A Century of Success: Businesses Over 100 Years
Old photographs have a singular ability to evoke nostalgia, to cause one to think “those were the good old days.”
For four local businesses, however, the good old days have persisted for over 100 years, and the good days keep on coming. To these businesses, old photographs and the rich histories that accompany them don’t convey an idyllic, disconnected past; rather, they show promising beginnings that are directly linked to continuing success a century later. Although each business profiled here has a unique story, each one has stood the test of time due to a combination of commitment to their passion, knowledge, business acumen, adaptability, values and customers.
John Stewart Walker, Inc. Realtors
John Stewart Walker, Inc. Realtors (JSW), which was founded by its namesake in 1890, is the oldest real estate firm in Virginia and the fourth oldest real estate firm in the United States. John Stewart Walker was the first real estate broker in Virginia to pass the National Real Estate Board Exam and the first realtor to qualify as an appraiser in Virginia. The firm was founded on 9th Street and remained there until 1970, when it moved to Old Forest Road.
Billy Walker, John’s grandson and principal broker and owner of JSW, recalls that his grandfather and his father, George Walker, Sr. (who also owned the firm at one time) “lived and breathed homes, construction, development and fostering communities.” After working for JSW at the age of 19, going away to college, and joining the Army, Walker ultimately returned to JSW ready to learn and become part of the firm for good.
Whereas his grandfather had listings from Lynchburg to Culpeper, Walker and his father focused more and more on Lynchburg area listings and construction. “At one point we were the largest residential home construction company in town,” Walker says. “We no longer do construction, but we have a referral company and are also a member of Leading Real Estate Companies of the World. Several years ago, we also added Walker Auctions.”
To achieve long-term success, JSW found a balance between staying current and staying true to its core missions. “With the increased technology of our day, we are able to offer even more services for our clients with a lot more detail, speed and convenience,” Walker states. “Things have changed in 126 years!”
That said, Walker asserts that JSW’s “consistencies are why we are successful.
We have respect for all members of our community and have given back as volunteers on every level of service. We have been sought out regularly to join a franchise, but we have consistently realized that we know the Central Virginia area better than any outside marketing group. That is an exception in today’s world and it has served us and our clients well.”
From residential sales to large commercial sales such as the sale of Natural Bridge to a conservation group, JSW is and always has been dedicated to providing excellent service and making a difference in people’s lives. In the future, Walker hopes to see continued growth and a continued focus on making a difference in the community. “I would like to see controlled growth of client-centered, service-oriented agents and brokers who continue to service our community with the utmost professionalism and participation in all aspects of our region,” he says.
Two families have lead L. Oppleman, America’s oldest pawn shop: the Opplemans and the Somerses. Jacob Oppleman and his wife, Lena, started the company in 1890, and their son Ike inherited the business after Jacob’s death. Upon Ike’s death in the 1930s, his wife sold the store to Aaron Somers, who had worked there since he started ninth grade. David Somers, Aaron’s son and CEO of L. Oppleman, began working at the store at the tender age of 12.
Although he seriously considered a different career path, Somers ultimately discovered a career at L. Oppleman was his true calling. “When I graduated from the University of Colorado in 1973, I got waitlisted for a year at T.C. Williams Law School because I applied late,” Somers recalls. “During that year, I worked for my father at the store and became so involved and interested in the business that I decided to not attend law school and to stay at
L. Oppleman instead. I have no regrets.”
David Somers became the president of the company upon his father’s death in the 1980s, and his son Ryan, who has a graduate degree in Gemology from the GIA, is the current president and COO. Somers attributes L. Oppleman’s prevailing success to its ability to adapt to changing needs and wants without changing its stance on customer service and value.
“We have always changed with the times, with the wants and needs of the community, but we have kept our philosophy of high quality customer service and value,” Somers says. “If you treat everyone with respect and offer them good value, they will continue to come back.”
While the company continues to operate as a pawn shop and pawnbroker as it has from the start, its offerings and services have grown exponentially over time. Somers introduced several new services upon entering the business. “When I came into the business, I expanded into doing sound reinforcement and installation for churches and other businesses as well as producing sound for live concerts in the community,” Somers says. “We did the sound in Lynchburg for many artists such as Roy Clark, Emmylou Harris, Charlie Bird, Roy Buchanan, Peter Duchin, and many others. We also expanded into a tax service and began doing internet sales, which continue to grow.”
Ryan Somers’ introduction of online international sales, purchase and sale of estates, valuations, and custom jewelry design has also contributed to L. Oppleman’s continued growth and success.
With their first true franchise store in Staunton, a test store near Detroit, Michigan, and more stores in the works, L. Oppleman continues to forge ahead into the future, and Somers knows the journey will be exciting every step of the way. “It’s actually exciting to go into work every day because you meet and interact with such a wide variety of people and items of all kinds,” Somers notes. “Last year Robert Plan from Led Zeppelin walked through the door. It’s never boring!”
