The business of building a business from the ground up is no small feat. Particularly for those who have seen their companies through from the very start and successfully passed on a trade and healthy business to the next generation. Few cities see quite as many flourishing multigenerational businesses as Lakeland. Discover the stories of six different family businesses, and how each has been passed down the family lineage and continues to thrive.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN KAZAKLIS
CLEVELAND HEIGHTS ANIMAL HOSPITAL
3710 Cleveland Heights Blvd
Lakeland, FL 33803
WRITTEN BY JOEL HELM
“When I was seven years old, I had my own stool to be able to watch surgeries. It was normal for me spend a heck of a lot of time here,” says Dr. Robert (Bert) Houghton, owner and medical director of Cleveland Heights Animal Hospital.
The clinic, a 10,000-square-foot facility located in South Lakeland, has been in existence longer than Dr. Houghton has been alive. Houghton’s father, Tom, also a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, moved from Miami to Lakeland in 1972. Soon thereafter, Tom and his wife, Debbie, agreed to purchase the hospital from the clinic’s founder, Dr. Jim Daniels. Not long after that, the Houghton family began to grow. They had a girl and three boys, in that order: Jennifer, Mike, Sam, and finally, Bert. The entire family embraced their father’s profession, but especially Bert. “I grew up in a house that was very animal saturated. Steeped in a world with no separation between work and life.”
As that seven-year-old watching surgery, Bert picked a favorite aspect of his father’s job. “I was always excited when my dad would perform a C-section. Everyone there, me included, was handed a puppy. Sometimes, they’re not even awake from anesthesia. Growing up, I got a chance to do that countless times. It was pretty cool.”
As his siblings grew older, Bert was the sole Houghton who followed in his father’s footsteps. The other boys were focused on business and the law, and Jennifer found her calling as a teacher. After graduating from George Jenkins, Houghton chose Auburn University to study zoology. Around that time, a long-time friendship was blossoming into something more. He and his wife, Jackie, both attended the same elementary school, though she was a grade behind Bert. In middle school, Jackie spent an art class working on a masterpiece — an “I love Bert” sign she secretly posted in her locker.
“At that point, I don’t think he knew I was alive,” says Jackie. “We weren’t at the same school, just attending the same youth group at First Presbyterian Church.” Later, after they began dating, Jackie worked at the animal hospital, and joined Bert at Auburn. In late 2003, 20 years after Jackie’s first declaration of love, they were married. Bert laughs, “You’ll have to ask Jackie if it’s OK to print that.”
The newlyweds spent their first year of marriage in Grenada, with Bert finishing his DVM from St. George’s University. After a clinical year at North Carolina State, he interned at the NCSU College of Veterinary Medicine teaching hospital. At the time, he was considering further school, possibly pursuing a specialty. However, on February 6, 2006, life changed.
Tom was home visiting Polo, Missouri, where he was born. Here, he owned short-horn cattle, housing them on adjacent farms owned by his parents and brother, Dean. While working with a piece of equipment on Dean’s farm, the elder Dr. Houghton was killed. He was just 60.
“I kind of always knew this was the trajectory for me,” says Houghton about coming home to be part of his dad’s practice. “Obviously, Dad’s passing accelerated things.”
While the family clung together after their sudden
loss, their business was aided by some unlikely help — competing veterinarians.
The elder Dr. Houghton, known for helping other veterinarians during times of need, was so respected in both medicine and the community that his competition showed up to help in the aftermath of his accident. “I am borne out of a community of veterinarians who work together to provide good development of veterinary medicine,” says Houghton, “and that seems to be the case even today, with so many doctors committed to help promoting each other.”
Soon, Houghton was back in Lakeland, finished with school and ready to practice. “I kind of got thrown into the business of practice ownership,” he says.
Today, the business continues to grow. The hospital employs a staff of 30 but works hard to maintain the values put in place when Tom ran it. “We still function off the same ideals my dad put in place, staying grounded in his ethos, making sure the feel of the practice doesn’t change. Our growth is a byproduct of doing good work and taking care of people and their animals well. I look back at the practice, from when I was a kid … it feels a lot like it does today.”
