(May 22) The expression “From shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations” communicates the difficulty of keeping a family business and fortune through the decades.

The idea is that the first generation started with nothing —shirt sleeves — and made its fortune. But, common wisdom says, that fortune is often squandered by the time the company passes on to the founder’s grandchildren.

Ben B. Schwartz & Sons Inc., Detroit, Mich., knows about the first shirt sleeves but not the second. While now the fourth generation of the family is involved with the business, the wholesaler also has tapped outside talent to help it grow as it turns 100 years old this year.

Now with 17 bays on the Detroit Produce Terminal and a staff that includes eight salesmen and dozens of other employees, about 70% of the company’s business is retail and 30% is foodservice.

Salesman Nate Stone says the company is known for its tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

LIVING HISTORY

Celebrating 100 years as a family business, the company has survived and thrived through most of the 20th century and now into the 21st. The company has been an anchor at the Detroit terminal since the market’s inception in 1929.

Ben Schwartz started in the wholesale fruit trade working for his wife’s brother.

In 1906, with his wife Belle’s encouragement, he opened a retail fruit stand of his own.

The Lithuanian immigrant soon began to wholesale fruits and vegetables. Soon, wholesale operations overtook the retail, and the business focus changed.

In 1929, when the railroads were looking for tenants for the Detroit Union Produce Terminal, Schwartz had the foresight to move in. The company remains on the market, now called the Detroit Produce Terminal.

“We have a document that shows that Ben B. Schwartz received the first load of produce that was ever brought into the market in 1929,” said Chris Billmeyer, president and co-owner.

Schwartz’s sons, Sam and Barney, joined the company in 1932 and 1934 and helped manage it through the 1960s.

Sam Schwartz died in 1999 at the age of 89. Before his retirement in 1985, he was co-owner of Ben B. Schwartz & Sons. Inc., with his brother. Barney is retired and living in Florida.

Coming first to work at Ben B. Schwartz in the late 1970s, Billmeyer was hired to take over responsibilities from Sam.

The 53-year old Billmeyer is co-owner of the company with his wife Janice. Janice is the granddaughter of Ben Schwartz and daughter of Barney Schwartz.

The company had been co-owned by Billmeyer and Gary Schwartz — Barney’s son — for two decades until Gary retired five years ago, Billmeyer said.

Billmeyer said the family has fourth-generation involvement but stressed that as the company has grown it hired outside talent to help manage the business.

REDEFINING MISSION

Billmeyer said one of the ways in which the company has changed is the way it sees itself.

“The biggest change that we have attended over the years is when I first came in the business, we really used to be in the commodities business. We used to buy and sell produce like any other commodities,” he said.

Catching marketing trends, buying cheap and selling high was the goal.

That has changed, he said.

“I would say the model we try to follow today is one of customer services,” he said. ”We believe we are in the customer service business and happen to provide service with produce,” he said.

As customers require more service, that means adding deliveries or adding product lines as needed, he said.

Independent retailers or small chains that the company serves now must offer a wide assortment of product to compete with the largest chains, and that’s how Ben B. Schwartz can help them, he said.

The wholesaler has been used as a forward distribution point for some shippers and a tool for inventory control for retailers.

“We’re trying to make retailers more efficient,” he said.