You will love this story about the Joseph brothers featured in Babson Magazine Spring 2016. They run a third-generation business in Norwell, MA started by their grandfather in 1928. It reminded me of a family run gas station in Newport that closed not too long ago. Just like Cheers everybody knew your name, your kids’ names, and always had a dog treat handy. Technology can’t replace everything.
The Joseph brothers don’t bother having business meetings. Many times, they can come to a decision without even saying a word to each other.
Art and John, both ’84, are the third-generation owners of Joseph’s Garage, a Norwell, Massachusetts, institution started in 1928 by their grandfather and then run by their father and uncle. The brothers have worked at the garage for nearly their entire lives. John began when he was 15, around the time he took apart and rebuilt a 1967 Pontiac Firebird, his first car. Art started at the age of 9. One Saturday morning, he was about to settle in to watch TV when he noticed two lunch bags sitting on the table, instead of the usual one for his father. “The next thing I knew I was here,” he says.
With their long, shared histories, the brothers are typically in sync on business concerns and can anticipate what the other might say. “We have the same background, the same set of friends, the same teachers,” says Art, who is two years older than his brother. “It’s almost like we’re the same person. We’re exactly of one mind.” Even if a decision proves difficult, they rarely have disagreements. They silently weigh the pros and cons and know what needs to be done. “We’ve already had the argument in our mind,” says John. “We just give each other a look.”
For a brief time, Art and John Joseph flirted with the idea of not going into the family business. As a senior at Babson, Art bought a nice suit and went to a bunch of interviews. John took a part-time market research gig for a while. But neither took his pursuit seriously. To work with cars side by side with their family was what they wanted to do. “I think we ultimately knew where we would end up, and it would be OK,” Art says.
Joseph’s is as much a business as it is a living piece of their family history. In the cluttered service area sits their dad’s toolbox, Uncle Phil’s toolbox, and a host of cans, boxes, and parts that look as if they were put down years ago and haven’t moved since. “Everything is exactly where we put it, whether that’s this week or 40 years ago,” John says. Art’s office used to be his grandfather’s, and not much has changed. “I’m sitting here looking at the same paneling,” Art says. “It’s harder to change things in a family business because you know the guy who put it there.”
John manages the service area. Just as his Uncle Phil did before him, he oversees the gas pumps and the brake jobs, oil changes, and repair work. “I like working on cars,” he says. “It’s all problem solving.” Art, meanwhile, serves as office manager. Just as his father did, he keeps the books and also sells cars. For decades, Joseph’s was a Pontiac dealership, but then the marque was discontinued in 2010, so the garage now sells used vehicles. Joseph’s loyal customers helped the garage weather the loss of the iconic brand. “We still have some of the same customers who were coming in here when I started,” Art says.
Joseph’s is open six days a week, though it closes a bit early on Saturdays, a tradition started in the 1960s so workers could attend 5 p.m. church services in nearby Scituate. The brothers rarely take a day off. “How do I take a day off?” asks John. “You have to burden someone else.” John believes this is actually the biggest challenge of working in a family business. If you take off at IBM, Microsoft, or some other large corporation, the business simply goes on without you. But if he takes a day off at the garage, he knows his brother and the other workers in the small shop will have to cover for him. “The work doesn’t disappear,” he says.
While Art and John run the garage’s day-to-day operations, they also have three younger brothers, Henry, Herb, and Edward, who cycle through from time to time, helping with towing, pumping gas, and miscellaneous projects. All five brothers began working at Joseph’s as kids, and, as is the custom, pumped gas before moving on to other jobs. Art, who learned to drive by the age of 9 or 10, would help drop off cars with his dad. While his father drove a customer’s car, Art followed behind, driving his dad’s Pontiac. This one day caught the attention of the local police. “The first time I was pulled over I was 12 or 13,” Art admits. The officers told him: “We know you’re a good driver. Just stop waving at us.”
Two nephews currently work at the garage, both of whom also started out by pumping gas. In all, the five brothers have 10 children, but they’re all under the age of 22, so Art is unsure who may ultimately enter the family business. “We’re still in the early innings,” he says.
Until a new generation is ready to take over, Art and John feel a responsibility to keep Joseph’s alive and well. “It’s a stewardship,” Art says. John doesn’t see that responsibility diminishing. “There’s no retirement. There’s no ending,” he says.Sitting in the old office of his grandfather, whose picture hangs on the wall, Art feels firsthand this responsibility as he works on the garage’s payroll. He lingers on the names listed, his and John’s and their other brothers and nephews. To see them all there together gives him great pride. “You look down the payroll,” he says, “it’s cool.”
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