The Bishars of Big George’s Home Appliance Mart have made appliances a family affair since 1959. Their continued philosophy of “family first” keeps customers coming back generation after generation.
By Andy Reid
Photography by Derrick Martinez
On a blustery winter afternoon, when most Midwesterners have abandoned the idea of venturing out into the subzero polar vortex weather, Witbeck Home Appliance Mart is open, warm and bustling.
Lenny Simmons — who has worked for Bud Bishar, owner of Big George’s Appliance Mart in Ann Arbor and Witbeck stores in West Bloomfield and Harbor Springs, for the last 28 years — is the first to greet you with a smile. Other salespeople are leading customers through the elaborate sales floor, full-scale kitchen models and rows of washers and dryers.
This particular day is slower than normal, because of the frigid cold outside, and several employees are gathered around the offices in the back, where Bishar, 83, is the center of attention. When the office closes today, Bishar and his two sons, Mark and Ramsey, who help run the business, will treat the entire staff of the West Bloomfield store to a staff appreciation dinner.
“Our business is family-oriented,” Simmons says. “We deal with people directly, and we go the extra yard to make sure people are happy. I fell in love with that, and that is why I have been here so long. It is because of Bud. He is a great guy to work with.”
Bud Bishar emigrated from Syria to Southeast Michigan in the late 1950s, when he had the opportunity to study mathematics at Eastern Michigan University. When he arrived, he struck up a friendship with a fellow Syrian immigrant, George Simon, who had built a career in retail and was ready to venture out on his own.
Simon opened Big George’s Home Appliance Mart in 1959, and Bishar worked for him part time while finishing his degree in Ypsilanti. After he graduated, Bishar was promoted to manager of the camera department.
“George and my dad just clicked,” Mark says. “They had a similar bond — roots, food, and they’re both big guys. That friendship turned into a business partnership.”
Bishar worked for Simon for 14 years, moving his way up the ladder. In 1983, the late Simon, ready to retire, offered to sell the business to Bishar, and he jumped at the chance. Mark was 11 when his dad took over the store.
“The next year, he said, ‘You’re coming to work with me on the weekends,’ ” Mark says. “ ‘You’re not going to sit around here, driving your mom nuts.’ ”
Bishar put Mark to work renting VHS and Beta movies to customers. In the 1980s, the majority of Big George’s sales were in small appliances and electronics, like VHS players, which were exorbitantly priced at the time. So, Mark worked in the burgeoning field of movie rentals. Mark worked at the store through his childhood and officially decided to go into the family business after college.
“When he decided to make this his career, after he got his degree, I decided to make him work in the warehouse,” Bishar says. “That’s where he started. I wanted him to learn the whole business from the bottom up.”
The business steadily grew until 2005, when another opportunity presented itself to the Bishars. Witbeck had been owned and operated by three generations of the same family since 1917. Like Big George’s, it was a pillar of its community in Southeast Michigan. The two companies were friendly competitors, and the Witbecks offered to sell to the Bishars when they were ready to retire.
The Bishars loved the idea. Witbeck had already built a user-friendly website, which was quickly becoming a necessity for Big George’s. The Bishars also inherited a huge, loyal customer base. And, with the northern Witbeck store in Harbor Springs, Big George’s now had an easily accessible delivery route along the I-75 corridor.
“We almost tripled our business in that first year,” Mark says. “It came with a lot of trials. You can’t grow that fast without some stumbles. That first year was really hard and stressful, but it keeps getting easier.”
The current landscape of appliance sales comes with its own struggles. Amazon Prime next-day shipping and enormous retailers like Lowe’s and Home Depot have made life harder for local retailers. But the Bishars are still committed to the principle that helped the Big George’s and Witbeck brands grow in the first place: Treat the customer like family.
The Bishars donate to local programs and charities, because they want to invest in their community.
“We love to help out in the community, and we see that come back tenfold,” says Mark, who lives in Ann Arbor. “People will walk up to us on the street and say, ‘Hey, you donated to my kid’s silent auction, and that meant a lot. For that reason, I am coming in to buy from you,’ or ‘I am going to tell people about you.’ ”And, once people come in the door, they’re usually customers for life.
“Over the years, I have dealt with grandparents, parents and now I’m dealing with their millennial kids who have grown up and need appliances of their own,” Simmons says. “They bought from me 20 years ago, and they sent their kids back to me.” It all comes back to the Bishars’ philosophy of family first.
6551 Orchard Lake Road, West Bloomfield
1030 State St., Harbor Springs
2023 West Stadium Blvd., Ann Arbor
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