A family affair: Danto Furniture continues family business tradition into fourth generation

This article is the first in a series exploring the joys and challenges of running a family-owned business. 

Ashley Danto Silverman sees no reason that motherhood and business can't coexist together. Balancing her role as a new parent to 3-month-old Eden and her job in her family-owned business will have its challenges, she admits, but she's also motivated by motherhood itself. 

"It makes me want to work a lot harder," Danto Silverman says. She's already started talking to her daughter about her occupation, despite her young age, and hopes some of it will rub off. "I tell her I am a 'business lady,'" she says.

Danto Silverman is now the fourth generation of family to power Danto Furniture, a 78-year-old business started by Danto Silverman's great-grandfather, Julius Danto. He ran the store until he was 91, and then passed the store to his son, Charles Danto, who (now at 87 years old) still owns and runs the store, along with his own son Irwin Danto, 65. 

Four generations of Dantos
Danto Silverman joined the business five years ago to help with social media, marketing, and strategic projects. Now, with a daughter of her own, she wants her children to see women in leadership roles. 

"Furniture is a very male-dominated business," Danto Silverman says. "I feel like a bit of a trailblazer as a young woman in the furniture business."

She draws strength from other women entrepreneurs she knows, and is particularly grateful for the mothers' club Honey, a space for mothers to interact and support each other, where she's met a lot of mothers in business. 

As a younger worker, Danto Silverman brings a fresh perspective to her family's business, and hopes her technology experience can provide a new take on furniture, which will be essential as their store goes up against the booming trend of online retailers. But she has had issues with her ideas being accepted. "I know one day they'll come around," she says. 

Her efforts appear to be paying off — Irwin Danto recently traveled to Las Vegas to receive the Home Furnishings Association award for Retailer of the Year.

Transitioning smoothly from one generation to the next is an issue many family-owned businesses face, says Camille Walker Banks, executive director of the Goldman Sachs entrepreneur program 10,000 Small Businesses (10KSB). The program works with the "heir apparent" in family businesses to implement strategies that help with the transition, but Walker Banks says there's sometimes a reluctance to hand over the reigns. 

She worked with Danto Silverman on the 10KSB program and says her training and experience will be an asset to the furniture store. "She's going to know what's hot out here, what's new. She's going to know the technology that's available," Walter Banks says.

If Danto Silverman has her way, being a smaller, family-owned business won't be a disadvantage for Danto Furniture in a digital era. The store recently introduced a mobile app called Showroom Technologies, which provides an interactive digital catalog to show pieces in room simulations. "It's exciting," she says. "We've been getting a lot of press and eyes on our store."

New digital tools at Danto Furniture
Becoming a mother has forced her to "think differently about things," and has encouraged her to have more of a creative, open mind when it comes to business strategies. It's a change from working in a structured corporate environment, which she experienced right out of college, but enjoys the flexibility of working at a family-owned business. 

When Danto Silverman finishes her maternity leave, she'll return to working four days a week, one of which will be Saturdays. "It can be hard to get part-time work, to get your employer to go from full-time to part-time," she says, "So the flexibility outweighs any of the disadvantages." 

One of those disadvantages is a lower salary than she might earn in a corporate role, but she wouldn't want to change her situation. "[Salary] isn't what's important to me right now," she says. 

What is important to the Dantos is being a family-friendly business. Employees often bring their children into the store, and it helps connect them with their community in ways other business can't. 

For example, Danto Furniture helped stabilize its nearby neighborhood of southwest Detroit. In 2009, it boarded up around 250 abandoned homes to prevent vandalization. The store also donates Christmas toys, works with local police on community projects, and makes it a policy for staff to collectively speak several languages (including Spanish and Arabic) to cater for the diversity in their region.

Exterior of Danto Furniture
Working in the family business doesn't just shape Danto Silverman's relationship with her daughter, it's changed her connections with her father and grandfather, too. "I can't call my grandfather 'Papa Chucky,'" she says. "I have to call him 'Charles' or 'Mr. Danto.'"

Working with her grandfather and father, however, has been a way to get to know a different side of the people she cares about. "I am still learning things about them," she says. 

But being part of a family-run business doesn't come without challenges. Not being able to separate work from family can risk relationships. "It can be difficult going to family functions if you're mad at someone about something in the business."

The Danto family are not alone in this. The family dynamic and the ability to separate work and home-life is a huge challenge according to Matthew Bihun, senior loan officer at ProsperUS Detroit. "People always warn 'don't go into business with your family' because they're your family and there's no way of getting out," he says. 

Danto Silverman is not going to pressure her daughter to join the family business, especially with the retail world rapidly changing. "As much as we'd love a fifth generation, I see her doing other things," she says.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photos by Nick Hagen

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is a freelance writer and editor based out of Detroit. Contact her at [email protected].
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