Jerry Eddinger, Nancy Madarus, Mary Lou Eddinger, and Susie Cavallo (clockwise from upper left).
Ray Holley Jerry Eddinger, Nancy Madarus, Mary Lou Eddinger, and Susie Cavallo (clockwise from upper left).

Jerry Eddinger loves his work almost as much as he does his family, and he is among the rare custom builders who seldom have to choose between the two. His wife, Mary Lou, is president of Eddinger Enterprises. Their eldest daughter, Nancy Madarus, is his partner in the company’s construction division. Nancy’s husband, Kevin Madarus, handles earthwork and heavy equipment, and their college-age sons pitch in on occasion. The Eddingers’ younger daughter, Susie Cavallo, runs the plumbing and painting division out of the same Healdsburg, Calif., office, while her husband, Scott Cavallo, does most of the company’s steel fabrication. All of which makes life for the patriarch a pretty pleasant affair. “I’m 72 and have absolutely no desire to retire,” Eddinger says. “I enjoy my job, and I get to do pretty much what I want. I come to work to see my kids and my grandkids.”

His children seem equally pleased with the arrangement. “My parents started this business when I was real young,” says Nancy, 47, who remembers tagging along with her father to construction sites when she was 5 years old. “When I was 12, he gave me my first construction job,” she says. “He had me pouring concrete and stripping forms. By the time I was 15, I was doing walk-throughs with buyers at a development he was managing.” Nancy and Susie had another family business from which to choose—a women’s clothing store run by their mother’s family—but construction won out. Nancy says a big plus in her becoming a builder was the chance to spend more time with her father. “We call him Jerry at work,” she explains. “He’s a great guy; he’s fun. It didn’t seem like work.”

After graduating college with a degree in marketing, Nancy split her time among the family business, a lumberyard, and a local winery. “Then one day Jerry got sick,” she says. She stepped in until her father recovered, and she never left. “That was in 1988,” she says, without a hint of regret. In addition to daily contact with her family, which she cherishes, the job offers her the same flexibility her father enjoyed when she was growing up. Jerry worked long hours but also found time to coach his kids’ sports teams, she remembers, and she and Kevin followed suit when their sons were young. “We were still working 10- and 12-hour days,” she says, “but we were doing some of it at midnight.”

American popular culture idealizes the family business, but the difficulty of actually running one has spawned an entire industry of consultants and therapists. The Eddingers and their family have succeeded by ignoring the experts and cheerfully breaking one of their cardinal rules: Leave work at work. “We’re always talking about work,” Nancy says. “We keep nothing separate. We live in a small community. We run into our clients at the grocery store, at sporting events. It’s just part of our day, and that’s fine with us.” The family maintains order by upholding the principle of respect for one’s elders—“There is a pecking order, and Jerry is at the top of it,” Nancy explains—and with a clearly defined domain for each member. “It’s something of a democracy, but not quite,” she says. “We get each other’s opinions, but we don’t have to.”

There is risk involved in so many members of one family depending on a single source of income. To counteract the potential volatility of the construction market, the Eddingers have invested in commercial property that generates rental income. And while their other investments took a hit during the downturn, Jerry says, “if we were to retire tomorrow, we wouldn’t be affected.” That is in part because of an ethos of frugality that runs through the family. “We play hard, but we save hard, too,” Nancy says. “None of us has much debt, and the company doesn’t either.” Deep roots in the community and a diversified business model provide additional stability. “We do $20,000 kitchen remodels as well as multimillion-dollar houses and big commercial jobs,” Nancy says. Perhaps as a result, Jerry adds, the downturn’s effects on the business have been rather muted. “In 2010, we were down about 20 percent,” he says. “In 2011, we were up by 25 percent.”

On the matter of putting the family’s financial eggs in one basket, Nancy concludes, “that’s something we think about, but it’s not something we dwell on.” Which leaves time for more important questions, such as: When will Jerry slow down? “It’s almost an unspoken contest,” Nancy says in mock exasperation. “I’ll get here at 6:30, and he’ll have gotten here at 6:25.” That’s totally unnecessary, she notes. “We’ve got 30 employees here. There are plenty of people to pick up the slack. Wouldn’t it be nice to come in at 8:00 and leave at 2:30?” Maybe. But Nancy says she understands her father’s attraction toward work because she shares the same impulse. “My family are my very best friends,” she says, “so I get to go to work with the people I like the most. That’s pretty cool.”