This is the story of a dad, his wife, their five sons (and five spouses), their seven grandchildren, and $50 million dollars. It has all the elements of a gripping modern day drama—money, family, and real estate. But this is no trust fund fiasco, no tale of ruined fortunes and misspent lives. Instead, it's the tale of the Buscher family, and how Dave Buscher saw a business windfall as an opportunity to create a family of entrepreneurs—one start-up at a time.
Dave Buscher is a steak-and-potato man. But he's also a millionaire—and right now he's a millionaire who's getting his butt kicked. That's kind of the point at the Owings Mills Krav Maga studio (Krav Maga is a self-defense technique originally developed for Israeli defense forces). Slightly winded from being pummeled by a bunch of (much younger) students, Buscher, 61, more than holds his own. And no one holds back—even though Buscher owns the joint. Following the multi-million-dollar sale of his defense contracting company to a major military supplier, the white-haired, slightly cantankerous, but soft-spoken Buscher decided to invest the money back into his family—including himself. Buscher owns this studio, plus another one in Columbia. After reading about Krav Maga in an airplane magazine, Buscher came looking for training. When he didn't find anything, "I did what I do in other cases—I started one of my own."
He's always been a hard worker. Buscher got his undergrad degree at Villanova University, outside of Philadelphia. That was followed by a master's degree in electrical engineering at the University of Maryland, and a master's degree in systems engineering and technical management at Johns Hopkins. He worked at the Harry Diamond Laboratories (now the Army Research Lab), and then spent 17 years at JHU's Applied Physics Laboratory.
In 1996, he co-founded Solipsys, a sensory integration company. Basically, says Buscher, they took different radars that had overlapping coverage and built a system that would let those radars create a single picture. Business was good—then came September 11, 2001. Demand for the company's work took off; the sale to military contractor Raytheon was consummated in 2003. And suddenly, Buscher had tens of millions of dollars in his bank account. He also had a plan for what to do with the money.
His kids all remember it differently—how Dad first approached them with his plan—but eventually the message made its way around the family. "I challenged them all to come up with an idea," says Buscher. If they put together a business plan, he'd hear it out. Word spread amongst the Buscher boys: David, 35; Mike, 33; Steve, 32; Christopher, 30; and Tim, 29. "I always wanted the kids to have the ability to be entrepreneurs," says Dave. "To make their fortune and not necessarily have to work for someone else."
The do-it-yourself spirit began early in the Buscher household. As the family outgrew their Silver Spring home in the early 1980's, Dave started building a house in Clarksville with the help of a couple friends and some contractors; of course, the boys were put to work.
"I was 13 and hammering and plastering," says David. "It was our family project for a couple years." He remembers eating microwave hot dogs while they worked—"it was the only thing we ate for a year." The house was completed in 1985.
"I have memories of being in sixth grade and hammering our plywood floors," says Mike. "It was very much a family effort to build that house."
His parents, says David, seem to thrive on chaos. They had five children in seven years. And once the boys started moving out, his mom, Lauretta, "would replace everyone with a dog," says David. "For a while, she had this pack of dogs at the house."
The brothers share a lot of similarities: smart, private, and focused. For many of them, their wives play a dominant role both at home and at work—spearheading the businesses that were born out of this proposal.
First out of the gate were Katie and Tim. They bought Crazy Lil's, a bar in Federal Hill, in January 2003. "We had a couple of false starts trying to find the right place," says Dave Buscher. Crazy Lil's was the third or fourth opportunity. "That was the only business that was already operating. All the other businesses started from scratch." Tim had no food service experience—he quit his job at Verizon to run the bar—but Katie had worked in restaurant management. "I think when we first told Dave we were going to buy a bar he thought we were crazy," says Katie, 28, especially when, three months later, they found out she was pregnant. Tim quickly learned about food preparation and bartending since Katie couldn't keep up with the late nights and smoky atmosphere.
They still own the bar, and it's finally turning a profit, says Katie. Lil's, she adds, prepared them for the next step: an upscale steakhouse in Fulton that sits at the intersection of routes 216 and 29. They spent a year planning oZ—pronounced "Oh-Zee"—Chophouse, and opened in September 2006. "This is ours from top to bottom," says Katie, looking around the restaurant. They chose everything from the silverware to the soap dispensers in the bathroom. (Their second child was born two weeks before they opened. "We have really bad timing," Katie says.)
Timing is just part of the learning process. And so are the mandatory monthly board meetings that Buscher instituted. Initially, everyone was skeptical. "I said, 'I don't want to sit around and tell everyone how much my store is making and how I pay my staff,'" remembers Lindsay Buscher, who along with husband Chris owns Urban Chic, a fashion boutique. But they had no choice. Now, she says, "it's probably one of the smartest things we could have done."
