100 Years Strong

. February 2, 2015.
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by Jordan Killam photos by Jeff Jones

Around Toledo, driving past empty strip mall plazas, “FOR RENT/SALE” signs and think that longevity in commerce is a distant memory. These businesses have prospered for over 100 years, demonstrating hard work, passion, patience and ingenuity. (Part I of II.)

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Haas-Jordan, est. 1899

Founded as the Hull Brothers Umbrella Manufacturing Company in Norwalk, OH, the company relocated to Toledo in 1903. By the 1920s, Hull Brothers had become one of 10 leading umbrella manufacturers in the country.

What set their product apart from the competition was a  patented design that allowed consumers to easily interchange ferrules and handles. Cloyd Haas joined the company at age 14, and eventually purchased an ownership interest in 1928. Shortly after, the company was renamed Hull Brothers & Haas Umbrella Company.

In 1932, Haas approached William H. Jordan, owner of a New York-based import-export firm, and proposed the two businesses join forces. The two companies merged in 1933, creating the Haas-Jordan brand name we know today—a brand so strong that it survived World War II, when more than 80 percent of American umbrella manufacturers closed shop due to steel rationing. In Toledo, the company adapted during the war by producing garments for the armed forces.

In 1942, Haas-Jordan produced the first American-style golf umbrella. In 1959, the company became the first manufacturer to silk-screen logos and text onto umbrellas. They continue to be leaders in the industry to this day.

Mike Waltz, Director of Golf Sales and fourth-generation family employee, credits the longevity of the Haas-Jordan brand with two key components: core values and leadership. He said the fact that customers continue to choose Haas-Jordan in today’s contemporary consumer environment makes his work all the more satisfying. And, he feels secure in his company’s legacy going forward, remarking that  “Haas-Jordan is still the only licensed umbrella of the Professional Golf Association of America (PGA) . . . I don’t expect that to change over the next 100 years.”

The company’s ties to the golf world were solidified when legend Byron Nelson became the first ambassador of the Haas-Jordan name, as he went on sales calls to major retailers between golf matches during his historic tour victories. In 2004, The World Golf Hall of Fame debuted the Byron Nelson Exhibit. Nelson requested that one of his Haas-Jordan ties be sent to the museum, which Waltz had the honor of delivering personally. “I was very fortunate to meet Mr. Nelson before his passing a couple years later,”  Waltz said.

Printing capabilities have kept pace with the times, and Waltz has accepted changes gracefully by adopting new technology as needed. “We create functional rain umbrella products that are also billboards with visually stunning color and creativity,”  Waltz said.  “Our customers shouldn’t let the rain get them down. We don’t!” ‘

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Gross Electric, est. 1910

In 1910, George J. (Joe) Gross founded Gross Electric. During the early years, lighting was not the sole business focus, as the company, in addition to lamps and lighting fixtures, sold mixers. Gross Electric also sold mixers, toasters, radios, and other small appliances in addition to lamps and lighting fixtures. By the mid-1950s, the store expanded its showroom product lines to include large appliances and televisions, and a wholesale electrical supply division was also established.

After the death of Joe Gross in 1959, his son, Richard Gross, assumed the top leadership role and began offering products to commercial and industrial markets, in addition to its already successful residential product line. Gross Electric found the most success with its lighting products, and stopped selling other appliances in 1963.

Always a family-run business, Gross Electric remains so to this day. Laurie, Richard’s daughter, joined the family business in 1975 and became President in 1992. Her brother, Joe Gross, took on the role of Vice President in 1997.

The third-generation Grosses brought the business into the computer age, and are currently offering services such as lighting energy audits, lighting design, light bulb and ballast recycling, and lighting fixture repair and restoration.

Sue Sweeney, Director of Marketing, cites the company’s small size as one of its secrets for staying relevant. With fewer internal politics and red tape to navigate, staying on-trend and forecasting what’s next to come in the world of lighting is much easier. Many Toledo residents have come to know the Gross family name and prefer to buy locally. “It gives us the personal touch with our employees and customers,” Sweeney said.

A lot of family-owned, consumer-driven small businesses cite the internet and big box retailers as huge game changers, and Gross Electric is one of them. At one time, Gross Electric was the number-one appliance dealer in Northwest Ohio. During  the Christmas season, everyone in the family had to work to meet the demands of eager customers. Relatives from Chicago were even brought in to help at the store. However, the company can still compete today because they offer such unique products at a wide range of price points. That, combined with the work of helpful employees whom Toledoans have grown to know and trust over the years, have kept Gross Electric in business. “We offer a level of customer service our competitors can’t match,” Sweeney added.

Lighting technology is constantly changing, and Gross Electric continues to work with area businesses to ensure they have access to the best energy-efficient options. “When you consider that the fluorescent light bulb became available in the mid 1940s and it took 70 years for another technology [LED] to become an option, who knows what might be available in the next 70 years? But if it’s out there, we’ll know about it,” Sweeney said confidently.

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Sam Okun Produce Company, est. 1914

Although Sam Okun Produce Company has been in business for over 100 years, Toledoans might not realize we have a locally owned produce distributor downtown. It all started in 1914, when Sam Okun moved to Toledo. His oldest sister, Fanny, a Lithuanian-born New Yorker, had visited Toledo and described it as an ideal place to raise a family and earn a living. His two older brothers remained in New York. With only a horse and a wagon, Okun set up a retail grocery business across the street from a synagogue on Canton Street. He later purchased a truck to transport products for the Gendron Wheel Company (a velocipede, bicycle, and tricycle business) throughout several states. 

Shelly Okun, president of Sam Okun Produce and great-granddaughter of the company founder, remarked that he was carrying a lot of produce. He quickly figured out what people wanted to eat, and built his business from there. Okun’s biggest route at the time took him from Chicago to New York. Along the way, he would fill his truck with local fruits and vegetables. It was this action that would one day transform into today’s Sam Okun Produce Company.

When selling produce really began to grow, Sam took on the wholesale side of the business. His wife, Rose, spearheaded the retail end of the business, while also raising five children. Unfortunately, the demands of the retail side of the business forced it to close. However, the wholesale division thrived and Sam Okun began to operate a small market on the corner of Cherry Street and Spielbusch Avenue. He then moved the business to a building on the east side of Huron Street—Fifth Third Field occupies the space now. Sam Okun Produce has occupied its current building on the west side of Huron Street since 1946. This location brought with it the advent of the company’s first refrigerated cooler. The Okuns claim that the business had the first-ever deep freeze in the state.

In downtown Toledo, grocery stores run by Jewish families were prevalent. The vast majority of Sam Okun’s business came from supplying those stores. Today, while big box stores drive the retail grocery market, the Okuns remain committed to supplying  independent grocers.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect  of the Sam Okun Produce Company is its continued familial tradition, as direct descendants of Mr. Okun still serve as part of the management team. The company has also been recognized for its female leadership, which Shelly Okun credits to her great-grandmother, Rose. 

The Okuns are also directly involved in the revitalization of the Warehouse District, namely by offering studio space to local artists at fair prices. Artistic businesses, such as Graphite Design + Build and Gathered Art Gallery, have both benefitted from that involvement.  

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