Decades-Old Family Locksmith Shop Among Thriving Small Businesses In Alabama's Wiregrass Region

Sept. 16--An injury former police officer Bill Warren said he suffered while chasing an alleged drunk 20 years ago changed both his life and his career path.

Warren, owner of Warren's Locksmith in Ozark, said he established his business after the incident.

"It's tough -- sometimes you can't get to customers quick enough and you get backed up, but another day you might not do anything and wonder how you gonna pay the bills," Warren said.

"You add the way rules, licenses and taxes have changed and you can see business is run much different than it used to be."

While Warren said times have been tough over the last two decades, his business is among dozens of family-owned businesses throughout the Wiregrass that have survived for years in an ever-changing economy.

According to Family Enterprise USA, a non-profit organization that gathers family-owned business statistics, a total of 5.5 million family firms exist in the U.S. and generate 57 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.

The businesses employ 63 percent of the nation's workforce. An estimated 35 percent of the businesses are Fortune 500 companies, according to Family Enterprise USA.

While many family-owned businesses have succeeded in Alabama, some others have either staggered or closed in the midst of the most recent recession three years ago. According to the Family Business Institute, only about 30 percent of family-owned businesses made it past the founder's generation, with just 12 percent surviving for a third generation and 3 percent to a fourth generation or beyond.

Matters affecting the success of family and small businesses have included issues with tax brackets, abilities to secure loans and the willingness to diversify markets with changes in technology.

Kirsten Negard of The Castle Plaza in Daleville, which encompasses Ingrid's Jewelers, the Castle Cafe and Ingrid's Too, said the company went global about three years ago and also incorporated social media into its marketing campaign.

The Castle Plaza was opened by Negard's mother Ingrid Strange, a German immigrant who said her family owned multiple businesses before.

Negard said the plaza thrives as a result of Strange's quality customer service to the community, as well as Strange's willingness to allow the business to evolve under Negard's leadership.

While Negard said the family experienced some of its greatest challenges during the recession three years ago, she said the businesses' best years have likely been the ones right after the recession.

"In order to succeed in a business you have to know your customers," she said.

"In the last three years (Strange) allowed my husband and I to come in and add social media as well as a website that can sell jewelry all over the world. Because of that diversity, we've been able to reach out beyond Fort Rucker and the local community."

Negard said the plaza has also sought to employ military wives who often remain unemployed because of constant moves, and that longtime workers, like Allen Tice, have helped the company grow.

Kay Kirkland, executive director of the Daleville Chamber of Commerce, said several family-owned businesses in Daleville make up a noticeable amount of the city's annual income.

"We're very blessed not only because of the resources but also because the quality it adds to the community to have so many successful businesses that have grown from generation to generation," Kirkland said.

Steve Drown Jr., co-owner of The Diner in Daleville with his father since 1996, said a positive mentality may be what keeps the business level in hard times.

"There's a philosophy out there that if you hear something for so long, eventually you start believing it," Drown said.

"Even if the economy was OK and you continued to hear on the news that it wasn't, then there are people that will believe that it's true. I say that our business is good, and a lot of it truly is the result of the support we get here locally and from Fort Rucker."

Warren said his business has suffered over the last several years as a result of fewer dispatch calls due to wrecker companies' capabilities to unlock cars while providing other services.

But Warren said his key to survival has been providing a reliable service with which residents throughout the Wiregrass have grown accustomed.

Warren said he also has faith.

"Since I've been here I've tried to do things to help people, like never charging anyone to open a vehicle with a child for example," he said.

"The way I see it, people are God's children, and if you look out for God's children, you'll get rewarded some way or another down the line."

Family-owned businesses

-- Are estimated at 5.5 million nationwide

-- Generate 57 percent of U.S. gross domestic product

-- Employ 63 percent of nation's workforce

-- Made up of 35 percent of Fortune 500 companies

Source: Family Enterprise USA

Copyright 2012 - Dothan Eagle, Ala.