Everything is discussed, from finances to problem employees to merging suppliers. Buscher says there is no point in each business making the same mistake over and over again. And there are no secrets. "It makes everyone aware that what they do affects everyone else," says Buscher, who attends some meetings, but not all of them. It's now their show to run.
And so far, so good. Chris and Lindsay are at the helm of a boutique empire. They met their last semester at Salisbury University and fell in love, they joke, over their freak knowledge of Contra, a Nintendo game. When Dave's offer was made, both Lindsay, 29, and Chris were working full-time, in addition to getting master's degrees and planning a wedding. Chris had taken his degree in graphic design and gone to work for his dad at Solipsys—the only one of the brothers to do so. Lindsay was at Northrop Grumman and had just been accepted into the Women & Politics Institute at American University.
Instead, she opened her first Urban Chic in February 2004 in Georgetown.
With the money they borrowed, Lindsay and Chris were able to afford the real estate. "I think that Georgetown store was one of the most important decisions in our lives," she says. They had discussed other locations, like Towson, "but I think if we had done that we wouldn't be where we are now."
Georgetown is a tricky place. As shopping destinations go, it's one of the best. But for a small, independently operated boutique competing with established upscale shops like Barney's Co-Op, Neiman Marcus' Cusp, and Intermix—well, it's a difficult thing. Especially for an inexperienced first-timer. The shop's location, upper Wisconsin Avenue (known as Book Hill), is also a few miles off M Street's main hub.
An omen of the store's future came early: The night before they opened, a woman begged to come in and shop. She bought $5,000 worth of merchandise—in cash.
Chris called his father. "We just made our first sale," he told him.
Today, the original Georgetown store continues to thrive (and "we are killing last year [sales]," says Lindsay). Chris and Lindsay opened their second Urban Chic at Maple Lawn outside Columbia in November 2005. They developed an online presence. They'll open in Bethesda next spring. A developer in Annapolis is courting them. And Gaylord Hotels will be opening more incarnations of their boutique at two locations, including the highly touted National Resort & Convention Center (the "National Harbor" project) in Prince George's County. "Lindsay has a passion for what she does," says Michael Hudson, brand projects manager for Gaylord Hotels. "Her existing boutiques speak for themselves. She and her family have poured their heart and soul into them."
Closer to home, the Harbor East location—nestled between Fells Point and the Inner Harbor—will open next month. Baltimore, they confess, was not on the radar screen. But it was Lindsay's sister—living in Baltimore at the time—who saw the buildings going up around Whole Foods, and urged her to look into the new, upscale neighborhood. Lindsay called a leasing agent on a Sunday expecting to leave a message. "Oh my God," the agent said to her. "I was going to call you tomorrow."
When they open the doors in August (in the former Nouveau Contemporary Goods location), the store will house 2,900 square feet of home goods, clothes for women, men, and kids, and some maternity wear. One of the keys to Urban Chic's success is the build-out—which is the process of finishing the raw space. This includes building walls, designing dressing rooms, selecting floors, and picking paint colors. "It could kill us because of the money we put into it.
But if we don't do the build-out, we end up being like every other boutique," says Lindsay. "And that's what makes us stand out—and yeah, it's going to take us a couple more years to pay that money back, but it's worth it."
If you ask any of the Buschers, this is the hardest they've ever worked. Owning a business—no matter where the funding comes from—takes countless hours. "You have to really love what you do," says Nicholas Johnson, of owning a small business. His stores Su Casa, Calligaris by Pad, and Dudley & Max dominate Fells Point. "I can be at work seven days a week, 24 hours a day and not be bored." But hard work doesn't necessarily mean you're raking in the money.
Buscher does not take a percentage of the profits. "It's one of those things we pay back once we're starting to make money," says Lindsay. "His goal is to get us there so we are profitable." And everyone claims there is no competition. No weighing of who got what. It's just understood that a boutique would need more funding than, say, a photography business.
Buscher sets up shop almost daily in his satellite office—the bar at oZ—checking e-mails and making phone calls. The family now employs an accountant, Didi Cohen, whose sole job is managing Buscher Family Holdings, the entity that all the businesses fall under. "I can't even put into words what we've learned these past three years," says Lindsay. "We made so many mistakes that first year we would have had to close our store. There is no way we would have survived." That seems to be the cushion that Buscher has created for his kids. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, over 50 percent of small businesses fail within their first five years. And while none of the Buscher businesses have hit the five-year mark yet, they've been able to survive early mistakes because they're not worried about foreclosing on their houses or owing money to the bank.
This seems especially important for some of the businesses that have struggled early on, like David Buscher's bluehouse, a 7,000-square-foot shop on the cusp of Harbor East in the old Broom Corn building. The concept of bluehouse is "healthy and eco-friendly living"; everything in the store, from the drinks to the furniture, has to meet a certain criteria from sustainable to recyclable.