The Houghtons’ family continues to grow as well, proud parents of two cats, two dogs, and three small children. Their oldest, consequently, is seven. When asked if she has her own stool, Bert laughs. “No, but she does sit in my ophthalmology chair, running the smoke evacuator while we use the cutting laser.”
2965 Barneys Pumps Place
Lakeland, FL 33812
WRITTEN BY JOEL HELM
“Nobody ever said being a parent was easy. Nobody said being a child was easy, either.”
John Curls Senior, chairman of the board of Barney’s Pumps Incorporated, has experience with both. Curls Sr. has two sons, John Curls Jr. and Matt Curls, both of whom he’s brought into the business. His father, Barney, started the business in 1950. “My dad was one of the tremendous success stories out of World War II,” Curls Sr. says. “Tom Brokaw called them ‘The Greatest Generation.’ Lakeland had several [success stories]: Jenkins Lincoln/Mercury, Linder, Harrell’s. My dad started Barney’s Pumps.”
The business, like so many other small business success stories, was born out of Barney Curls’ uncovering an unserved market. “There were no other local pump distributors that did application work. All application work was done in the factories in the Northeast.”
Application work turned out to be a successful model to bring local. Over the next 30 years, Barney Curls steadily grew the business. “In his day, there were no people with any pump knowledge selling pumps,” says Curls Jr. “The whole distribution model had not evolved to where it is today. The only pump experts worked for the manufacturers. To better serve customers, Barney started learning, hiring, and teaching salesman about pumps so we could be local experts and apply the right solutions.”
By the early 1980s, Barney Curls decided he wanted to retire, hiring a succession of presidents. “None of them exhibited a pure absolute commitment of ownership,” Curls Sr. says. “They had not gone through the struggle; they had no dog in the hunt.” At the time, Curls Sr. was working in the industry, but not for his dad. “I did not want to work for my dad,” Sr. jokes, “so I didn’t. I agreed to buy Barney’s Pumps.” In 1982, Curls Sr. bought BPI with 20 employees, generating $3 million in revenue. Revenue, Sr. soon found out, doesn’t equate to profit.
“I didn’t have the money to buy (BPI), so I agreed to a long-term payout.” The Curls agreed to a sales price of $2.5 million over the course of 10 years. “Come to find out, the company had $2,500 in the bank, and a $750,000 debt to People’s Bank of Lakeland.” To make things worse, the note stated that any time Barney Curls did not have majority interest in BPI, the note would be called. “Three months after I bought it, they called it. I didn’t have seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
What Barney Curls didn’t know, and what John Curls Sr. was just then learning, was the succession of presidents had run the business for cash for themselves. “We had three million in inventory on the books. All that inventory was obsolete. We couldn’t sell it. And we had twenty-five hundred dollars.”
Curls Sr. had to have a tough conversation with his dad. “I went to Dad, and I said, ‘Do you know what this is? It’s bankrupt. And Dad came and looked.” Barney Curls immediately cancelled the note he had with his son. “It was too late for me to go back to where I was,” says Sr. “I told Dad, ‘Let me see if I can save it.’
“Paul Norris [now of Bank of Central Florida] was brand-spanking-new at SunTrust, when I went to him and said, ‘I gotta have help.’ And they agreed to take a chance on us.”
Ten years of $80,000 payments later, Curls Sr. and Barney’s Pumps were in a completely different position. They’d acquired another pump manufacturer, sold nearly all their obsolete inventory, and more than doubled in size. “Paul Norris came out here for a barbecue lunch, and burned the mortgage note. Dropped it out on the loading dock. It was a celebration.”
Not long after that celebration came another major addition. In 1994, John Curls Jr. joined the company his grandfather started and his dad resurrected. “I was working for GE making parts for nuclear weapons,” says Curls Jr. “My dad called me and said that the employees wanted to buy the company. If I didn’t come back, then he was going to sell it. So, I came back.”
