THE 'JUST FOLKS' HOFFMANS ARE MERCANTILE POWERS EVERYBODY WORKS LONG HARD HOURS

Nancy Hass Business writer
Section: BUSINESS,  Page: D1

Date: Sunday, October 19, 1986

To many people in the Capital District, the Hoffman name is nearly as much a part of life as rock salt or shopping malls.


For more than three generations, individual branches of this scattered Albany-bred clan have owned more than 30 businesses - from bowling alleys and amusement parks to car washes and card stores - all within a 15-mile radius of the city. And while fast-food purveyors and chainstore strategists have tried to drag the area into the 20th century, the Hoffmans' way of doing business gently coaxes it back to the 1950s.


The family that originally made its money selling ice at the turn of the century is no TV-glamorized dynasty.


Each of the businesses - all independently owned and operated by separate branches of the family - is characterized by generations of uninterrupted hands-on management, long operating hours, plain settings and competitive prices.


Hoffman's Playland. Hoffman's restaurant. Hoffman's Car Wash; all have been a part of the Albany-area landscape for decades. But many of the Hoffman- owned businesses are less obvious because they don't put the family moniker out front.


Parkwood Plaza, a modern strip mall on Route 9, is Hoffman territory. So are the three Raindancer Car Washes and the Jet Inn. The Turf Inn, one of Wolf Road's oldest hotels, and the Turf Trailer Park in Clifton Park are owned by yet another bough of the vast family tree.


The family's overall net worth cannot be accurately estimated due to the diversity of ownership, however local financial analysts say the family's holdings could be well in excess of $50 million.


But the Hoffmans insist they're just simple working folks. Most of them drive inconspicous American sedans and wear flannel shirts. Only those in the youngest generations have college degrees.


They are the kind of people, a Hoffman daughter says, who "tell you they'll swing by Monday noon and take you for a roast beef sandwich, and, come 12 p.m. that Monday, they're knocking at your door saying 'honey, grab your coat.'"


And as supermarket chains busily build "superstores," and movie theaters turn overnight to "deca-plexes," the modest scale of the Hoffmans' enterprises - and the family's folksy style of management - seem particularly anachronistic.


"I suppose it's funny that we're all in service businesses," said Thomas Hoffman, 43, who owns 13 Hoffman's Car Washes. "And a lot of those businesses are sort of old-fashioned, like bowling alleys and restaurants. But that's where our values are, I guess. We aren't interested in a modern corporate mentality."


Nonetheless, in a modest, unaggressive way, the family name has touched almost everyone who lives in the Capital District.


"They are a remarkable group," said Edward Wyner of the Utica law firm of Wyner, Rinehart & Fitzgerald, who has acted as counsel for several branches of the family. "They are responsible for helping an entire community grow up right."


But the relationship between branches of the family is complex, many members say. The delicate balance of independence and interdependence seems to defy the stereotypes of pulp novels in which a single patriarch rules with an iron fist.


In this brood, the man who is credited with starting the family trend toward self-employment, Charles A. Hoffman (1869-1960) had seven sons, and early on he taught the five who survived that they must control their own lives.


"He didn't simply make his sons work for him in the ice business," said David Hoffman, Charles A.'s great- grandson who owns the Playland, an old- fashioned fun park behind a Hoffman's Car Wash and Hoffman's Restaurant on Route 9. "They had their own routes and he made them buy the ice from him. So they learned right away that the goal was own your own business."


All five sons began families and kept separate assets. As their real- estate investments in Averill Park, Latham and Clifton Park grew during and after World War II, they staked their own children's forays into business, just as their father had.


"In this family, it's kind of an embarrassment to work for someone else," said David.


But most Hoffmans stress that each generation works nearly as hard as the "five pioneers."


"A lot of people think we keep bushels of cash next to our beds at night," said Robert Hoffman, Charles A.'s grandson, who owns Hoffman's Ltd., a wool clothing specialty store nestled beside the Playland on Route 9 and the adjoining driving range."They don't realize that even though we're right next door to each other, each of us owns our own business separately. We're all as much in hock as the average small businessman. There are no free rides for us."


