A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Five legacy NKY businesses thriving through the generations, honoring past, building their own future

By Tabari McCoy
NKY Chamber Business Journal

It is something every business seeks to establish, to be recognized for and pass along from one generation to the next. “It” is legacy, which by its very definition involves the idea of a gift or event from the past, typically from a predecessor with whom they share a connection.

Northern Kentucky is rich with businesses carving out their own legacies, many of which are doing so across multiple generations. While unique in their respective businesses, these five – Applied Imagination, Baker Stamping, Earl Franks Sons and Daughters, Riegler Blacktop and Steinhauser – share commonalities that continue to result in success. In examining these commonalities, we see a foundation grounded in the region’s number one resource: Innovators with foresight to adjust when necessary and utilize potential (both in talent and industry) to ensure their legacy thrives from one generation to the next in the region they call home.

See how these multi-generational businesses are continuing to honor the past while building their own legacies today.


Location: Alexandria
Founded: 1991

Interesting fact: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg once declared the New York Botanical Garden – where Applied Imagination’s garden railway displays were featured – one of the five best things for families to see during the holiday season.

Father and daughter, Laura Dolan and Paul Busse

Company history: Founded by Paul Busse after years of building garden railroads in outdoor spaces, Applied Imagination specializes in creating award-winning public garden railway displays nationwide. Laura Dolan, Busse’s daughter, took over as company president in 2017. The company builds displays in multiple locations across the country throughout the year.

Family business: Despite growing up often assisting her father on his various projects, Dolan had no intention of taking over the family business. In fact, she was happily in the throes of a burgeoning career in advertising, only to unexpectedly be hit with her father’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

Helping out more and more following the diagnosis, Dolan remembers her father “Sat me down one day, saying ‘I think you’re the only one who can do this – would you be willing?’ I thought long and hard about if that was really what I wanted to do, and the answer was ‘yes.’”

Botanical Garden, Washington, D.C. (Applied Imagination website photo)

This led to her “switching gears” to take over the company, which she happily says is a decision she loves. “I think it’s deeply embedded in my DNA from just being a little girl and growing up alongside of my dad,” she says.

Whenever asked which was his favorite job, Dolan’s father always answered, “the next one.” To honor those roots and that mindset, Dolan and the company continually challenge themselves forward. Asked what advice she would give to someone who is considering whether to stay with a family business or venture out on their own, her answer was simple: If you like what you do, you’ll love your job like you do the family with whom you work – especially if they trust you to make their legacy your own.

“You should wake up in the morning excited to go and do that thing, with what interests you and what drives you to spend your time and earn your money. That is an incredibly important thing for everyone to remember,” Dolan says. “One of the greatest gifts that my father gave me was the autonomy to run (the company) like I saw fit. I think that’s one of the biggest keys to our success, and why things are kind of going as well as they are, is because he’s let me figure that out without too heavy of a hand.”


Location: Wilder

Founded: 1899

Interesting fact: Baker Stamping is the oldest member of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

John Henglebrok

Company history: Founded by inventor and machinist William Baker. Edwin Hengelbrok was an investor in the business, taking over accounting and day-to-day operations around World War I. The company began manufacturing tubular products for the bedding industry as well as parts for lawn and garden, automotive, HVAC systems and more in the early 1950s under the leadership of Edwin Hengelbrok’s son, Edwin Jr. Jean Hengelbrok, wife of the late Edwin Jr., is the current president and CEO.

Family business: “We’ve looked out for our employees, we’ve gone the extra step to help them when they’ve needed help and as a result, they’ve always been there for us when we needed them,” says John Hengelbrok, Jean’s son and current vice president of operations, when asked how Baker Stamping has persevered for generations. “We’ve been successful at keeping employees for a long time. That also translates into their work ethic as they produce quality parts which has allowed us to keep and maintain customers for 20, 30 and even 40 years in some cases.”

