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.

learn more about Britta Lokting

By Britta Lokting

Courtesy of Emily Spearing

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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."

Britta Lokting

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.

Related Topics

Editor's Pick

The Dark Side of Pay Transparency — And What to Do If You Find Out You're Being Underpaid
Thinking of a Career Change? Here Are 4 Steps You Can Take to Get There.
A Founder Who Bootstrapped Her Jewelry Business With Just $1,000 Now Sees 7-Figure Revenue Because She Knew Something About Her Customers Nobody Else Did
Everything You Need to Know About Franchise Law
Real Estate

4 Essentials for Selecting the Perfect Business Real Estate

Marketing for retail, restaurant or other site-critical companies should always begin with meticulously chosen sites: Time-tested ways of picking a winner.


Everything To Know About Financing Your Franchise

This is it. You're ready to start your franchise journey. Only one thing is left: Finding the money you need.

Starting a Business

90% of Online Businesses Fail in Just 4 Months. You Can Avoid the Same Fate By Using These Strategies.

It's not catastrophizing when we think about potential failure; it's in fact a chance for any business to precisely see any outcome and prepare in advance.


Why Embracing Your Unique Strengths and Talents Will Lead to Success

By identifying and developing one's strengths, aligning with passions, cultivating a growth mindset and positively impacting the world, individuals can unlock their full potential and create a life of abundance, passion and fulfillment.