Rich and Bill Mullen grew up in their family’s business, Mullen Motors, helping out after school and working summer jobs at the Southold dealership and service center — just as their father, Dick, did before them. For the brothers, sticking with it as adults was an easy decision.
“It was just something that I’ve known my whole life,” Rich Mullen said.
Now in its 90th year, Mullen Motors is one of many North Fork businesses that have been family-owned and operated for generations, standing the test of time by finding the keys to longevity.
The Mullens attribute to their dealership’s survival to a consistent focus on customer service. Rich Mullen shares his home phone number with customers in case they have trouble with their vehicles. He’ll even drive them home while their cars are being worked on.
“The people you’ve met over the years, friends that you’ve made, they’re not just people buying their cars or getting their cars fixed,” he said. “They’re friends. It’s much better that way. We don’t hide away in an office.”
Bill Mullen said that mind-set is key in a small community where word travels fast. It’s tough to walk into the local IGA without someone approaching him to say they need their car serviced, he said.
That’s just how business has always been conducted, Dick Mullen said.
“There’s no playing any games,” he said.
Similarly, Strong’s Marine in Mattituck, a fourth-generational business, trains its 74 employees to be extensions of their family in an effort to ensure customers enjoy an intimate, direct experience, said Ryan Strong, vice president of operations.
“If we have happy employees and happy customers, then the rest of it just seems to work out,” said his father, third-generation owner and company president Jeff Strong.
Founded in 1945, Strong’s Marine now has six locations across Long Island, including Mattituck and Southampton. Family members said they work hard to make their values — which include respect and a commitment to service — clear to customers as their business expands.
But adapting to new technology and observing what other businesses are doing to meet customer expectations is also important to survival, Jeff Strong said.
Keeping up with the times is something multi-generational agricultural businesses on the North Fork — such as Harbes Family Farm, The Old Field Vineyards and Wesnofke Farms — have done to keep themselves going, whether it means farming new crops or listening to customer suggestions about ways to improve.
“For an industry that seems not to change that much, it does move very fast every year,” said David Harbes. In any business, he added, “If you’re not trying new things, you’ll most likely get left behind.”
David Harbes said his father, Edward Harbes III, handed over the reigns to his children this past year. Since then, he said, they’ve been able to give their dad confidence that his vision is in good hands.
For The Old Field Vineyards in Southold, adapting meant changing the crops the family, now in its fifth generation of owners, grows. Ros Phelps Baiz and Chris Baiz purchased the property in 1996 and turned the land, which was once planted in vegetables, into a vineyard that’s now operated in part by their daughter, Perry Bliss.
“My great-grandmother was very adamant against vines here,” Ms. Bliss said recently as her own daughters, Rosamund, 5, and Claire, 2, played a few feet away. She wants her children to feel they have the option to make changes if they want to run the business someday.
“I think you need to be open to that and acknowledge when you’re not making money doing something,” she said. To say, ‘OK, I will happily switch it around.’”
Meanwhile, Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue has endured by planning and managing its assets for the long term, said Jonathan Wickham, who inherited the business from his father, Tom.
“We have invested for productive purposes,” he said. “For example, I don’t think any of us in the family has ever had a new car. Where we had some gains to invest, we have always invested in ways that enable the business to produce more or more efficiently.”
Most recently, the farm has invested in new refrigeration equipment. While those improvements aren’t cheap, Jonathan Wickham said they’re necessary to ensuring a future.
Some people interviewed for this story said they consider small-town family businesses a dying breed, since the cost of living on the East End makes it difficult to succeed.
“If my family didn’t have this business, I don’t think I could work out here and make a living,” David Harbes said. “I really sympathize with my generation in that respect. A lot of my classmates from high school just moved on to different areas.”
Bill Mullen echoed those sentiments.
“It allowed me to come back here and actually live in this area because there’s not a lot for young people to come back to here,” he said.
These days, Ms. Bliss said, it’s a big deal to encounter family-operated businesses — not just ones that are family owned.
“We always emphasize that we’re family-run,” she said. “I’ll be like, ‘That’s my dad on the tractor right there, my mom’s down in the winery right now and I’m selling you wine.’”
A common thread that ties some of these multi-generational family businesses together is that they aren’t in it for the money. They’re just passionate about what they do.
“I do it because I enjoy it,” Ryan Strong said. To him, it’s about sharing his family’s love for boating.
Justin Wesnofske, whose eponymous family farm in Peconic is now in its 50th year, said it’s in his blood to watch crops go from seedlings to the kitchen table.
“It’s a gratifying feeling,” he said — although he admitted he didn’t always appreciate having to pick peppers after school while growing up.
Looking ahead, each of the aforementioned businesses said they’re hopeful their legacy continues.
And while the Mullen brothers decided to enter the dealership as adults, they never felt obligated to go down that path.
“He never forced us into it,” Bill Mullen said of his father. “The only thing he did make us do — we did go to college. He said he would fire us if we didn’t go to college, which was great because it forced us to get out of Southold, and I’m going to do the same with my son.”
Top photo from left: Bill, Dick and Rich Mullen in front of their Southold business, Mullen Motors, which has been operating since 1927. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)