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Sweeping Questions

The fourth-generation owner of a Richmond broom company ponders the future of his family business.


As the fourth-generation owner of Imperial Broom, Robinson may know a quality broom from a cheap one, but he wasn't up on the latest in domestic deities. Later at home, he says, his wife, Helen, brought him up-to-date. "She knew all about Martha Stewart because she buys her stuff at Kmart," he says.

Since Robinson's great-grandfather started pushing brooms more than 80 years ago, Imperial has been a family-owned business. His brooms start at just under $5 each. But with factories mass-producing such household items for pennies overseas, Robinson is facing stiff competition — and considering his options.

"I'm at a point now where I'm trying to make a decision. Where do I go from here? It's hard to figure," he says, as he settles into a chair in his cozy office at his Church Hill factory on 21st Street. "I'm 84 years old. … A friend told me the other day, 'You've had a good ride.'"

The broom Martha Stewart's staffer ordered just may be the key to the future.

It's a little 4-foot-high model called an African wedding broom, used by slaves who weren't allowed to marry legally. Instead, they borrowed an African tradition of jumping over a broom together to symbolize their new union. Today, many newlyweds are nodding at the past by having a handcrafted wedding broom at their ceremonies. The MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas stocks Imperial's broom in its wedding chapel, and a shop in Hollywood, Calif., occasionally orders a few. Others find Robinson's jumping broom, which sells for $20 to $40, on his Web site, www.

Robinson had always planned to turn the business over to son and business partner, Carlton, the fifth-generation Robinson to make his living selling 100 percent broomcorn brooms, each handmade one at a time. But Carlton died in August at age 57 of respiratory complications, which began when he was exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam. Carlton's twin brother, Carl, an architect, died three years ago, also of a respiratory illness. That leaves his son Matthew, who is retired after a long career at IBM and lives in Florida, and daughter, Yvonne, an accountant who lives in Texas. Neither feels it is possible to return to Richmond to take over the business. Only one of Robinson's granddaughters, a lawyer, has expressed interest in the business, but Robinson doesn't think she could handle her Washington, D.C., legal practice in one hand and a broom business in the other.

Born in 1920, Robinson was raised in Bungalow City, a Henrico County subdivision off Nine Mile Road. His parents bought several lots at $25 each and built a home. His father, like Robinson's grandfather and great-grandfather before him, made and sold brooms. In World War II, when his number came up, Robinson took a small detour before joining the family business. He was stationed in Asia with the Air Force, and when he returned to Richmond, he took a job as a porter on C&O Railroad's Richmond-Chicago route. While the money was good, he says, the time away from his family took a toll. His wife was left at home raising their young children while he was riding the rails. When she asked him to consider a job change, he thought about it overnight and quit the next morning. The natural alternative was a return to the family business.

He approached his father about buying the business and was given a year to prove that he was up to the task. In 1945, Robinson took over. The broom boom grew, and in 1979, he built the factory building on 21st Street to accommodate demand from supermarkets, hardware stores and other retail outlets, mainly in Richmond, Hampton Roads and Washington, D.C. Eventually the business diversified, and he began selling plastic brooms and commercial-grade mops. Clients have included Philip Morris, Reynolds Metals, DuPont, AT&T and other businesses along the Atlantic Coast. Robinson keeps his company's annual revenues and other finances private.

Nearly 26 years later, the cinderblock factory is quiet. Gone are the days of seven employees cranking out brooms at rates that are still proudly scrawled on the walls in pencil. Robinson has no employees; he makes brooms himself for clients like Lovings Produce and corner stores around town; and he takes time to talk with friends.

"My wife calls my shop 'the clubhouse,'" he says, laughing. Indeed, visitors pop in regularly to discuss business and life. He's become something of a mentor to many of his friends' children, too. Active in the community and his church, Robinson serves on the Henrico Economic Development Authority and was a scoutmaster for 10 years, as well as a former school bus driver. He's earned the respect of peers and generations of kids who are grown and figuring things out on their own — often with a little help from Robinson. "Guys come by here for a little encouragement," he says. "Young guys want to ask me about what they should do."

Nowadays, he's looking for a bit of advice himself.

"Yesterday an old business associate came in out of the clear blue. He asked how I was doing, and I told him, 'I'm just holding on.' Foreign trade took over and the new machinery is sky-high."

His old German-made stitcher, used to bind the broomcorn together, is broken, and the company that made it is long gone. Although several engineers have tried to replicate the needed parts, they've been stymied by the unusual design. If Robinson decides to carry on, he knows he'll need to buy a new stitcher to the tune of $85,000 — for now, he's doing the sewing by hand with colorful twine he gets from Vermont.

He's also thinking about finding someone to whom he could outsource the broom production. "I've made some good contacts," he says. "I'm trying to find a direct source who will make the brooms according to my specs." Someone recently sent him some samples of their brooms, but Robinson was not impressed. "They don't meet my expectations," he says, as he examines one of the contenders. "I just don't like the quality. I try to make a broom that gives good service. My son inspected every broom that went out of here. He always said, 'When a bad broom goes out of here, we go out with it.'"

Soon, Robinson says, he'll have made his mind up about what to do with Imperial Broom Co. He knows the demand is there for the African wedding broom, and he says he may just focus on that one product. "I don't want to turn around when people around me are saying, "Keep going,'" he says. "The bottom line is that I'm praying over it. God will direct your path. He'll send people to help you." S