Lasting legacies

Nashville’s most long-operating companies forge ahead despite challenges

There is an old adage that 80 percent of new businesses fail within 18 months.

And a ninth will fail during the six months after that.

No doubt, a good idea for a business isn't enough to ensure longevity. It takes a heavy dose of perseverance and more than a little bit of good luck to make a business work.

For a precious few businesses, that good idea and hard work yields a legacy, an institution, an iconic operation. And those legacies can span many decades, if not centuries.

Scattered throughout Nashville are companies that trace their roots to the mid-19th century. Six of those — Nashville Gas, Warren Brothers Sash & Door, United Methodist Publishing House, Levy's, Southwestern/Great American and Sysco Nashville — began operations prior to 1860, surviving the harsh impact of not just two world wars, but a Civil War.

Those half-dozen persisted through not just the normal trials and tribulations any business goes through, but also while an army occupied the city. By comparison, finding low-interest capital or favorable lease terms don’t seem so daunting.

However, running one of these landmark companies presents its own challenges. A recognizable name and respected team has been handed down over the years and that legacy can be a burden as much as a boon.

Hosse & Hosse Safe & Lock Co. began in 1865, at the tail end of the Civil War, on what was then Market Street (now Second Avenue). At the time, A.F. Hosse repaired guns and "all kinds of tools and instruments," in addition to locks. The company moved to Deaderick Street, hung its famous key sign and then moved again to Woodland (the sign came along on the trip to East Nashville), where the company's history is on display — literally — with centuries-old key-making equipment and locks lining the walls.

"We think about [our history] a lot,” says Eric Roberts, Hosse & Hosse owner. “It's a company that's made a lot of transitions over the years. [But] our industry has changed and it ever evolves. It's a matter of keeping up with the new products in the market.”

And while locksmithing has become more technical and computerized, there's a very practical reason why legacy companies like Hosse & Hosse are necessary in any industry. It's not just institutional memory (though that's part of it) and it’s not just the know-how they preserve — it's the know-what.

"We use some of the same equipment that was bought in the late 19th century," Roberts says. "We work on skeleton key locks. Nashville still has those kind of keys kept in original condition. We're probably the only ones who still do that. We service a lot of the cylinder locks from the '20s and '30s."

There's another side to having a business with a deep history, though. Inertia is a powerful force as there is a tendency to keep doing things the way they've always been done. Roberts says Hosse went through such a period — and the plateau lasted a long time.

"We skipped several generations,” he explains. “[The business] was idle for a long time and I think it rested on its reputation. So a lot of people's grandparents know about us, but people in their twenties, thirties and forties say, 'We didn't know you were here.' … People discover us. People come in and say, 'I didn't know a place like this was still around.'"

Art Rebrovick, a long-time Nashvillian who has followed the city’s business history for years, says younger folks “may have heard us [old-timers] mention a name or two”  but that doesn’t necessarily translate to recognition that could be beneficial to a legacy business.

“Whether a younger person is looking for a locksmith, mechanic or doctor, that person will go to friends for recommendations,” says Rebrovick, who serves as a management adviser with Compass Executives. “They learn a different way than we [older Nashvillians] did. We are used to that business sign on Charlotte Avenue or West End but they may not be.”

As such, older companies need to reinvent themselves every so often, he adds.

Compass Executives is only 13 years old but is already looking to update.

“We base a good bit of our business offerings on the experience on our advisers,” Rebrovick says. “But that same ‘gray hair, no hair or dyed hair’ [approach] can be challenged to understand new ways. So we have a concerted effort to recruit folks who are younger and/or have a different perspective.”

Neil Alexander, president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House, says with a legacy come both advantages and responsibilities.

“There are great benefits in momentum, reservoirs of deep experience and brand recognition,” Alexander says. “And there are tremendous assets carried forward such as the marvelous real estate we currently occupy in downtown Nashville. But there are also responsibilities and sacred commitments to hundreds of retirees for pensions and health care benefits that must be cared for many years into the future.”

Alexander notes long-standing Nashville businesses cannot assume their successful history will  guarantee an equally successful future.

“Every day presents the same challenges and opportunities for any enterprise with a clear mission and quality service: We must innovate in providing credible information and spiritual inspiration in ways that are relevant, accessible, affordable and satisfying to the people we strive to serve,” he says. “That requires constant renewal and adaptation. Our history provides a track record, lessons and confidence so that we can press forward with urgency and imagination.”

On the “track record” theme, Warren Brothers Sash & Door Co. opened in 1853 and bills itself as Nashville’s oldest, privately held continuously operating business.

Greg Gatlin, Warren Brothers' sales and marketing manager, says the company attempts to combine its evolution with innovation.

“Just like winning baseball teams have good players, good fundamental skills, and a good game plan, businesses with good people, good products, strong values and integrity have a good chance for success,” he says. “For a business to survive more than 150 years, that business must be able to innovate and evolve too. Warren Brothers strives to approach the future with the same pioneering spirit that guided founder Jesse Warren in the 1850s.”

Of course, most folks — even those like Rebrovick who follow the local business scene — likely are not aware of the goals and approaches of long-deceased founders of local companies. Younger Nashvillians are almost certainly more familiar with, for example, recently opened Third Man Records or Moontoast than they are Warren Brothers Sash & Door or Hosse & Hosse.

Indeed, it seems antithetical that Nashville’s oldest companies hide, to some extent, in plain sight. But like an old key that's rarely used, something would be missing from the local business community without a Hosse & Hosse.

"We're one of Nashville's best kept secrets," Roberts says. "We have experience. We have people that buy stuff off the Internet and get the wrong thing. What they got isn't what they need. We have seen a lot of scammers in the last five or 10 years in our industry, but [customers] can see us and visit with us and we're not just a guy in a truck that shows up. I think that lends more of credibility factor. We're still a bricks-and-mortar shop."