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Barry Friedman, 34, assumes top job at Santa Rosa-based empire


For Bill Friedman, it would take quite a joyous, momentous day to surpass the one in the mid-1980s when his father passed to him the top job at the family's home improvement store.

But this appears to be it.

Today Friedman, 65, hands over to his son, Barry, the role of president/CEO of Friedman's Home Improvement, one of Sonoma and Mendocino counties' largest and most durable family-owned businesses.

"It's not too often that this gets to happen for a family business," said Bill, whose Santa Rosa grandchildren represent his entrepreneurial clan's fifth generation in Sonoma County. "The company needs a fresh leader."

He and Barry, who will turn 35 later this year, closed their three stores early Sunday afternoon and welcomed all 370 Friedman's employees to a steak-and-salmon supper at the Wells Fargo Center north of Santa Rosa. There they revealed the father-to-son succession.

The transition comes just weeks after the ceremonial groundbreaking for a new store in Petaluma. That's the same town in which Bill's late father, Benny, and late uncle, Joe, used $4,000 of saved-up military pay to purchase a junkyard alongside the Petaluma River just after World War II.

Over the years that business morphed into a hardware store, and in 1970, the two brothers built Sonoma County's largest hardware and building supply store — Friedman Bros. — on Santa Rosa Avenue, south of Santa Rosa. Six years later they closed the outdated Petaluma store.

Bill Friedman became president and CEO when Benny began to ease into retirement in 1985. With Benny's retirement, his kid brother, Harry, became chairman of the board. Bill became chairman as well as president/CEO in 1999 when Harry, now 84, retired and sold his interest in the company to Bill.

Under Bill's leadership, the enterprise expanded with the opening of a store in Sonoma in 1993 and in Ukiah in 1996.

"The Petaluma store is sort of my last hurrah," he said. The addition of that store, scheduled to open early next year between McDowell Boulevard and Highway 101, will add 100 employees to a local retail phenomenon that currently generates $100 million in annual sales.

That Friedman's has not only survived but thrived is a testament to the loyalty of the community and the diligence and acumen of the Friedmans and their 47-person management and administrative team. Competitor Yardbirds was long Sonoma County's largest locally owned home-improvement retailer when it gave up fighting the national chains in 2005 and sold to Home Depot.

Barry Friedman finds it especially exciting to inherit the leadership of his family business as it prepares to return to the town where it was launched by his grandfather and grand-uncle.

"The Petaluma store is very emotional," Barry said. "It's more than brick and mortar."

Born in Santa Rosa in 1978, he first went to work at Friedman Bros. at age 8, bagging and getting carts during summer vacation.

He was the captain of the football team at Cardinal Newman High and then at Lewis & Clark College in Portland. He recalls that as a young man he "tried to imagine myself not being part of the (Friedman Bros.) organization, what that would look like."

But, he said, by 2004, three years after he graduated with a business degree, he found himself strongly drawn to the family business. He went to work learning every phase of the operation.

His one sibling, Julie, chose a different path and settled with her husband in San Diego, where they live with their two children.

In 2008, Barry's father promoted him to a management position. In 2009, he became vice president of operations, with all three store managers reporting to him.

Bill said the succession plan he devised several years ago envisioned himself gradually relinquishing leadership responsibilities to Barry. But what has happened, Bill said, is that "I've seen Barry pull forward faster than I was pulling back."

Satisfied that Barry is ready to assume the lead, Bill is ready to take a step back.

"It's the right time," he said. "You want to do it when you're healthy and you feel good about it."

Though he's passing the top job to his son, Bill is not leaving the company. He will remain as chairman of the board and, along with his wife, Suzie, will retain share ownership with Barry.

Bill said he will also continue to play his role in creating "the long-term vision of the company, and help in every way possible for Barry to succeed."

And he said he won't move away from Sonoma County or stop doing what he can to promote community endeavors. Bill co-founded Schools Plus, and he has been a valued advisor and donor to myriad organizations, among them the Redwood Empire Food Bank, Social Advocates for Youth and the Secret Santa holiday gift appeal by the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County and radio station KZST.

As the new president and CEO of Friedman's Home Improvement, Barry is adding to a menu of responsibilities that include being dad to his and wife Heidi's three children, ages 5, 3 and 1.

Barry said he's proud to be stepping up and happy his father isn't backing far off.

"That's the greatest part of this transition. He's not going anywhere," Barry said.