Talkin’ ‘bout my Generation

The Future of Georgetown's Family Businesses

Karen Ohri, Hope Solomon, and Samantha Hays
Photo by Aaro Keipi | www.aarography.com
Karen Ohri, Hope Solomon, and Samantha Hays

Samantha Hays Gushner, The Phoenix

The small back office of The Phoenix is a jumble of papers, family photos and brightly colored do-dads. The single overhead light hangs low over the desk, illuminating the dark hair and olive face of Samantha Hays, the representative from the third generation of business men and women in her family. She has just returned to the shop after spending the morning apple picking with the fourth generation.

“I think I always knew I would end up in the business,” Hays says. “There was a time when I was living in Aspen, and I was skiing and I was really having a great time. I was out there for seven years and I thought, ‘You know, I should get back to reality.’ It’s just such a great business, and such an amazing way to live my life.”

The Phoenix was opened in 1955 by Hays’ grandparents, Betty and Bill Hays, who she continues to draw on for inspiration. The two founded the store with nothing but a station wagon full of folk art brought back from Mexico and a bit of business savvy.

“That tradition of travel and working directly with the artists that we buy from is one of the reasons that I am so passionate about continuing in the business,” Hays says. “We have seen communities grow and thrive through the success of the art that they produce. It is very exciting to be a part of that.” Hays, who started working in the shop when she was 13, now works with the third generation of artists that her grandparents first discovered, as well as newer international artists and retailers.

“I think that because we have been here for so long, the store has an image as ‘that Mexican store,’ when that’s really not the case anymore,” Hays says. “Our heart will always be in Mexico and that kind of relationship is something that we don’t ever want to lose. But I think that what we’ve tried to do as we move forward is let people know that we have this incredible jewelry and clothing collection that isn't just from Mexico anymore.”

Although she is the next rising generation in the family business, Hays still works very much in tandem with her parents, who each take on separate responsibilities at the store.

“I am fortunate to have a wonderful relationship with my parents,” Hays says. “We have great communication and are constantly bouncing ideas off of each other about new lines and the mix that we have at the store.”

Hays largely handles the clothes buying for the store, while her parents buy the jewelry and handle the accounting. Recently, Hays has scaled back her duties at the shop to focus more time on her two children, five-year-old Clara and three-year-old Theo, along with three dogs, two cats and a fish pond to round out her brood.

“There’s a constant feeling of having one foot in both places and feeling like you’re not doing either one particularly well,” she says. “But it seems to work out. It’s nice to have a balance between the two.” Hays says that one added bonus of working in a family business is knowing that someone is always responsible for the store, whether she’s at home with her family or her parents are gone traveling. Of course, that’s not to say Hays and her parents always agree on things. During the recent renovations of the store, tension rose around the old peg board on the walls, which her parents thought to be iconic, but Hays thought was no longer functional.

The walls are now painted a clean, fresh white.

Other changes include fresh paint, more functional displays and 30 solar panels that were recently mounted on the roof in keeping with The Phoenix’s message of social consciousness.

The store’s Oct. 15 trunk show and styling event with Eileen Fisher will also be held with a socially conscious theme, as it will support So Others Might Eat, an organization Hays’ grandmother was passionate about.

The Phoenix 1514 Wisconsin Ave. NW Washington, D.C. 20007 202-338-4404

Hope Solomon, Wedding Creations & Anthony’s Tuxedos

Hope Solomon is a fast talker in pearl earrings and a leopard-print blouse.

At 27, she has a thriving career on Capitol Hill in emergency preparedness, is a highly active member of the Georgetown Business Association and makes it clear that she will be taking over the family business sometime soon with no intention of giving up her passion for politics. Most people who know her describe her as a firecracker.

“Anyone that’s been raised in a family business will know that it’s very difficult to sort of kick the parents out so that you can take over,” she says between sips of San Pellegrino. “Like I was talking to Samantha and Karen and we all have the same sort of issues. No matter how much you get your foot in the door, old dad over there, he’ll never retire. I’ve sort of tried to develop my own career while taking over just so I’m keeping busy.”

Five feet away, Ed Solomon, or “old dad over there,” sits working at his desk and doesn’t seem to take offense to this statement.

The Solomon family business, Wedding Creations & Anthony’s Tuxedos, has been open for 34 or 32 years, depending on whether you ask Hope or her father. The business began with Ed and his wife, Gerri, in 1979 when they opened up a boutique providing bridesmaid dress rentals. Eventually, the store moved on from renting to selling bridesmaid dresses and wedding gowns, finally branching into short-notice tuxedo rentals with more than 400 tuxes in stock.

Solomon grew up with the store playing a leading role in her life. Her crib was in the back of the shop, and she spent her days in the store with her dad.

“I’m an only child, so for me this store is like a fourth family member,” she says. “So, no matter where my passions go, this is my number one priority.”

Solomon says that her current schedule is to work her “day job” on the Hill and spend nights and weekends “moonlighting” at the shop. Although this amounts to a practically 24/7 work schedule, she says that she doesn’t recognize being at the store as work because it’s “just something you do.”

The store, which is small and uses “every square inch of space,” according to Ed, gets much of its business from generational customers: families who got their tux or dress there and are now bringing their children in. They refer their friends to the business, and the circle grows. He notes that for as small as their shop is, they rented out 60 tuxedos last weekend. And the daughter has plans to grow the business further.

“I think the highlight is you have the ability to do whatever you want, whenever you want and however you want,” she says. “It’s very different from having worked in the corporate world where you’re given a direction and then you only have the ability to do that. I like the creativity and reaching out to other businesses and the teamwork in Georgetown. That’s what I find just great. Being able to walk across the street and say ‘Hey, I need this from you,’ or ‘I’ve got this idea,’ and everyone sort of chips in and helps.”

