this for as long as I can remember,” he said. “Just growing up around it you get used to it, and just being able to help people that come through those doors is rewarding. Life is always put into perspective ... when you’re a funeral director.”
Wetzler Funeral Services has been in Bellefonte for 120 years, but it started out as a grocery and general store.
It evolved into a funeral home because local families called upon the store to make coffins and to provide wagons for funeral services.
“It was a furniture business my great-grandfather had, and he made a lot of caskets,” Frank Wetzler said. “Eventually, funeral directing came along, and that’s how it evolved into what the business is today.”
Making business-model changes is key to continuing multigenerational family businesses.
Megan Coopey attributed Way Fruit Farm’s long-standing success to each generation building the business.
“I think the big thing that I can think of is that each generation has done something and left the farm in a state that the next generation could build off of,” she said. “My grandfather did wholesale and took it to commission markets in Pittsburgh, but he was also the first one to do retail. My grandmother watched and waited for customers to walk down to the store.”
The Fogelsangers diversified the Balfurd business model in the 1970s.
The rising popularity of cotton and synthetic fibers caused a decline in the dry-cleaning industry. The family discovered another market when a local car dealership approached them about renting uniforms and a restaurant approached them about renting table linens.
“It only made sense to also provide health care rentals as well,” Mantar said. “It’s a good thing they did diversify since today the linen and health care division accounts for 80 percent of our business and dry cleaning is 20 percent.”
Harkins’ business, like any other dental office, has evolved with technology.
Records are no longer kept on note cards, and information can be sent to another doctor in an instant. The quality of X-ray and digital radiography constantly improves. And dental materials have become more specialized.
“Under my name is ‘Tradition. Technique. Technology,’ ” William Harkins said. “The technology part seems to change all the time. ... My father never thought of the technology and the computers sitting in front of us. We have all kinds of digital technologies now.”
Connecting with the community
There are some things a small business simply can’t change, and Harkins, whose dentistry practice has been in business for 105 years, knows that.
“The tradition and technique going back to my father and my grandfather are the same as it’s always been,” he said. “That’s what my father taught me and made sure I totally understood the history of my grandfather and his history, and my Uncle John’s, too, because he was a dentist.”
It’s also about helping your neighbors.
“You find that you can really help someone, and they walk away from the experience happy and healthy,” Michele Harkins said. “That’s satisfying when you turn off the lights and know you’ve helped someone. Sometimes you see the names of who is coming in and expect to see a little kid stand up. Then, a full grown adult stands up with their child in their arms.”
Greeting customers with a name and a smile is important, too, small-business owners say.
“We’re fortunate that we ask our employees to ask for a name and not a number,” Fogelsanger said. “We’ve always prided ourselves in that we recognize customers and believe that really helps us.”
“I think seeing my dad when I grew up made an impression on me and taught me that what you put in is what you get out,” Mantar said. “I remember sometimes someone would call him and ask if he could come to the store when we were closed, and my dad did it. That made it successful.”
Consoling people is at the heart of Wetzler’s customer care.
“A funeral director is something nobody wants to be, necessarily, but I enjoy helping people in their time of need,” Frank Wetzler said. “When people come here it’s usually the worst time in the lives, because someone they love has died.”
And the job hasn’t gotten any easier.
“The older you get you end up burying your coaches, old girlfriends and teachers,” he said. “That’s hard for me. Presenting the flag is very hard for me. All my life I’ve grown up with the people in this community. When you’re in a small town like Bellefonte, you get close to a lot of people, so it’s tough on me, too, but we always try to make it a little easier on people.”
For Megan Coopey, it all comes down to hard work and commitment.
“My dad makes the joke that on the farm no one in the family is ever unemployed,” she said. “In the summers when we were younger and put new plants in, like a strawberry field or apple trees, we all buckled down and picked up rocks and cleared a field. He called that ‘character building.’ ”
There is, of course, another reason some family-owned business thrive for generations: pride.
“I think about my grandpa sometimes, and I wonder if he’d be proud of what we’re doing,” Mantar said. “Everyone that came before me has done so much. They did a wonderful job, and you don’t want to be the generation that stops everything they started. I’ll do everything I can for the business and my kids, like everyone before me.”