PASSING ON THE TORCH
Bonnie Engler took over her father’s business, Brooklyn Park-based Pilgrim Cleaners, in January, 2004. However, she took a different career path before joining her father.
Engler, 50, grew up in the dry-cleaning business working behind the counter on evenings and weekends, but never thought about it as a career option. It never occurred to her that she could one day be the successor.
“At that time, it wouldn’t have been a traditional role for a woman,” Engler says. “Women weren’t owning businesses back then. My father came from a generation where men owned and operated businesses.”
Engler became a registered nurse and worked in adult mental health for eight years. She also earned a BA in psychology. In the mid-1980s, however, she was looking for a career change and talked to her father, Don Rosen, about coming to work with him. At 30, she joined Pilgrim with the intention of learning the ropes and taking over when he was ready to step down. However, she had her work cut out for her.
“When I started, my father never even thought that there was a possibility of me taking over the business,” she explains. “There were very few women in the industry and in business in general then. I had to prove to him I was as capable as any man and could some day run the business for him. It was a long progression.”
The two worked together for two decades, and Engler worked from the ground up learning the business.
“My father worked very hard to become sole owner of Pilgrim and that’s what I worked for,” says Engler, who was named president 10 years ago. “He also gave me the freedom to try new things. For a daughter, the best compliment you can receive is when your father allows you to start doing things on your own.”
Engler had wanted to buy the business for the past few years, but her father wasn’t ready to sell. She wanted to make sure he was comfortable with the transition. Eight-three-year-old Rosen, who has been in the dry-cleaning business for more than 60 years, decided the time was right and sold Engler the business in early 2004. He still comes in periodically as Engler’s advisor.
FAMILY DYNAMICS PLAY A ROLE
Family business owners realize succession issues can be tricky. In Pilgrim’s case, Engler’s brother Larry Rosen works at the company in production and is also in charge of environmental compliance issues and oversees maintenance. One of their sisters also previously worked at the company.
“For any family business, there’s a certain amount of stress and tension in determining family members’ strengths,” Engler says. “Years ago, we brought in a consultant to help us recognize strengths and who would be best in succession. I think it helped my dad to reinforce what he saw. It helped to have an outsider spell things out.”
Rosen says naming his daughter as the successor was based solely on ability. “I was looking for someone I could rely on,” he says. “I look at Bonnie and she’s so bright. She is college-educated and a registered nurse and has a beautiful business sense. I had a feeling that she was very adept at working with people, and we needed someone to work wtih employees and customers. I am so confident in her. I have no misgivings. She’s doing a wonderful job. Sales in fact are improving at at time when our industry is suffering.”
Rosen says his son is content in his role in the business and wasn’t looking to take on additional responsibilities.
Rosen and Engler hired outside experts to help with the transition of ownership and ensure all family members were happy. “We have a close family and that was important,” Engler says, adding that it probably would have been easier to sell the business to an outsider. “It would have been less emotional,” she says. “There are so many considerations in a family business. But what’s most satisfying to me is being able to keep the business in the family. I think that was always in the back of my father’s mind.”
Engler has three sons, and the oldest, 17-year-old Derek, now works part-time behind the counter for PIlgrim. “A third generation is working here,” she says proudly.
Since taking over, Engler is putting her signature on the company by rebranding. The stores and trucks, for example, the stores and trucks have new logos and stores are being renovated. She added drive-thru windows to some locations and launched a new convenience program. Pilgrim has five plants and 25 locations in Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs and employs 200.