Sisters Merge Companies after Years of Competing; They Have 1,500 Clients and Plan to Expand

Article excerpt

Byline: SARAH SKIDMORE, The Times-Union

They swear they were playing nice.

"We were friendly competitors," Susan Hartley said.

"There's just so much business out there," said her younger sister, Beverly Cleary.

"We only went head-to-head twice," Hartley added.

After 10 years of competition, the Jacksonville sisters are merging their coffee service businesses. They finish each others' sentences, trying to tell their story the way sisters just more than a year apart in age would -- together.

Growing up, the whole family helped out with the family coffee business, Betty's Coffee Service which opened in 1976. When SunBelt Coffee bought the family business in the late '80s, the sisters went there too. In 1993, Hartley bought the hotel and restaurant division of SunBelt. The next year, Cleary broke off and started her own company with her husband and high school sweetheart, Michael Cleary, to get a more flexible schedule. Eventually Hartley bought the rest of the SunBelt business.

They both focused on business coffee services and said as a result, when family dinner conversation turned to work, things got exciting. But the sisters said eventually common sense prevailed.

"Finally my mom said 'Girls, c'mon,' " Cleary said.

The sisters, now in their early 40s, said it took them time to recognize their different strengths could work well together. Family business expert Kristi McMilan said it's not uncommon for family businesses to morph or split and reunite later. McMilan is associate director of the Cox Family Enterprise Center at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., north of Atlanta. Recognizing their strengths through differences might help their business, McMilan said.

Hartley is the big-ideas lady. An advertising graduate of Florida State University, she handles marketing and is involved with community business issues. …