By the time his son joined his blossoming company, Sr. had taken it to new heights. The company was now generating $10 million in revenue with close to 80 employees — a far cry from $2,500 in the bank and $750,000 in debt. One of the things Jr. hoped to bring to the table, however, was a push towards bringing BPI into the modern world. “Coming back from GE to BPI was like a time warp. I was doing 3D modeling and finite element analysis. Barney’s had one computer.”
Despite being the grandson of the business’ founder and Sr.’s son, Jr. had to prove himself when he arrived. “I started as an application engineer, making $36,000 a year, which was less than I was making at GE.” Curls Jr. went from an application engineer into sales, and from sales to sales management, proving himself along the way. “There’s nothing in life more rewarding than seeing your children succeed,” says Sr.
Succeed, he has. Today, John Curl Jr. is Barney’s Pumps’ CEO, overseeing a new generation of leaders at the company. The company’s long-term President, Greg Riching, recently retired. Riching’s daughter, Kate Marshall, is the company’s CFO. Robbie Pearce, a former BPI applications engineer himself, climbed through company ranks and was named Greg’s replacement. “You need to home-grow your people,” Sr. says. “Now I’m fixing to turn it over to John. He’s going to be the leader. People want to know we have a succession plan.”
“Barney started it. My dad grew it,” Jr. says. “I want to take Barney’s to the next level.”
“It’s been fun,” says Sr. “Nobody said being a parent was easy. Nobody said being a child was easy. But in the end, to see that work … what else would you ever strive for in life, other than seeing your children succeed?
1805 Lakeland Hills Blvd
Lakeland, FL 33805
2410 S. Florida Avenue
Lakeland, FL 33803
WRITTEN BY ANNALEE MUTZ
In 1979, Agnini Family Dental opened its first office near the Southgate Shopping Center. Side by side, Dr. Michael Agnini and his wife, Donna, worked hard to develop and grow the legacy of their business, as well as family. Along with providing comprehensive dental care and prevention, the Agninis today still continue to cultivate a business that serves people and emphasizes the feeling of family.
In 1993, the Agnini Family Dental office relocated across from Tiger Town. About a decade later, the Agnini sons, Andrew and Matthew, both graduated from the University of Maryland and moved back to pursue their careers alongside their parents. The offices were still at this location during the time Andrew and Matthew decided to jump into the business, which was helpful but also made for crowded conditions during a time that the practice was continuing to grow.
“So we were all three working in there, and we quickly learned after three weeks that wasn’t going to work. So we expanded into a satellite office a few blocks away and kind of grew into that,” says Dr. Andrew Agnini. A few years later, the family acquired an office on the south side of Lakeland as well as property where their current location sits. “We built a real state-of-the-art office there and closed down our satellite office,” Andrew says.
Today, Agnini Family Dental is filled with many members of the family. In addition, Dr. Michael and Donna’s daughter, Ashley, joined in 2009 and is heading to Maryland to follow in her brothers’ footsteps.
“I always knew I was coming back,” says Andrew. He’d always wanted to practice medicine, but says, “I made the decision to do dental after a mission trip with my dad and seeing the impact it can have on people.” Around this time, Andrew’s father had a rebirth of excitement for the dental field. “He made a decision to get rid of some of the old techniques and forced himself to learn new technology,” says Andrew. This innovative resurgence is evident throughout their newest facility on Lakeland Hills Boulevard.
Even with all the changes and additions, everything goes back to the Agnini parents’ original vision of being a family practice. “As we grew, we pressed hard to keep that vibe; knowing the patients and caring about them, not just caring about their dental needs,” says Andrew. “We still keep that feeling in the office. As we grow, things are going to be different, and I think we’ve adapted to it really well.”