In fact, many of the younger Hoffmans have never met each other.


Michael, a great-grandson of Charles A. who runs the Turf Inn with his father, Howard, and his Uncle Jack, met his second cousin George, who runs Sunset Recreation on Central Avenue in Albany, for the first time just months ago.


But even though the branches of the family have grown increasingly distinct since the years at the ice house, a remarkably similar set of mannerisms, ethics and philosophy run deep in each Hoffman, it seems.


"It takes fire to make good steel," said Robert. "From the minute a Hoffman can walk, he's taught to work incredibly hard. Most of the time money was loaned or earned from your father, not just given freely. And when you're old enough to handle the responsibility, you were told he can either chase after that shiny red sailboat or have the business. Guess what we choose."


For David, Robert's nephew who took over the Playland from his father, Bill, in 1984, the choice was easy.


"After I got out of college, my father told me I could take over the business if I wanted," he said, during an interview at the Iron Horse Gift Shop, a sweet-smelling doll shop that sits beside the rides. "If I didn't, he said, he would sell it. Now that was just too much to let go. This park has been a part of growing up here for more three generations."


George, who inherited the Sunset Lanes from his father, Pat, Charles A.'s grandson, considers tradition his most important motive.


"I dwell on it," he said passionately, watching his stepson Wade clean the same worn counter he scrubbed as a boy. "I think the generational thing is the most important thing there is."


Like many Hoffmans, most of George's family pitches in at the lanes. His mother "still scrubs out ashtrays with a toothbrush and washes down the inside of the Coke machine."


At Tom Hoffman's car washes, he works side-by-side with his wife, his parents, his in-laws and his son.


"One of the reasons we don't have ego problems it that we are very big on respect in this family," he said. "It's a wonderful thing, watching your son take the business a step further than you did. Tommy Jr. is bringing this place into the computer age."


And while tenacity and hard work has paid off for most Hoffmans in all five branches, fate has dealt several Hoffman offspring relentlessly cruel blows.


Yet, faced with crushing adversity, the inbred pugnacity of the Hoffman bloodline is perhaps most striking.


"I guess I'm the Hoffman with the worst luck," laughs Jean, whose life was nearly shattered in 1982 when her daughter, Dawn Maria, was arrested for the murder of her father, Clifton Park real-estate developer Alan Cruikshank, Jean's estranged husband. "But now that I've fought my way back, it's even sweeter. I guess the Hoffmans function best when they know what they're up against."


A brutal court fight left Jean with the Cruikshank estate - including nearly $5 million of debt.


Four years later, she has nearly erased that debt and has taken over the development business full-throttle. Her latest project is a water transportation corporation set up to sell to local water companies and accommodate the 320 acres of land on which she is now building houses.


"People have never forgotten that I am Howard Hoffman's daughter," she said, from her office on the family's prosperous spread on Lapp Road. "And I take pride in the idea that they think I've inherited that business sense."


During the crisis, the Hoffman family helped raise $500,000 bail for Dawn. And although the court reduced the amount to $50,000, Jean says the support from different branches of the clan was "never wavering."


"In this family," she said, "no one ever asks for help from anyone unless they really need it. But if they do ask, no one ever refuses."


David, in whose photo albums family members are rarely seen without a hammer or saw in hand, says the Hoffmans have inherited tremendous pride as well as financial acumen.


Playland, in fact, which charges no general admission fee and is kept as spotless as a 1950s snapshot, seems the icon of the family philosophy.


"This is not a tourist attraction," said David. "It will never be Disneyland. It is a community treasure."


While David joins many of his relatives in acknowledging that 80- hour weeks and 24-hour responsibility may not be as profitable at the bottom line as working for a corporation, he says he has never considered jumping on the chainstore bandwagon.


"See those merry-go-round horses," he says, his voice growing tight as he points to photographs of the elaborately refinished carousel. "I spent hours and hours hand painting those.


"Some people thought I was crazy. But I think that if you don't make a statement in this world about who you are, you are a wasted human being."