N.B. Handy Company
Nathan Bryant Handy was a man of many talents and vocations. He worked in the hardware industry, owned a newspaper, and served as an elder in the Presbyterian Church, as President of the Lynchburg Family Welfare Society, and as a Police Commissioner, among other roles. On April 1, 1891, he founded N.B. Handy Company, which specialized in roofing; early deliveries of roofing and other supplies were made by horse and wagon. After 38 years in operation, Handy built the 65 10th Street building to house the firm, and it remains the corporate headquarters today. The firm added heating and air conditioning services following the economic boom after World War II, and Nathan Handy retired soon thereafter. N.B. Handy was placed under stewardship until Handy’s grandson, James Christian, Jr., took over in 1970. The company is now in its fourth generation of family ownership.
Today, N.B. Handy has over a dozen branches in the mid-Atlantic and southern United States, its own brand of metal roofing systems called Sentrigard, its own Steel Service Center and Machinery Division, and its own line of roofing and HVAC accessories.
Bruce Christian, one of James Christian, Jr.’s four children and secretary of the Board of Directors and family owner of N.B. Handy, attributes the company’s staying power largely to a commitment to its core values and family-oriented atmosphere.
“Our workplace culture is defined by doing what is right, and that carried over into the way we treat our people here,” Christian says. “We like to say that we’re the N.B. Handy family, and that all of our employees are part of that family.”
Katie Thomas, N.B. Handy’s marketing specialist, agrees that both the single-family ownership and family-oriented atmosphere contribute to the company’s success. “Sometimes when you work with family members, people think that it could be difficult, but in this case it has led to an atmosphere of excellence,” she says. “Everybody wants to keep it [the business] going because we all love it.”
The fact that N.B. Handy has many long-serving employees attests to this devotion. “We have several long-time employees—with 30, 40, and even 50-year careers—which I think says a lot about our passion for what we do,” Thomas says.
According to both Christian and Thomas, approachable leadership and ample opportunities for employee advancement are also factors. “We call each other by our first names, so there’s no hierarchy,” Christian says. “We also try to promote from within and invest in our team.” Thomas adds: “It is a really level playing field. Our CEO, Rosana Chaidez, is really approachable. If you want to do something, you can ask to do it, and they’ll let you do it. They’ll even let you fail and regroup.”
In the future, Thomas hopes that N.B. Handy will continue to “be really consultative in our sales and develop relationships with our customers so that we can always add value to what they’re doing.” She then adds: “Our mission statement is to be the preferred choice of our employees, our customers, and our vendor suppliers. We want to keep moving into that preferred spot through continued excellence and giving our customers what they need.”
Schewel Furniture Company, Inc.
According to legend, Elias Heend, a Lithuanian man who came to America in 1889, could think of only one word when asked for his surname: Schievel, which was the surname of his American sponsor or patron. The bureaucrat taking Heend’s name wrote down “Schewel,” and the rest, as they say, is history.
Elias Schewel opened a small furniture store, Schewel Furniture Company Inc., on Twelfth Street in 1897 and found early success by utilizing his astute business skills. “Elias was a shrewd merchant,” says Marc Schewel, one Elias’s great-grandsons and CEO of Schewels.
“Since much of the furniture at the turn of the century was manufactured in the Midwest, he hoisted the sign ‘Chicago Furniture Bargain House’ over his shop, implying a frugal elimination of the middle man. He also allowed his customers to pay for their purchases over a period of time.”
The succession of Schewels’ ownership continued with Elias’s sons—Abe, Ben and Ike—and subsequently their sons—Elliot, Bert and Henry. Satellite locations sprang up from the 1930s through the 1950s, and the flagship store was moved to a four-story former J.C. Penney building around 1953.
The company continued to enjoy success and opened more stores throughout Virginia and North Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s, and soon Elliot’s son Marc was working at the Lynchburg store. After receiving an English degree from Washington and Lee, Schewel decided to teach English at Appomattox High School. Ultimately, however, Schewel found himself back at Schewels with a changed perspective. “From a mature perspective I discovered a vocation that was challenging, multifaceted, novel, transforming, and addictive and fun. As my father granted me greater authority and responsibility, I looked for, and found, ways to further the company’s growth and progress.”
Following the implementation of centralized merchandising, purchasing, and advertising and installation of a data processing system designed to automate inventory and accounts receivable, the business grew steadily. Dozens of new stores and construction of new 30,000 square-foot buildings in Lynchburg and several other locations demonstrate this growth.
Marc Schewel believes several factors are at play when it comes to Schewels’ longevity. “Consider first the nature of the product,” Schewel states. “While mass merchandisers have managed to monopolize almost every consumer category, home furnishings has remained stubbornly resistant to their encroachment. Handling, storing, and moving heavy, bulky furniture demand specialized logistics. Such systems are incompatible with those employed by mass merchandisers.”
Schewel also cites the company’s self-financing as a factor in its staying power. “By managing its receivables to maximize cash flow and minimize losses, by refusing to compromise its underwriting standards, and by retaining professionals in every store to evaluate, advise, and collect from its customers, the company has been able to thrive as a subprime lender even during the economic downturn,” he notes.
According to Schewel, the most important factor in the company’s longevity is its employees. “The success of any business depends on the dedication, ingenuity, and industriousness of its employees—and on nurturing within each and every one a sense of pride and accomplishment.”
Regardless of future ownership, it is Schewel’s hope that “the company’s next 50 years will be as exhilarating, as rewarding, as fruitful, and as memorable as its first 100.”
By Emily Hedrick