Alongside the quality of dentistry that the practice provides, Agnini Family Dental is also successful because of their commitment to their philosophy of being family-oriented. As always, working with family does not come without its challenges, but Andrew has witnessed first-hand the great benefits from it too. “You get the best of the best, and the worst of the worst,” he says. “People’s feelings are going to get hurt. It’s challenging at times, but all of that gets outweighed by the fact that there’s no better comfort than knowing that your family is there looking out for you.”
3020 S. Florida Avenue
Lakeland, FL 33803
WRITTEN BY ANNALEE MUTZ
Bob Adams and his cousin both had aspirations as all-star collegiate athletes. “We thought we were hot-shot basketball players and that we could play ball,” reflects Adams, founder of Highland Homes. Adams’ cousin ended up playing for Florida State University. Bob on the other hand? “I didn’t quite make it,” he jokes. But he did make it in other endeavors. Bob would go on to follow his innate entrepreneurial spirit, a strong one that would lead him to having his business, Highland Homes, ranked as one of the top 100 largest builders in the nation in Builder Magazine decades later.
Originally a North Florida boy, Adams earned an MBA at the University of North Carolina and then took a direct commission in the Army. After spending three years as an Army officer, Adams would make the trek back to Florida eventually working for one of his mentors, Jimmy Sikes, at Florida Tile. This is where Adams would meet his business partner, and they would venture off to start a business of their own. “We had a little mobile-home operation that we converted into a modular home, which would then segue into a building in about 1971 called Sunstate Homes.”
This is where Adams’ son, Joel, would first encounter his father’s strong entrepreneurial nature. “My son grew up with me in Sunstate,” says Adams. In 1996, he and his business partner closed down Sunstate Homes and formed Highland Homes. This is when Joel would have his first hands-on experiences in the business including helping mow lawns and filling jobs as was necessary. Today, Joel is a vital part of the business. “He’s been a huge part of our success,” says Adams.
This dynamic father-and-son duo has complemented each other in a number of ways. “We have a lot of similar traits. A lot of comparable skills. A lot of opposite skill sets that complement the business,” Joel says. Growing up around his dad’s former business, Joel had a basic understanding of how their roles would function whenever he joined the business. “He focused more on sales and marketing, and I focused more on operations,” Joel says.
“Joel is more of a true CEO, as opposed to me being entrepreneurial,” says Adams. “He’s a better delegator than me.
“It’s been complementary and empowering,” Joel adds.
Since 1996, Highland Homes has seen tremendous growth. Since their establishment, they have built over 7,000 homes in Florida. They were also ranked the #5 largest home builder in Tampa Bay for two consecutive years and the #80 largest builder in the nation in Builder Magazine’s Builder 100 list in 2017.
The duo believes that what’s propelled their business has been their ability to integrate some of their personal values into the workplace. “My dad’s always been a successful, hardworking, and driven entrepreneur. My earliest recollections of him have been in that environment. So that’s why we’ve been successful,” says Joel.
As father and son, they believe this business endeavor has been a rewarding one but not without its challenges. However, they are both thankful for the opportunity to journey through it together. “It’s rewarding to me to watch Joel emerge and become a predominant force in the business,” says Adams. “The fact that he is my son, too, is just another positive.”
RICHARD C. FOX PLUMBING
5811 Floy Drive
Lakeland, FL 33810
WRITTEN BY ANNALEE MUTZ
Richard C. Fox Plumbing was first established in 2000, but the heart behind this business was originally developed many years before in a 12-year-old boy who admired his grandfather. “My grandpa was a plumber; he had his own company. My father was a plumber, and he had his own company. In short, that’s what led me here,” says owner and founder of Fox Plumbing, Richard Fox. Fox also has many extended family members who are in the plumbing industry. “We’re just a plumber family,” he says. Originally from Cocoa Beach, Fox has called Lakeland home for a little over 40 years.
When Fox was barely a teenager, his parents decided he would live with his grandfather during the summers as a means to ease a rough economic time for the family. That’s where Fox first encountered plumbing as a profession. His grandfather was a plumber, and Fox would help with jobs at the age of 12. “That’s just where I started to like the job,” he says.