And it's not easy being green. It's harder to find vendors, especially ones that can deal in large quantities. The store—which sells home furnishings and gifts—can sometimes look mismatched because small vendors aren't unified in terms of theme or even seasons. "We just hope to make up for that with the other aspects," says David. After bluehouse announced plans to utilize wind power to compensate for energy use—and received some press—the National Aquarium contacted them about designing a lounge.
David attended Johns Hopkins, and lived in Chicago and New York before finally settling back in Baltimore three years ago. When the offer came to start his own business, he decided to move home. "I wanted to create something that wouldn't be destructive or harmful," he says. So he seized on the eco-friendly idea. Bluehouse opened its doors in December 2005. Like his brothers, it's a family affair. David's partner Rob Hartmann, 41, helped with bluehouse's conceptualization, planning, and logistics in the early stages.
Businesses are funded all the time, he says, but most have to start at a more modest level. Because of his father, "we were able to start with a bigger bang than if we had to evolve." And because the money was coming from a personal source—"I don't think anyone else would have been crazy enough to give me the money"—David says he didn't have to justify where every cent was going. It's been a slow process with a big learning curve. "I wasn't used to dealing with a lot of money," he says. "I had never seen that much in my entire life." He still sounds a bit dazed.
His plans for the future are still fuzzy—"assuming we get to be very profitable, of course"—but include expansion or green consulting. "I think it'll be another year before I'm satisfied that all of our systems are right in terms of how we buy, what we buy, how we operate." He seems the most worried about his prospects. "My family's resources are very tied into what I'm doing here," says David. "So, if for some reason we should go out of business or something—it not only affects me—it's my entire family. It'll affect personal things as well as business things."
At the other end of the spectrum, Kassi and Steve Buscher are having a stellar year: For starters, the Ritz-Carlton recently came calling. The pair opened The Pearl Spa in January 2006; a happy client had mentioned the spa to someone at the luxe hotel group, and after phone calls and a bunch of visits from New York they offered Kassi the coveted spot at the new Ritz-Carlton Residences on Key Highway. If all goes as planned, the second Pearl Spa will open in November—the fourth Buscher business to open in Baltimore city.
Kassi, 35, spent seven years working as a consultant for salons and spas as a distributor. She and Steve got hitched in Vegas six years ago. While visiting a spa after the birth of their daughter, Kassi realized she could do a better job. She approached Dave with her plan. "It's definitely not a free ticket," says Kassi. "We're working hard and we expect to pay everything back." Now, the 11,000-square-foot spa is an anchor for Maple Lawn with its stunning Blue Grotto treatment, water walls, and blissful lounges. Maple Lawn is a mixed-use community that used to be a turkey farm. Initially it felt like a ghost town with Urban Chic, The Pearl, and lots of empty buildings, but slowly more businesses are moving in, including a Harris Teeter.
And now that oZ has taken up residence—Buscher Lawn Farms they joke—Dave has become the unofficial sheriff, mayor, and public relations flak. "It's been slow growing," says Kassi. "But this is our best month ever. Every month is better than the last month."
The kids all joke about Dad's accelerated MBA program. "I purposefully, in the beginning, let them make some errors because I think that's a valuable way to learn things," says Dave. His lessons also include the importance of marketing and lease negotiations. "He throws the responsibility on you—whether or not you're ready for it," says Lindsay. "He just wants you to learn really quickly." And they have. Urban Chic currently has 25 employees, says Chris. If you add up all the Buscher family businesses that number grows to 250—double what Solipsys employed.
The smallest of the businesses are owned by Cate and Mike Buscher. They met in 2002 when both were living in New Jersey. She was an admissions counselor at Fairleigh Dickinson, he was a staff photographer at the Daily Record, and both hailed from Maryland. Before long, they were backpacking around Peru together (her first plane ride). After they got engaged, they quit their jobs and bought a one-way plane ticket to Bangkok. They traveled the world for six months—she's been to 20 countries, Mike around 43—and in October 2004, were married in his parent's backyard. "That was a really good glimpse into the wedding business," says Cate, 27, who now owns Plan It Perfect, a wedding and event planning business. Mike owns the aptly named Mike Buscher Photography where he does a mix of documentary, wedding, corporate, and commercial photography, plus some work for a handful of newspapers. He's working on a book project and a marketing, graphic design, and advertising agency is in the works. Mike and Cate work out of their apartment in Federal Hill—the former Holy Cross School with soaring ceilings and lingering evidence that they now live in the former gymnasium.
They're operating on a much smaller scale than the other Buscher businesses—"the black sheep," laughs Cate. And yet, it's a perfect fit. There is obvious kinship between a wedding photographer husband and a party planner wife, but also rehearsal dinners are often held at oZ, bachelorette parties at Pearl Spa, honeymoon outfits purchased at Urban Chic.
Perhaps it's Cate's more intimate business size that gives her a good long-term look at the prospects for the myriad Buscher family enterprises.
"They will," she says, "take over the world one day."