A Publication of WTVP

For most businesses, evolution is a necessity. They may change locations, products or owners, and usually these changes happen over a long period of time. Widmer Interiors is no exception, but unlike many, the family had a plan.

Originally founded in 1964 by Merle G. Widmer, the company began by selling filing systems. Over the next 28 years, Widmer expanded his business to include a vast range of office supplies and related services for a territory that included 22 counties in central Illinois. When he decided to retire in 1992, no one in his family wanted to continue the business, so he sold the company to Herb and Nancy Stoller. After examining the state of the industry and its retail locations, the Stollers decided to make some changes.

“That was the time when Office Max, Office Depot and Staples just started to come around, and [Herb] could tell that we weren’t going to be able to be competitive in that arena,” said Frank Gutwein, company president. Over the next two years, the business began to sell or discontinue many of its services and divisions, including its office supply stores, small office machine repair and contract office supply divisions. The company then began to focus on “corporate, higher education, and healthcare furnishings, interior design services, filing and storage, and floor covering”—areas in which they believed the business could thrive.

In 1996, Widmer Interiors was named a Blue Chip Enterprise by the National Chamber of Commerce, an award given to a select few companies who overcome adversity in the form of an internal crisis or a changing marketplace, to become more successful. In 2005, it was chosen as the Illinois Family Business of the Year in the category of fewer than 50 employees.

For Widmer Interiors, change came slowly and with a great deal of preparation. In 2006, the next generation—Herb and Nancy’s son and son-in-law, Winston Stoller and Gutwein—took over the business. Ten years prior to that, the Stollers hired a family business consultant, who helped them create a plan for a smooth transition. Once a year, they met to discuss the expectations, compensation and responsibilities that needed to be decided upon, and the consultant offered insight into the usual problems that arise among family members. The purpose was to define a strategy and a clear understanding of the company’s future.

Gutwein recommends such counseling to any family that is planning to hand down its business to the next generation, but warns that timing is everything. “Whether you need to do it for as long as we did it, that’s entirely up to the individual family, but I think it’s important to engage early in the process. Not after the problems start. The ideal situation is to engage with a consultant before the issues come up.” iBi