Fox decided to make a career out of this childhood nostalgia. After working for a number of plumbers in Lakeland, he decided to go off on his own. “I decided I didn’t want to work for a plumber; I wanted to be self-employed. It’s just my nature,” says Fox. So in 2000, he launched Fox Plumbing. “I went out on my own with no money. I bought a used pickup truck at Bartow Ford.” Although self-employment was the ideal for Fox, it did not come without its hardship. “We struggled to make it through. At first, we were doing really good … but [at one point] we lost about everything.” Yet, he stuck it out. “I had six trucks and lost all but one.” However, Fox Plumbing did see it through and is, today, a thriving business with five trucks and six employees.
Among those six employees are Fox’s sons, Joshua and Tyler. “Joshua, my oldest son, is going to take over the business,” Fox says. Although they both had drastically different educational pursuits, Joshua and Tyler’s journey to the family business has very similar undertones as their father’s. Joshua has a degree in nuclear medicine, and Tyler, the youngest son, has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Yet, both sons saw the life their father created from the family business and desired the same for their own. “They just decided they wanted to continue the family business,” Fox says.
With one of Fox’s stepsons and Fox’s brother also working for the business, there are a total of five relatives in the company. There are for sure pros and cons when it comes to a multi-generational business. “It’s a family business, and we enjoy it,” Fox says. “It can also be rough having family work for you. They understand that I’m their father and brother, but they don’t always understand that I’m also their boss.”
However, this tension is what gives Richard C. Fox Plumbing the dynamic of a business that continues to thrive. “In the office, they fight me every day. But it’s productive fighting,” Fox says. With so many members of the same family on the same team, everyone values the name of the business and the reputation it holds in the community. Because of this, everyone strives to work with excellence and provide a service that the Fox family can be proud of.
2633 S. Florida Avenue
Lakeland, FL 33803
WRITTEN BY ANNALEE MUTZ
Bruce Phillips’ calling into the hardware business was one that would take an entire childhood to truly discover. At four years old, Phillips was first exposed to the hardware business, helping his dad around the store in Winter Haven. At age six, he was handing out yardsticks at the front registers at, what was at the time, the new Lakeland Crowder Brothers.
After attending Polk Community College, Phillips and a few of his friends decided to move to Cocoa Beach. It was there that he worked his way up to an assistant manager position at the Cocoa Beach Ace Hardware at age 21. By age 23, “It was solidified that hardware was what I was born to do with my life,” Phillips says.
In 1990, he started traveling back to Lakeland on the weekends to help his dad manage the store. “I was very blessed to have had the opportunity to work side-by-side with my dad in the hardware store for over 25 years.”
His family’s hardware history dates back multiple generations. His great-grandfather and grandfather owned and operated I.W. Phillips & Co., a hardware wholesale company. His dad worked for this same business, switching to more of the retail side of the business in 1972. Phillips’ Uncle Dubby stayed in the wholesale business when Ace Hardware purchased the assets of I.W. Phillips in the 1970s; he then became the warehouse inventory controller for the Ace Hardware Tampa warehouse. Being a fourth-generation Florida hardware businessman, “I was born with hardware in my blood,” says Phillips.
However, his love for the retail industry was not solely developed through his father’s side of the family. “I also get a lot of the ‘retail genes’ from my mother’s side of the family.” Being the only grandfather Phillips knew, his mom’s father owned and operated Duncan Bros. Tire Company, a chain of retail and commercial service tires in Virginia.
Since the beginning, Crowder Brothers has strived to provide quality in every aspect of its store, from providing top-notch customer service to quality products to a convenient and enjoyable shopping experience. He is thankful for his family’s long and rich history with the hardware industry. “Being a functional and contributing component of our community is vital to our success,” Phillips says. “[There’s] a great sense of pride in continuing a historical tradition of family involvement in the hardware industry; [a] longing to carry on that tradition.”