By Karen Buschmann

WHEN MILTON FRY was born in 1924, his family’s business, Fry-Wagner Moving and Storage, was only 16 years old. Fry is the third generation of Frys involved in the St. Louis-based moving and storage business. His grandfather Mandel Fry started the business with Bob Wagner by moving household items with a horse and wagon. Wagner later sold his share of the company to Mandel for $10,000. Milton’s father, Isadore Fry, joined the company after he returned from World War I. After Milton returned from World War II and finished his education at Washington University, he also made Fry-Wagner Moving and Storage his life’s work. He became president of the company in 1965.

With the help of his son, Larry, Milton expanded the business by opening locations in Kansas City, Columbia, Springfield, and Belleville, Illinois. By 1995, Larry, the fourth generation of the Fry family, became president, and Milton became chairman. Recently celebrating his 88th birthday, Milton continues to log 40 hours working in the company’s St. Louis office, talking daily to Larry in Fry-Wagner’s Kansas City branch.

Missouri Business asked Milton a few questions about his decades of work at his family business.

Q: What is something people might not know about your business?
A: Many people think we only move and store household goods. The reality is that is only a fraction of our business. We also offer record and data storage; project management services; asset management services; supply chain management services; furniture, fixtures, and equipment; warehousing and distribution; and brokerage services.

Q: What’s the secret to Fry-Wagner Moving and Storage’s longevity?
A: One family has solely owned the company since 1916. Over the last several decades, we stayed within our limits for growth and did not incur a lot of debt along the way. We invested wisely. This fiscal responsibility has allowed us to be very flexible with current economic conditions and invest heavily in the right people and equipment.

Q: Where do you see your business in the next 10 years?
A: I see the company continuing our trend to diversify even more from household goods moving and storage. Companies are not moving their associates like they used to in the 1980s and 1990s, and they may never get back to that level again. By recognizing this, we will focus on diversifying even more into other relocation and logistic services.

Q: With ever-shrinking profit margins in many businesses, what do you see as the biggest challenge in sustaining a family business in today’s business environment?
A: The cost of sustaining a family business today is very high. The main challenge, in my opinion, is our government and the taxation we face as a small, family-owned business. These costs are increasing each year. In addition, our economy has struggled for the last five years, and that has hurt all businesses, including those owned by families.

Q: What are the advantages that a family business has in today’s business world?
A: For my family, a major advantage is having familiarity with the business itself and an in-depth knowledge of our industry since we’ve been operating since 1908. Having longevity and a good reputation within our market is also a great advantage. We’ve forged close relationships with many customers over the years, and they, in turn, recommend us to others. When running a family business, reputation is extremely important.

Q: For generations, business owners dreamed of building a business they could hand down to their children. Is that dream lost to most families in today’s business world?
A: It may not be a lost dream, but it certainly has become more challenging to have a viable, profitable business to hand down through multiple generations. One issue is that second and third generations taking over a business are more focused on enjoying and spending the money from the business but aren’t as willing to commit to working as hard as their parents and grandparents.

With today’s economic climate, there are so many more obstacles for business owners than in last decades that I’m sure many people interested in starting family-owned businesses shy away from doing so because the cost is prohibitive.

Q: What has Fry-Wagner done to secure this dream for your family?
A: Our family has owned the company for four generations. Amazingly, only 3 percent of family businesses make it to the fourth generation. We have grown over the years because we have stayed on our mission of working to be the best mover in the United States. My son, Larry, is our current president and expects to integrate at least one of his sons into the organization to ultimately take the reins from him. That would make Fry- Wagner a fifth-generation company, which is extremely rare to find. I’m proud of the fact that we continue to grow and expand, even in tough economic times, and we’ve provided careers to literally thousands of individuals since we opened our doors in 1908.

Q: If you had one piece of advice for a small business owner wanting to build a business that sustains multiple generations of growth, what would it be?
A: Starting a business today would be very difficult because of government regulations, and the economy is very sluggish right now. I would probably advise against the investment given these factors.

Q: What is the strangest thing you were ever asked to move
A: Back in the 1960s, Fry-Wagner moved 5,000 cadavers from Washington University in St. Louis to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. The instructor at Washington University had collected these for her classes over the years. When she retired, she offered the cadavers to the Smithsonian, and the Smithsonian eagerly accepted her offer. We had to take each cadaver, which were all housed in a drawer, and wrap it individually for transport. Several crew members that were out at the job site the first day did not want to return the second day. It was too spooky!

— Published in the Missouri Business, the Magazine of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, November 2012 Issue —