Solomon has already begun to bring accessories into the store, making it possible for brides and bridesmaids to shop in one stop, and plans to incorporate more event planning into their services once she starts working at Wedding Creations & Anthony’s Tuxedos more full time. Her idea is to guide brides through Georgetown weddings, highlighting small businesses and the services they offer. Her goals, however, are not limited to the future of the shop. In her passion for politics she rules nothing out, whether it’s helping others with their platforms or running for a position herself. Her main concerns are for education, as a product of the D.C. school system herself, and the welfare of small businesses. She says that she got her political mind from her father.

“I’m a little Ed,” she says.

Wedding Creations & Anthony’s Tuxedos 3237 P St. NW Washington D.C. 20007 202-333-5762

Karen Ohri, Georgetown Floorcoverings

Karen Ohri, a petite, young blonde, kneels down on the showroom floor of Georgetown Floorcoverings to wipe syrup and pancake crumbs from the face and hands of her 2-year-old son, Jayson.

“I’m ‘ticky,” says Jayson, as his mother gives him a final check before sending him off to play with the carpet samples and few toys lining the walls of the store. Half an hour earlier, he had trailed his mom in to work, announcing to all who would hear that he’d gotten mom to buy him fast food from McDonald’s.

“So, this is a lot of what it’s like,” says Ohri. “There’s good, and there’s bad. You’re always multitasking, Blackberry going off, child screaming in the background, the whole nine yards. But the nice thing, too, is that now the businesses [The Phoenix, Wedding Creations & Anthony’s Tuxedos and Georgetown Floorcoverings] are more established than when our fathers and grandfathers started them.”

Ohri is a wife and mother of three kids, ages two to 13, and is steadily taking on more responsibilities at Georgetown Floorcoverings, the family business which her grandfather first opened their 1417 28th St. location in 1954. Now located at 3233 K St. where they’ve been since 1962, the business specializes in commercial flooring in everything from hardwood to linoleum, although they do some work with residential architects and designers.

Like her father before her, Ohri started to work at the shop regularly as a teenager emptying trash cans, but she helped out around the shop since she was five, answering phones, dusting shelves and labeling samples. In 1998, she began working in the store full time.

As a teenager with two siblings, Ohri never thought she’d be the one to take over the family business. Yet when her brother, the most likely candidate, followed his dream of becoming a firefighter and her sister moved to Minnesota to become a teacher, she found herself next in line.

“I’ve always liked it, but in high school I never thought I was going to run the family business. But as far as my dream job, now it is. I love what I do. And it does allow me some flexibility like bringing this little guy in to work,” she says, patting Jayson who is now slumped against her thigh.

Ohri worked alongside her father, Ronald Swarthout, who is very involved in the business, until last Mother’s Day when Swarthout suffered an aortic aneurism.

“It was the call in the middle of the night you never want to get,” Ohri says. “It was terrifying.”
The family rushed together, her sister flying in from Minnesota that day. Strangely enough, Swarthout had just talked to his doctor about the possibility of an aneurism the day before, prompted by Ohri, whose intuition told her he might be at risk.

“If anything is going to make you get into the ‘what are we going to do in the future’ train of thought, that’ll do it,” Ohri says.

Since then, she has jumped in to take over the payables and many of her father’s other duties. Although Swarthout made a swift and full recovery, Ohri has kept these responsibilities.

“I don’t know if he’s wanting to [retire], but I’ve kind of just continued doing what I’ve started doing because I feel like it allows him to have a life besides thinking ‘every Thursday I’ve got to cut checks and every Friday I’ve got to mail checks,’ ” Ohri says. “It’s been kind of nice for him, I think. And then he’s been travelling. Right now, he’s in Italy, which is huge. He would’ve never been able to go away like this.”

Inevitably, things have changed about Georgetown Floorcoverings since Ohri’s grandfather first opened up shop. The family no longer lives or holds office upstairs in the “Watch Tower,” and her grandfather’s old organ – which he could and did play – is no longer stored in the back room. Yet aside from bringing the business into the 21st century, Ohri is dedicated to keeping as much the same about the business as possible.

“I’m not changing anything besides updating and enhancing,” Ohri says. “I’m not the bratty daughter coming in to change everything and knock down walls. I don’t really want to go and reinvent the wheel too much because dad’s always been a great businessman.”

Most of the changes Ohri has prompted have been aesthetic.

“This is what it looked like before,” she says, whipping out a picture of a dated showroom which, upon second glance, is an older version of the room she’s sitting in now. “We had a tiki-style roof for the samples.”

The warm, muted tones that now decorate the space are aimed at making their residential clients feel more at home in the shop and can use the showroom as a functional space. Yet even without making any major changes, Ohri’s family and business keep her constantly busy.

“The first day of my vacation we went to the beach and my phone rang at seven o’clock in the morning, and my husband said, ‘Why do you even leave it on?’ Well, because you have to! It’s a big responsibility, and I take it very seriously because it is my dad’s reputation and the reputation of the business,” Ohri says. “If something goes wrong with a job, I take it very personally because I just have such respect for my grandfather’s legacy and my father’s legacy. I just want to make sure I keep things going the same way they did,” she says as the youngest member of the next generation plays with stacks of carpet samples, just like his mother remembers doing as a child.

Georgetown Floorcoverins, Inc. 3233 K St. NW Washington, D.C. 20007 202-965-3200

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Thu, 23 Oct 2014 07:03:18 -0400

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