Gregg Lagerquist summed up the sentiment of the night when he told the crowd of almost 300 people gathered in the Marriott ballroom that “family businesses are the backbone of the economy.”

Lagerquist, an anchor at WGME-13, served as the emcee at Monday evening’s Maine Family Business Awards dinner, where he went on to inform us that America’s family-owned enterprises generate 63 percent of our country’s jobs and 57 percent of our gross domestic product.

Recognizing the economic muscle of family-led firms was the theme of the party. And while the guests had to wait until the end of the festivities to find out who won this year’s awards, I won’t hold you in similar suspense.

Sweetser’s Apple Barrel & Orchards, operated by the Sweetser family in Cumberland Center since 1812, won the Maddy Corson Award for a family-owned business with fewer than 25 employees.

Marden’s Surplus & Salvage of Waterville, founded by Harold “Mickey” Marden in 1964, won the Leon Gorman Award for a family-owned business with 25 or more employees.

Also started in 1964 in Waterville, the GHM Agency won the Shep Lee Award, recognizing the company’s strong commitment to community service. The company was founded by Paul Mitchell.

The awards ceremony is now in its 11th year and comes to us courtesy of Maddy Corson, who is a cheerleader and a supporter of so many worthy causes in our state. She was at the party forging connections between guests and making everyone feel welcome. She was joined in this effort by Maureen Costello Wedge, who chaired this year’s event with style. Wedge’s family owns the Sun Media Group, where she serves as an executive.

After dinner, we were treated to a fascinating talk by Stephen Kircher, whose family owns Boyne Resorts, which in 2007 purchased Sunday River and Sugarloaf. He gave us an inside view of growing up in a family where it was a forgone conclusion that all the children would join the company.

“Every dinner was a board meeting,” Kircher said.

He related a story from a family trip in 1973, when he was 9 years old. His father, Everett Kircher, who founded Boyne Resorts in 1947, took his wife and four children to Telluride to determine whether or not the company should buy the ski resort.

“We voted no at the dinner table,” Kircher recalled, and the deal never happened.

In the Q&A session that followed, Alan MacEwan of Verrill Dana asked whether Stephen asked his three kids to vote on the acquisition of the Maine resorts.

Stephen laughed and said “no.”

During the cocktail hour, I had a chance to chat with the owners of a much younger business, where the next generation is already taking an active role. My friends Beth George and Tim Kane own the Spelt Right Baking Co. and this summer oldest daughter Emma Kane heads to Boston to drum up new accounts for the company before returning to Maine in the fall to start her freshman year at Bates (which is where her parents met).

I also had the pleasure of sitting with George and Kane during dinner. Our table was populated by a wonderful group of business owners, including Linda Tobey and her son KC Hughes of LTs Inc.; Barbara Laveault of Blackbear Signworks and Randy Charland, who was filling in for his boss and company founder Robert “Bo” Laveault; and Ron Peyser and his daughter Amy Bilodeau of Gamache & Lessard.

Before dinner, I spotted a laughing group gathered around a cocktail table and had to investigate. I can’t say I was surprised to discover this jovial clique was made up of third generation members of the Cormier clan, who own the much-loved Funtown Splashtown USA.

Ken Cormier, who founded the Saco amusement park with his wife, Violet, in 1967 said all their hard work is done for his children and grandchildren.

“I wouldn’t do this for myself,” he said. “Eventually, they’re going to own it when we pass. Family is important. Our board is all family. We have very passionate meetings because everyone is very passionate about what they do.”

This passion is equally palpable among the Sweetsers, who I caught up with before dinner. Connie and Dick Sweetser were there, with their son, Greg Sweetser, their daughter-in law, Debby Freeman, and their grandson, Eben Sweetser, who represents the company’s sixth generation.

As I was chatting with them, I learned that Judy and Fred Forsley, who own Shipyard Brewing Co. and were also at the party, live next to the Sweetsers. This gave me a brilliant idea, which I didn’t hesitate to share: Why don’t the two companies combine forces and produce a hard apple cider?

Judy agreed that my idea had some merit, while Debby and Greg thought they’d leave that task to the next generation. But seeing Eben’s eyes light up, Debby cautioned that he should at least wait until he turns 21.

To which Eben quickly replied, “It’s only 13 months.”

Not that he’s counting.

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

akamila@pressherald.com