Special Events

Family Affairs: Ben Shipper and Debra Morse

The story of a business is often the story of a family. And the one behind the Shipper family and their event businesses is a success story.

With combined sales this year projected to top $20 million, Chicago Party Rentals and Event Equipment Sales represent a family dynasty started in 1967, when Ben Shipper II and wife Bea opened A-Z Rental--offering tools and party items for homeowners--in Countryside, Ill. Son Ben Shipper III joined the business in the early '70s, and it is his business philosophy that has helped guide his children-Ben Shipper IV, age 38, who serves as CPR's president and chief operating officer, and Debra Morse, 35, president of sister company Event Equipment Sales, which manufactures and distributes event equipment.

"Throughout our development, [our] father provided the example of working hard and never giving up," notes Ben.

Indeed, hard work is the soul of the event industry, whether you're born into the business or not.

"A lot of people come into the business thinking it will be the most glamorous thing-and at times it can be glamorous," Ben says. "But at other times, it is pretty unglamorous. There is a certain amount of 'paying your dues.' You need to understand all facets of the event-floral, décor, tents, and everything in between."

His sister agrees. "You've got to get your training and know what you are doing," Debra advises. Indeed, one of the biggest changes she notes since her own start in special events is the "overall professional of the industry and the certification opportunities that support it," such as the ISES CSEP and ARA CERP programs.

As the event industry has blossomed, so have the demands on suppliers. "We work to find a faster, better, cheaper way to bring products to the market," Debra says. Yet, "How many times can our industry change the wood folding chair? We are always trying to come up with new products that will save labor and increase profitability."

The pressure to create the better product faster, coupled with rising labor costs and clever competition, makes keeping a healthy profit margin a challenge. "If costs keep going up and revenue doesn't keep pace with that, you will being to suffer in service," Ben warns. "That's not a trade-off we've been willing to make in either of our companies."

And that's why both Debra and Ben rely on another family trait to carry them through--keeping the proper perspective. Debra lists her most useful skills as "communication, organization and a sense of humor!"

The tradition of the family business is a solid one in special events. "Look at the Lufts [of Chicago's Hall's Rental Service] and the Halperins [of New Jersey’s Party Rental Ltd.]," Ben notes. "We're in good company."

Chicago Party Rental 9480 W. 55th St., McCook, IL 60525-3636; 708/485-8010; www.chicagopartyrental.com; Event Equipment Sales 8890 W. 67th St., Hodgkins, IL 60525-7603; 708/352-0662; www.eventequipment.com

WHAT IT'S REALLY LIKE WORKING WITH FAMILY

Debra: "It's really motivating to be driven to perform to your best, for your family and for your business. It's our name on the door. And it does take planning and commitment and investment and honing your skills. But I can be more candid with my brother than with anyone else."

Ben: "We're lucky to be a big enough company that we're not on top of each other. There are a lot of people besides family members who work here. We're very lucky to have them; they make us what we are."

'WHAT I WISH I'D LEARNED SOONER ... "

Debra: "I'm quoting [former General Electric CEO] Jack Welch from his book 'Winning': 'Your job as a leader is to fight the gravitational pull of negativism' People come to you every day with a situation they think is scary. It's your job to flip it and make it an opportunity."

Ben: "I'm a good idea person, but I wish I'd learned sooner to be a bit more organized. You can't go wrong with a PalmPilot--making lists seems to work well for me."

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