Hengelbrok credits the leaders of Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties (the current judges executive, in particular) for helping make the region conducive to multigenerational businesses such as his.

“The fact that all three of them work together instead of trying to develop fiefdoms (and) think that rising water raises all ships, I think is great and that’s an attitude you see throughout the business community,” he says. “We’ve been extremely successful as an economic engine in this state and there’s a lot of pride in that.”

While he also takes pride in Baker Stamping’s success, Hengelbrok is also happy he experienced a career outside of the company. He credits that for helping to prepare him to work in the family business and encourages others to consider walking the same path, if possible.

“Before I came (to Baker Stamping), I was in management at General Motors, Kroger and Firestone,” he says. “If you want to get involved in a family business and be part of the next generation, you should have worked elsewhere before you come back so that you bring something to the table. You can say ‘Hey, I’ve seen other things and have been other places.’”

Letting his children find their own path, however, may just be the reason the business continues should the next generation of Hengelbroks see fit for it to do so.

“It will be their choice if they choose to do so and that question is definitely open,” he says. “They’ve all been exposed to it on some level, but their lives are their own, and I’ve not put any pressure on them to make them feel like they have to succeed in making this a fourth-generation company.”


Location: Covington
Founded: 1968

Interesting fact: Staff accountant Angela Billiter is one of company namesake Earl Franks’ 11 children. Of those 11, seven are still involved with the company to this day.

Angela Billiter

Company history: Existing as a small paint shop upon its opening, Earl Franks also sold wallpaper and flooring. Then he saw Covington undergo a turbulent period in the 1970s, leading him to adjust his operations, and focus strictly on flooring and offering standout customer service with his wife and children pitching in whenever and however they could. Today, the business is run by seven of his 11 children who are dedicated to offering the same level and options of service found at big box competitors while retaining a personal, family-run-business touch.

Family business: Ask Angela Billiter, Franks’ third-oldest child what has made Earl Franks successful for so many years and the answer is simple: A strong work ethic.

“Dad had 11 kids that he had to feed, so he just got out there and worked. He had an 8th grade education. He did not have higher education, but he had a very strong faith and he just felt like he would survive – we all picked up on that,” says Billiter, who now serves as the accountant for the business that continues to bear his name. “Our children have worked through this business, going through high school and college, they’ve used this as a job for them. We have continued that strong work ethic.”

Working is what Earl Franks continues to do on a weekly basis, offering customers everything from design service to installation of new flooring, chosen from the thousands of samples they keep in stock. Billiter says working with large corporate entities like St. Elizabeth Healthcare and diversifying company assets have helped the company survive rough times, just like when her father pivoted during the 1970s. With most of the company’s approximately 25 employees having been with the company for at least five years or more, a family vibe is inherently present at the Covington-based storefront, which has helped engrain the business in the community at large.

“We all have boards we volunteer on – I am on Covington rotary board (and) I’m on the Behringer–Crawford Museum board. My brother Earl coaches seventh grade basketball at St. Henry’s,” she says. “When you reach out to the community and you’re involved in the community people know who you are, where you are and feel comfortable with somebody coming into their home. Northern Kentucky likes the fact that if they don’t know us personally, probably somebody knows somebody who knows one of us.”


Location: Florence
Founded: 1954

Interesting fact: A third-generation business, Riegler runs 17 crews a day on average to service more than 1,000 jobs annually. Vice President of Sales and Marketing, R.J. Riegler, says this has resulted in the company growing “400% in sales over the last decade.”

Company history: “High quality work, competitive pricing and great customer care.” Those are the three tenets of the business founded by Len Riegler in Erlanger several decades ago. The company expanded to its current location in Florence in 1989, growing from its humble beginnings with two trucks and a farm tractor to upwards of 150 employees and 230 pieces of equipment during peak times. Ownership is now shared between five second- and third-generation family members handling day-to-day operations.

