There’s an old saying that a family business is either the worst or the best experience of one’s life. As someone who started a company with her mother and sister over thirty years ago, I’ve realized that the truth in that statement comes down to your definition of business and your personal, family, and professional goals.
In the early 80s, my mother, Lee Gravely (or “Momma”), and my father planned a trip to Italy. Unfortunately, my father passed away before they got to make that special trip. A very respected businessman, my father had been president of China American Tobacco Company in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. His grandfather had started the company around the turn of the century, and then my grandfather took over the company with his brother, and subsequently my father and his cousin took the reins. Because tobacco was known as a “man’s world,” there was never any discussion of the next generation, my sister and myself, eventually taking over, and so my father sold the business when he became too unwell to run it.
After my father’s death, my strong and spirited mother decided that she still wanted to get to Italy. She invited Frances and me, and off to Italy we went! Momma had read about the San Pietro Hotel in Positano in a magazine, and she made a booking for us to stay there. On our first day in that beautiful hotel, we had lunch in their dining room. When our food was brought to our table, we were immediately, completely enchanted by the dinnerware upon which it was served. With typical Gravely curiosity, we asked where the charming mix-and-match plates came from, and we learned that a nearby family-run factory handpainted them. We made plans that instant to visit the factory the next day.
To make a long story short, that visit to the factory turned us into importers. We decided to buy as many plates as we could to bring back to America to sell. That family trip to Italy launched VIETRI, named in honor of that factory’s town, Vietri-sul-Mare, and a play on the Italian words “tre vite,” or three lives, in 1983.
Even though I was the younger sister, it was decided that I should be President. I was single, I had retail experience, and I had the most time to commit to the company. A wife and mother, Frances was Vice President of Marketing.
Our goal was the same: we wanted to design, import, and wholesale handturned, handcrafted Italian products to the best specialty stores in America. We would learn everything we could about Italian culture and ceramic tradition. We would learn the language. We would build a company on family values of strong ethics, respect for one another, dining together and being together, and having a lot of fun! In terms of running a family business, our philosophy was that no matter what, we were family first. If difference flared, we would work very hard to come to consensus.
We had no business training, and so we knew we could benefit from the help of a Board of Directors. To form that group, we asked people who had family business experience, those who had succeeded, failed, and gotten back up again, those who knew about the large, corporate world, and those who had experience in wholesale distribution. Above all, however, we chose people who shared our vision and mission in life.
Momma was not involved in the day-to-day business. It was the sisters together – Frances and Susan!
We learned all the parts of this business that we could not have begun to anticipate when we decided to start the company. Over the years, we have certainly experienced growing pains and challenges. At times, it was difficult that the younger sister was the one in charge of the company. Sometimes we got to be so busy with our work that we neglected to spend as much time together just as sisters as we should have. We argued sometimes, but we knew without a doubt that at the end of the day, VIETRI would not come before our sisterhood.
It has been a great journey. Frances is retired, but she still travels to stores across the country for VIETRI events. Always the more charismatic one, Frances is loved wherever she goes! I continue my VIETRI journey and am very pleased that Lee Frankstone, Frances’s son, has joined us. He grew up with VIETRI. He worked for other companies, went to Kenan-Flagler for business school, and then decided (or realized?) that VIETRI was in his blood. He is a great addition, and it is a wonderful feeling knowing that VIETRI will continue with another generation!