This is what happens when the next generation is not interested in running the family business.
In a carefully orchestrated transition, the second-generation owners of appliance distributor Nelson & Small in Portland have sold off most of the company in several different transactions.
Owners Ken Nelson and David Small made the move because their children are not involved in the business and wouldn’t want to take it over, Small said. Instead, the two principals sold entire divisions to new owners, complete with existing staff and business partners, while retaining a piece of the company for themselves.
In three transactions since June, Maine-based Webber Supply acquired the heating and energy division; Kleen Sky acquired distribution rights for Odorox and Burner Booster products; and Nelson and Small Commercial Equipment Co. acquired the commercial laundry division.
Purchase prices were not disclosed.
Nelson & Small senior managers run two of the new companies.
Kleen Sky, now based in Falmouth, is owned by former Nelson & Small general sales manager Steve Hayes.
Former commercial laundry division head Thomas Tobiassen is president of Nelson and Small Commercial Equipment Co., formed when an affiliate of New Hampshire-based Daniels Equipment Company bought the division. The new company is keeping the sales office and some warehousing in the former Nelson & Small headquarters.
Webber Supply also moved its South Portland operations and staff to Canco Road.
Prior to the sale, Nelson & Small had about 20 employees.
David Small and Ken Nelson retain ownership of Roland’s Supply in Kennebunk, a nationwide wholesale distributor of plumbing, heating, and electrical supplies.
Small said Tuesday that selling the family business “was not the easiest thing to do,” but that he and Nelson approached it in the same way they approached most business decisions over the years: dispassionately, with an eye toward taking care of their employees and customers.
“I think everyone has been taken care of, and that feels good,” he said.
Nelson and Small are the sons of Harold Nelson, who founded the company in 1936, and his cousin Irving Small, who joined the company a few years later. “Kenny and I have sort of followed in our parents’ footsteps,” Small said.
The transition to several smaller companies has been practically seamless, according to Tobiassen.
“The real plan was to have no changes,” said Tobiassen, who was with Nelson & Small for about 35 years. The owners wanted “everyone that worked for the commercial laundry operation to all have the same jobs. Other than I went from vice president to president, it’s the same.”
Tobiassen said they started talking about breaking up the company about five years ago.
Over the years, Nelson & Small has moved in and out of product lines based on market conditions.
When big box stores started selling TV sets and so-called “white goods” like cooking ranges and refrigerators, Nelson & Small got out of that line. Likewise, when alternative energy products surged in recent years, they added that to their lineup. In 2011, the company installed a vertical wind turbine next to DiMillo’s Restaurant on the Portland waterfront as a demonstration project.
“They were very smart. They knew when to move in and when to move out,” Tobiassen said.
“You name it, we’ve distributed it,” Small said.
Selling the company means he and Nelson can focus on their civic work, Small said. The company sponsors education scholarships through the Maine Innkeepers Association, and the families donate to a range of local institutions, including the University of Southern Maine and Mercy Hospital.
Both men are active with Center Day Camp, run by the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine.
Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at [email protected]