Past success doesn't guarantee future prosperity. Vitality lessons from longstanding firms:
• Aim for stars. John Mahdessian had big ideas when he took over Madame Paulette, the high-end New York City dry cleaner his great uncle opened in 1959, which his father ran until 1987.
About that time, Mahdessian's father fell ill, and John redirected his Wall Street ambitions to the family business.
The 56-year-old firm is now the dry cleaner of the jet set, including musician Jay Z and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"I took the whole industry to another level. I made it sexy," Mahdessian told IBD.
• Earn that shine. Such a reputation requires ingenuity and elbow grease. The breakthrough for Mahdessian came in bags of water-damaged and mildewed gowns a socialite wanted saved. "Every night for almost a year I took on these challenges," he said. "I had to take apart each and every piece."
Mahdessian experimented with chemicals to clean the fabrics.
A year later, 90 of the original 100 garments were saved.
"We are now the final authority on what can be and cannot be restored," Mahdessian said.
• Demonstrate hustle. When an Armani boutique owner brought in an ink-stained shirt, Mahdessian left an indelible impression.
After quickly rendering it spotless, "I had it delivered back to Madison Avenue before the guy got back to the boutique," he said.
Bend-over-backward service establishes a reputation.
"I've always catered to the most demanding clients in the world," Mahdessian said. "I don't like disappointing people in general."
• Embrace the past. Walking around 103-year-old M.S. Rau Antiques leaves this impression on shoppers: "It's like a museum, but you can take things home," said Bill Rau. His grandfather opened the store in New Orleans, and his father and uncle ran it before Rau became CEO in 1995.
"I believe it's very easy to constantly evolve but keep true to who you are," he said. "Any business that doesn't try to grow dies. You can't stay stagnant."
• Push ahead. Rau admired his grandfather's eye for valuable items and honed his own ability to anticipate consumer shifts. "Markets and tastes and moods change faster than ever before," he said.
What's hot today can be ice cold tomorrow.
"It's like the water from a tap — it just stops," Rau said. "You have to stay on top of the market changes."
• Solidify your foundation. Style drives Nemo Tile. The New York City store opened in 1921 and grew into a mass distributor of floor tile.
"We have to be above what everyone else is doing in the market," said Matt Karlin. "We buy materials all over the globe."
• Retain spirit. The third generation running the operation, Nemo Tile's Karlin took this lesson from his grandfather:
"Having cash available is king. I'm constantly watching my overhead, watching my cash balance."
From his father, Karlin learned to keep tabs on customers.
"I like to be in the showroom," he said. "I'm here and I get to listen to what people are saying."
• Strengthen structure. After taking the president's chair in 2012, Karlin addressed the business' lack of management structure.
The company now had clearly delineated executive roles beyond sales.
He also hired marketing experts to strengthen the brand and opened a showroom in Philadelphia last spring.
"It's our first real step outside our comfort zone," Karlin said.