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Omaha Magazine

Four Generations Strong 

Jul 21, 2023 01:53PM ● By Leo Adam Biga

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Studies show only 3% of family-owned businesses reach four generations. That puts 105-year-old All Makes Office Furniture and Technology in rare company. Running things today are siblings Jeff Kavich, president/CEO, and Amee Zetzman, executive vice president and CFO. They joined their late father, Larry Kavich, and grandfather, Lazier Kavich, in the company in the early 1990s, learning the ropes from the masters of the deal.   

Founder Harry Ferer, a Russian immigrant, began with a typewriter sales, rental, and repair firm in 1914 before opening All Makes in 1918. Son-in-law Lazier entered the business in 1938, adding office furniture and machines to an inventory keeping pace with evolving business-office demands. In 1962 All Makes moved from its original 1918 Farnam Street location to its current 2558 Farnam site in the former Rosen Novak Chevrolet dealership building. Larry came on that same year, adding contract furniture and eventually new locations in Lincoln and Des Moines. 

Four generations represent “a lot of history,” Amee said. “It really speaks to our endurance, honesty, and pledge that we do what we say we’re going to do. Jeff and I always use the phrase, ‘Let us tell you what we can do, not what we can’t.’” 

Added Jeff: “We often share [with customers and business partners] the fact we’re four generations strong because we feel it’s important and meaningful.”

Amee finds the dwindling number of locally owned and operated multi-generation family businesses “unfortunate.” As that group gets smaller,” she said, “it’s just a different environment.”

When franchises replace family firms, personal relationships get lost in the process, she warned.

All Makes’ resilience is due, Jeff said, to his grandfather and father “handing Amee and me a healthy business.” During their own tenure, the siblings have added stores in Columbus, Kearney, and North Platte. “The impetus,” Amee said, “was to serve clients better in northeast, central, and western Nebraska by having industry experts in those markets.” Brother and sister have also added the company’s own private label line, the Farnam Collection, and a digital document management/technology division. 

Still only in their mid-50s, these business leaders anticipate growing things more as new needs and opportunities arise. They’re grateful for having “defied the odds” by shepherding the business into a fourth generation, one marked by a recession and pandemic. They attribute their ability to avoid the fatal pitfalls that doom most family businesses to values and principles instilled in them by their father. 

“The ultimate lesson from our dad was, ‘Yes, you two are going to run the business, but your first priority is to each other as brother and sister.’ That was critical,” Amee said, adding, “We have each others’ backs.” 

The pair confirmed the All Makes’ culture is family-based.

“That is, in fact, how we feel and how we go about it,” Jeff said. “That contributes to the average length of tenure here being 11 years. People come to work at All Makes and they stay, and I think they stay because we create a very nice work environment.” 

Because both he and Amee were exposed to the business as kids, they grew up around veteran staffers. “We’ve known so many of them for so long,” Jeff said. 

“They are part of our extended family. It’s very comforting” having ample “institutional knowledge” to lean into,” Amee added. 

This brother and sister act successfully work together by staying in their lanes and playing to each other’s strengths.

“I think very critically about what’s next, and Jeff is very client service-oriented,” Amee said. “He’s thinking of it from what the client wants and I’m thinking of the mechanics of how to get it done.”

“Amee is more objective, and I’m more subjective,” Jeff observed. “We talk openly about what we both do. There are times when we get into conflict over something, but we have always been taught don’t take it home with you; it’s business, figure it out. We’re blessed in that we can talk things through.”

Successfully adapting to a more nuanced office world has kept All Makes competitive. 

“The sell has gotten far more complicated,” Jeff explained. “Everything we do today goes through the design department. There’s soft seating, sound masking, and collaborative work spaces. When I came in, desks came in two sizes and three finishes. Chairs came in six different fabrics. We stocked all that product in the warehouse. It was a quick, easy transaction. Today, it can take months.” 

“People want it to look a certain way and to be super functional and flexible,” Amee expanded, “and to make that happen requires design knowledge.”

A changing work culture means hybrid work stations that maximize comfort, adjustability, and health.

All Makes’ major client base is spread over a large swath of Nebraska, Iowa, and the greater Midwest. They have national and international customers as well.

Aside from some supply-side issues, the pandemic had little effect on the business.

The Farnam flagship store is in a destination district with new development and anchor attractions. Omaha’s planned streetcar will pass right by its front door. Newly remodeled showrooms are a sure sign of the company’s investment there.

“Our team will utilize four different ways to work, which makes a great way for people designing new space to visualize the differences,” Amee said.

Jeff fully expects new office trends to emerge, adding, “We’ll be ready for it when it happens.” 

With no fifth generation in the wings, the siblings are the last in their family line at the helm. As for what happens to the business when they decide to step down, Amee said, “To be determined. But we have endured for this long, and we will figure out the best scenario for the company.”

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This article originally appeared in the August/September 2023 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  
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