Small size an advantage for those who use it

FAMILY DECISION: Donna Piscopiello, left, and her daughter, Kristen Piscopiello, discuss a wallpaper pattern at Eastern Paint Center. /
FAMILY DECISION: Donna Piscopiello, left, and her daughter, Kristen Piscopiello, discuss a wallpaper pattern at Eastern Paint Center. /

Not only does Donna Piscopiello know by name many of the customers who swing open the door at Eastern Paint Center, but she might even remember their interior-design preferences.
“I’ll think, ‘Now, she’s into silks, or, that one there definitely has a modern style, ” said Piscopiello, who is the wallpaper expert at the family-owned business in North Providence. Her attention to customers, including personal relationships with many of them, helps foster customer loyalty, she says.
Piscopiello and her husband, David Piscopiello, whose grandfather started the company, help run the store and a commercial painting company – Joseph Tavone Painting – with four other relatives. David Piscopiello and his brother-in-law, Angelo Balassone, have been in the business for more than 30 years.
The family takes pride in offering above-and-beyond customer service and pricing competitive with the nearby Lowe’s and Home Depot, and other small paint shops. Customers’ familiarity with the owners is one of the benefits of being a small operation and an important factor in keeping them coming, said Donna Piscopiello.
“It could be years ago [that we met] and they’ll come in and say to my daughter, ‘Is Donna here? She helped me with my dining room and now I need her help for my bedroom,’ ” she explained. Her daughter Kristen Piscopiello also works at the shop.
Creating “authentic relationships” such as Eastern Paint Center does is a clear benefit to being a small, family-owned business, said Ira Bryck, director of the UMass Family Business Center at University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Bryck said successfully run family businesses often share an important trait key to long-term success: a keen survival instinct.
“Even if the head of production and the head of sales are having a family spat, they both have great interest in accomplishing the sale, understanding the paycheck depends on it,” said Bryck.
Bryck said being small can offer other advantages. Chief among them is that the business is not tied to outside investors focused on short-term gain over long-term viability.
He added that small, family-owned operations are also more nimble and better able to make change.
“Small, family businesses are flatter, where presidents are also often salesmen, so [they’re] getting customer input daily,” Bryck explained. “They are also generally more able to jump on opportunities, and get out of the way of impending threats.” David Piscopiello said this freedom to react to opportunities in the market is evident in the history of the business and on a daily basis. He points to the decision to add a paint shop to the commercial painting business – a move that, among other things, “helped legitimize” the painting business.
The owners’ knowledge of clients and of their community also allow them to offer niche products. For example, the business is one of the few remaining stores in the state carrying wallpaper in stock.
“Being small gives us the flexibility to think on our feet and move quickly on an idea every day,” Piscopiello said, pointing to a stack of red, bulky bags at the front of the store. “We’re a paint store and we’re selling Ice Melt. We hope people see the sign and come in for it and remember we are here.”
The owners of another Rhode Island family-run business, Salk’s Ace Hardware & Marine of Warwick, understand the need to adapt to market needs. The store added the word “marine” to the business name, as well as product, because many customers with commercial and pleasure boats docked nearby were asking for boat paint, specialty waxes and polishes, and stainless steal hardware.
“At the bigger corporations they would have to get permission to branch out like that,” said third-generation owner Harold Salk. He said it would be difficult for big-box stores to even recognize, never mind respond to, location-specific needs like those of local mariners.
Harold Salk, 78, who runs the business with his son, Jeff, said his family business evolved from a variety store opened by his grandparents in 1900. The company’s first expansion occurred when Harold Salk’s father took some goods from the general store and sold them at Oakland Beach. The family eventually opened another store there.
Salk said the family has chosen their opportunities wisely, usually with the multigenerational consensus. For example, he and his son decided to open a second hardware store earlier this year in North Kingstown.
A well-run family business isn’t always focused on growth, but simply survival.
“In hard economic times, we don’t have the overhead of big companies,” said Salk. “We don’t have truck drivers, a staff of accountants and buyers. We wear all hats … wash the windows, unload the truck, run human resources, etc.” •

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