- Associated Press - Sunday, July 20, 2014

GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) - Grover Cunningham was a man of vision. Only 11 years after Henry Ford produced the Model T, the Greenwich man thought the time was right to start an autobody shop in his hometown.

That was 1914, and the same autobody shop, which bears the founder’s name, continues to operate in the capable hands of grandson Bruce Cunningham, and great grandson, Gary Cunningham.

The reason for the shop’s success is each generation’s pride in their work, according to Bruce, who succeeded his father, Evan, and carried on his demand for precision.

“I’ve been here since 1960,” said Bruce, 70, sitting in his small office at 74 N. Water St., in the Byram section of Greenwich.

He said his father made it very clear that customer satisfaction was crucial to the success of the business. “Your father is tougher than anyone else because he expects more out of you.”

The long-term success of the business might be even more surprising because it has been achieved in the same nondescript location where Grover started the shop.

“It’s excellent quality work, and word of mouth is the best advertising you can have,” said Bruce, recalling his father accepted all kinds of work during the slow times. That included projects like painting furniture and refrigerators.

“I did porch furniture for a customer. She wanted pink furniture. There were nearly 100 pieces. I painted, painted and painted.

“We also painted two refrigerators black. It was a way to keep me busy,” said Bruce, who specialized in painting at the business. “I did 90 percent painting. It was trial and error at first. It took a couple years.”

While Bruce spoke in his office lined with business memorabilia and family photos, Gary worked in an adjoining bay, polishing an emergency vehicle brought in by the Round Hill Volunteer Fire Department for front-end repairs.

“I went to Wright Tech in Stamford and took autobody. I really enjoy repairing a car or taking a damaged car and making it new again,” said Gary, 46, who focuses on body work.

A father of three, Gary said he thinks none of his children will want to take over the business. His older brother, Bruce Cunningham Jr., is a teacher and football coach at Wilton High School.

The business, which survived a fire in the 1940s, has allowed Gary to see generations of Greenwich-area families grow up because loyal customers continue to seek them out.

“We see cars my grandfather worked on. They keep coming back. They know you do good work,” he said, adding because they are tucked away in a Greenwich neighborhood and not on the busy Post Road, people have to make an effort to find the business. “They go out of their way to find us. We’re off the beaten path.”

That has not deterred Greenwich resident Rod Saggese, who brought his first car to the shop in the early 1980s.

“We have a car in their shop now. It was hit while it was parked in a movie theater parking lot in Stamford,” Saggese said. “Bruce is tremendously professional. He has been unbelievable and he’s very supportive of his clients. He’ll pursue what’s right. He fights for the deductible and to use original parts — not after-market. I’ve recommended him to many people.”

Saggese said his relationship with Bruce started when their children were playmates.

He attributed the longevity of the business to the family’s innate love of serving customers and the pride in their work.

“It’s in the DNA,” Saggese said.

There aren’t many businesses that have survived a century under the same family ownership, according to Paul Sessions, director of the Center for Family Business at the University of New Haven.

“Anybody that lasts that long in the same family and

Having a succession plan for a family-owned business is important to carry it through the generations, as well as to prepare for the long-term possibility of a sale, he said.

“When a business has been in a family for four generations, it’s like a child,” Sessions said.

Finding employees who are willing to remain with a small business is making it difficult to grow, Bruce said, recalling the days when the shop employed the same workers for 30 to 40 years.

“You don’t have employees like that anymore. There’s no more loyalty,” said Bruce, whose wife, Lynn, has been the bookkeeper for decades.

The business has adapted to changing technology, said Bruce, and shows on a monitor how necessary equipment like frame straighteners have evolved into exacting computerized machines.

“My father was the best frame straightener I ever saw. There were no frame machines - per se - back then. Today, it’s a lot more sophisticated,” said Bruce, who hasn’t lost his penchant for detail. “You wouldn’t do any different repair on a Vega than you would a Cadillac. It’s your reputation. It’s the accomplishment location is very impressive,” said Sessions, whose family operated a business for six generations. “Had they not made their customers happy, they wouldn’t be there.”of doing it right.”

Such dedication is a key ingredient in a business continuing to thrive after a century, according to Marcia O’Kane, executive director of the Greenwich Chamber of Commerce.

“Generational businesses are rare - surviving the ups and downs. It speaks clearly to the support of the community and that the business is providing excellent service,” she said. “It’s so admirable that a company can stay so vibrant. They’ve got a lot to be proud of.”


Information from: Greenwich Time, https://www.greenwichtime.com

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