How Does a Century-Old Niche Business Expand? 'There Are Limits to How Many Awnings You Can Sell in Portland.' Emily Spearing, her cousins and brothers all work together to push the family business into a more ambitious - and modern - space.

By Britta Lokting

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Courtesy of Emily Spearing

Emily Spearing didn't think she'd work for her family's business — even though it's been around since 1891. Why? She has a marketing background, and the family company is industrial.

But a few years ago, she came to appreciate the opportunity: An old company can still change. And it needs a fresh perspective like hers.

Pike Awning Co. started in Portland, Oreg., in 1891, as a manufacturer of awnings, boat sails and tents. Emily's grandfather purchased Pike from the founding family in 1979, and her uncle and father took over the business after his retirement in 1995. Eventually her cousin began working in production at Pike, and Emily felt drawn to help uphold the family legacy. "I'd be third generation, and that alone was a really special thing," says Emily, 31. Plus, working for the family business allowed her certain flexibilities that a corporate job didn't.

"I'd like to have children someday," she says. "That was a benefit for me, to have a bit more flexibility and to feel like I'm not going to lose my career because I have a kid."

She joined Pike in 2018 as an associate. Now she runs the company with her cousin and two brothers, Andy Spearing, 33, and Joe Spearing, 29. And they took over just in time. In the next five years, they expect several longtime employees to retire — creating a major skills gap, because Pike's team has a specific, decades-old system for creating custom-made fabric. "It's like a lost art," says Emily. Their goal is to hire young people who will learn it and then be with the company for decades to come.

The new generation of Pike leaders are also eager to push the company ahead.

"We have a grand, broader vision," says Joe. "And it starts with more products, more product lines, and then we've kind of always been restricted to our location." Pike isn't set up to easily ship awnings, and the family is trying to figure out how to reach a larger clientele beyond its home base. "There are limits to how many awnings you can sell in Portland," says Andy.

Emily is excited for those changes but doesn't feel in a rush. After all, when she first began at the company and shadowed sales calls, she felt out of her element. "I'd have a million questions," she says. But over time, as she learned the business, she was able to speak confidently to clients. She eased into the change—and believes Pike can do it, too.

She also knows that some things will never change, like the importance of maintaining personal relationships with customers. Pike often relies on word of mouth, though it's difficult to track how customers hear about the company. "You could do something as small as drop off a bottle of wine and a note after installing an awning," says Emily. "Those people will go to all their neighbors."

"It's a small world around here," says Joe, who was on-site at a local restaurant recently and discovered their meat purveyor is a family friend. It's not unusual for Emily to hear customers recall working with longtime employees. She grew up cleaning the bathrooms at Pike while Andy, Joe and Calvin mowed the lawn on Sundays.

It's important for her generation to continue making the office feel like a second home for employees, she says, even as they carry out their company's evolving vision. "Ultimately, our goal is to help people enjoy their homes more," says Emily. "If we can be here to provide a solution for people, that is a positive."

Wavy Line

Britta Lokting is a journalist based in New York. Her features have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and elsewhere.

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