When Lehan Drugs opened in DeKalb in 1946, the store’s phone number contained only three digits.
And when U.S. automakers stopped producing cars during World War II, DeKalb car dealer John Manning made do by buying school buses to transport migrant workers to work.
As competitors have cropped up and the economy has fluctuated, it’s rare that some businesses have survived as long as 50 or even nearly 100 years. What’s kept some around longer than others is the ability to adapt to fast-changing markets and economic environments, whether it’s investing in new technology or getting creative when times are tough.
For Lehan Drugs and Brad Manning Ford, both of which have been around for more than 50 years, a strong family investment doesn’t hurt.
“I try to think about how to keep business going for my grandson,” said Pat Manning, owner of Brad Manning Ford in DeKalb, which has been around for 92 years. “And that’s how my sons look at it.”
Brad Manning Ford started as a Chevrolet dealer when it first opened in Rochelle in 1920. The business moved to downtown DeKalb in 1956.
The years haven’t been as kind to other area car dealers. Pat Manning remembers competing against as many as 16 car dealership owners in the DeKalb and Sycamore area 30 years ago. That number has dwindled to three today, he said.
With competitors all over the area, Lehan Drugs is constantly striving to set itself apart from everyone else. In its early years, the drugstore stayed ahead of the times by operating a restaurant and soda fountain.
In 1995, the pharmacy took a big risk and stopped selling tobacco products, which ended up having a very positive effect on the business climate. Aside from offering a free delivery service, Lehan Drugs also has shifted its focus to growing its home medical and women’s health departments.
“We’re always in transition, but I guess that’s a good thing,” said Tim Lehan, who owns Lehan Drugs with his wife, Ann Lehan.
That’s one of the qualities that’s vital to a thriving business, especially in this economy, said Rose Treml, executive director of the Sycamore Chamber of Commerce. She said it’s imperative that business owners adapt to changing technology and culture, and that they know how to effectively implement changes.
“They are action-oriented, proactive and always looking for ways to differentiate themselves from their competitors and others in the community,” Treml said.
Businesses that have lasted 65 to 90 years under a single family, such as Lehan Drugs or Brad Manning Ford, are few and far between these days.
Matt Duffy, executive director of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, said several businesses have been around DeKalb for a number of years, but have changed hands or been bought out by other organizations. DEKALB Genetics Corp., for example, has been around for a century, but it operates today as Monsanto.
Denise Schoenbachler, dean of the College of Business at Northern Illinois
University, said that’s a popular trend today.
“The goal today is to take the business to a certain point and then get it sold,” she said. “It’s a much shorter vision.”
She said many public companies that start up today operate on a quarterly basis. She used the quickly fluctuating stock market as an example of how reactive markets are on a short-term basis.
“You can’t have a long-term vision if you have to think in quarters,” Schoenbachler said.
Pat Manning believes fewer business owners today think in terms of generations, which is why he feels his family has been able to keep a business in operation going on 93 years.
“When you’re dealing with a customer who has a problem, you’re not thinking of short-term solutions,” he said. “You want business to continue.”
There’s also something about passing a business from generation to generation that Pat Manning takes a lot of pride in. So do his sons, Patrick and Ben Manning.
“It’s awesome to have some older customers who knew my grandfather or great-grandfather,” Patrick Manning said. “It’s a very fun experience to have the legacy.”
Several Lehan Drugs employees also are continuing what their grandparents and great-grandparents started decades ago. Tim Lehan believes it’s the younger generation that will help the business evolve into what it needs to be to compete and thrive in the future.
“It’s different here,” he said. “It’s your livelihood.”
“You want to see them do their best and let them grow in a certain direction,” said Terri Lehan, manager at Lehan Drugs.
Both businesses said another characteristic that likely sets them apart from other companies is that they treat all their employees like family, whether they’re related or not.
As more venture capitalists and larger companies continue to buy smaller businesses, Schoenbachler expects to see fewer and fewer long-standing, family-operated businesses in the future.
“It’s not good or bad,” she said. “Just different.”