Carl Heimerdinger says it isn't uncommon for customers to bring scissors in for sharpening at his family's retail cutlery shop that were purchased there decades ago, by a parent or grandparent.
"It's heartening to know that quality has endured for 100 years or more," said Heimerdinger, 58, the fifth-generation proprietor of Heimerdinger Cutlery in Louisville.
The store was founded in 1861 by his great-great-grandfather, August Heimerdinger, a cutler and sewing machine repairman. Today, the boutique sells high-end scissors, professional kitchen knives and, increasingly, men's straight razors.
Heimderdinger's is just one of more than 1,100 American businesses started more than a century ago that continue to operate in the hands of their founding families.
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With more than 5 million family businesses operating in the U.S., that kind of longevity is rare, says Joseph Astrachan, a professor of management and entrepreneurship at Kennesaw (Ga.) State University who studies family businesses.
Astrachan said the chances that a family business makes it to a second generation are about one-in-three. But to reach a sixth generation? Those odds are 500-to-1. Most century-old family businesses are five generations deep, he said.
About 41% reaching their 100th birthday are in the manufacturing sector, followed by finance and insurance (18%) and retail (12%), says Vicki TenHaken, a professor of management at Hope College in Holland, Mich. She also found that a majority are privately owned (62%) and employ more than 500 people (56%).
After two years of researching century-old family businesses, her database shows 1,150 still in operation as of 2011, though, "I'm sure I have missed many of the small, privately owned ones," she said.
Still, some operations get by on a small staff. In the seaside resort town of Ocean City, Md., the Trimper family arrived in Ocean City in 1890 from Germany by way of Baltimore. Since then, Trimper's Rides has been operating continuously for 122 summers on Ocean City's famous Boardwalk.
Many of the amusement park's 25 year-round employees are part of the extended Trimper family, says Brooks Trimper, 32, a great-great-grandson of founder Daniel Trimper and the park's operations manager. He's also chairman of the board for the company, which includes his father, brother, aunts, uncles and cousins.
"No matter what anyone else wants to tell you, it's a job," Trimper said. "The people I work with happen to be related to me. So there's the same work tension, the same work disputes. It's not like, 'Oh, we're all family, so we get along.'"
Trimper spent summers working at the park. After college, he considered a career in the cruise ship industry. But his grandfather, Granville Trimper, longtime park manager, asked him to join in the family business. He accepted, and hasn't looked back since. "I'm not just running this amusement park, I'm representing my family. My name's on the sign," he said.
In Pottsville, Pa., the Yuengling family has operated its family brewery since 1829.
While many major U.S. brewers have consolidated into international corporations, Yuengling has become America's largest privately owned brewery, said Wendy Yuengling-Baker, a sixth-generation family member.
"Which I think is just astounding," she said, "because we're one percent of the beer market."