This year, the Chicago-based Sasser Family Holdings is celebrating its 85th year in existence. In a world where 14-month old companies can sell for a billion dollars, you might overlook a company like Sasser--but you shouldn't. It's a rare example of a company that has passed some of the toughest tests a business can face and founder who has worked hard to build a successful legacy.

What's not to admire?

In the midst of the Great Depression--when other entrepreneurs were shutting down and record numbers of people were out of work--Fred H. Sasser started up a refrigerated rail car leasing company. It was a great idea--but after the stock market crashed no one had the funds to lease his innovative products. So Sasser was left with a stockyard full of parts and abandoned projects.

What would have been the demise of most companies was just the beginning for Sasser Family Holdings, as Sasser realized he could reinvent his company by repairing existing cars for companies that could no longer invest in new ones.

Four generations of Sassers have faced what could be seen as insurmountable challenges in the Great Depression, World War II, the Staggers Railroad Deregulation Act, and the ongoing demand for innovative technological advances. Yet they have forged ahead to continually evolve and innovate, making this family somewhat of a legend in the railroad industry. These are the rules they live by.

Allow your core values to guide you.

Anything that causes the company to compromise its values is a non-starter for the Sasser team. Established many decades ago, those values are

  • We will never compromise our integrity.
  • Our only product is superior customer service.
  • We succeed or fail as a team.
  • We relentlessly seek ways to add value.

They believe that if a company bases every move on values, making sure that every employee, vendor, partner, and customer is a good cultural fit to the organization, it will enjoy a solid foundation.

Example: The Sasser values extend to the community as well. The company supports a number of local charities and when two of their subsidiary businesses' employees were affected by multiple sclerosis within 18 months of one another, the company became involved in The National MS Society. Employees are also given time off to contribute their manpower to local charities as well.

Embrace change.

After returning safely from serving in World War II, Sasser's only son, Robert, knew that  the U.S. government had an overabundance of rail cars. He took the opportunity to purchase them and repurposed them into shipping cars, thus bringing his father's initial idea current with the times and demand and really making it boom.

Today, the company's fourth generation company president, Shad Peterson is focusing on new technology that will eliminate the delays and increase the efficiency of rail inspection. Legacy companies don't sit back; they're always looking to the future and what it will mean for the business.

Recognize those who support your team.

As a family-owned organization, Sasser recognizes that success comes from a long line of contributors. They believe that the support generated by employees' extended family contributes to their success. To honor and celebrate this, the company holds a family picnic every summer where both immediate and extended family members are all invited to attend. In this way the Sasser family demonstrates the importance of family, not only theirs, but that of their employees, vendors, and partners.

Choose partnerships that fit.

"Every relationship has to be mutually beneficial so partner for good times and the bad," says Kelly Brannon, director of corporate communications and marketing. If something about that relationship compromises your company values, dissolve it--before it dissolves you.

The same rule applies to projects. If a project is at odds with your long term purpose or vision, stop working on it.

Example: When Sasser created a Web-based interface for customers, the company considered automating the process entirely. But they knew that complete automation would not fit in with their culture of superior customer service. Where many companies are cutting corners, Sasser maintains a personal touch by having customer service reps readily available to their client base.