R.J. Riegler

Family business: Like Dolan and Billiter, Riegler Vice President of Sales and Marketing, R.J. Riegler, spent time away from the family business before rejoining several years ago, working as a high school algebra teacher and football coach. Saying his parents embraced the idea of trying something while you can “because you don’t always have the opportunity to seize it later,” he says each family member specializes in a different aspect of the business, which has helped in continuing its success.

“It’s important that we each have our own sandbox we play in,” he says.

In his view, the variety of services the company can provide for its customers in a region that is so friendly to multi-generational businesses has enabled to the business to thrive.

“What’s unique about us as a company is that we offer things all the way from designing the project, doing the civil engineering on it, getting it through planning and zoning and installing it,” Riegler says. “(Where) a lot of companies are done when they’ve finished (the original job), we maintain them all the way through their life until it’s time to repave them again. We offer that as a benefit to those customers where they can have one person to work with through the life of their lot.”

Photo from Riegler Blacktop website

Riegler, who notes there are several families now employed with the company, says treating them like one of their own has made the greatest impact on its continued success.

“We’re a construction company that can not only tell them that they have an opportunity for advancement, but we can prove it by looking around. So out of our top 20 leadership positions in the company, 17 of them have been promoted from within,” he says. “We offer financial planning for them that we will pay for them to take … Those are things the employees notice. You must have a good atmosphere where people see it as a career and see that they have an opportunity to grow.”


Location: Newport

Founded: 1905

Interesting fact: A fourth-generation business owned by president and CEO Tara Halpin, Steinhauser was designated a “Best Workplace in the Americas” by the Printing Industries of America’s list of in 2019.

Tara Halpin

Company history: Some people dislike being labeled; producing labels, however, has been the family business for founder Albert Steinhauser for more than 100 years. Now owned by his great granddaughter, Tara Halpin, Steinhauser specializes in pressure sensitive labels and shrink sleeves in various materials, working with several companies throughout the Midwest, south and east coast to service their consumer packaging needs.

Family business: Halpin needs only one word to describe how it has felt leading her family’s business in its fourth generation: Amazing.

“It’s the carrying on of the legacy of my family – my great grandfather, grandfather and my daddy – that’s what gets me out of bed every morning to make them proud and to continue all the great work that they laid the groundwork for,” she says. “(That includes) taking care of our employees and customers, helping their businesses grow and giving back to the community and doing all the things that Steinhausers have done for generations.”

She cites taking risks, communicating with others and surrounding herself with smarter people, many of whom are outside the family, for being keys to her business’ prolonged success. Likewise, mixing modern business methods while maintaining the core principles of her predecessors remains important to Halpin, who sees a picture of her father every time she enters her company’s conference room.

“We have T-shirts that all our production team wears,” says Halpin. “Each one has a different quote from one of our forefathers on them to remember where we came from.”

Halpin, however, is now focused on the future and making sure the company keeps heading in the right direction.

Photo/Steinhauser Facebook

“I’m beyond proud of what I have done with this company, and fourth generation companies don’t last that long; I think only three percent of businesses get to the third generation,” she says. “The packaging printing industry is very male dominated. It makes me very proud to be a leader in that space and hopefully be an inspiration to other women in any industry that it can be done.”

Achieving that goal, she says, requires the most important thing possible: A plan that fits your generation and that the next can also build upon.

“Having a map of where you want to be and how you’re going to get there – it takes a lot of work to do one very well. I’ve been the leader of this company for 15 years and last year (is when) I feel like we finally got a very strong strategic plan that was crystal clear,” Halpin says. “The next step to that is making sure that every single person in the company understands what their role is within that plan and that they have individual action plans. That gives us momentum moving into the next (phase) and everybody is engaged and excited about it.”

To view the complete November/December issue of the NKY Chamber Business Journal, click here: https://issuu.com/nkychamber

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One Comment

  1. John Dietz says:

    You missed one. Rusk Heating & Air Conditioning in Covington is likely on its 6th or 7th generation of family ownership (the Rusk family).

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