Costa Mesa - In 1905, the story goes, Frank H. Ayres traveled from Ohio to Los Angeles on a $2 train ride to buy ranches for his employer.
He finished his work, and never returned. The opportunities were too grand to pass up. He quit his job and started buying land and selling it in pieces.
A century later, his grandson Donald II and great-grandsons Doug, Bruce and Donald III are keeping the family business strong -- now with a collection of 16 European-style boutique hotels headquartered in Costa Mesa.
The family celebrated its 100-year milestone by inviting about 200 clients, employees and friends to a bash Thursday at their flagship Ayres Hotel & Suites Costa Mesa/Newport Beach.
Keeping a family business going through the fourth generation is no easy feat, said Mike Trueblood, director of Cal State Fullerton's Family Business Council.
Statistics show 80 percent of family businesses fail to survive to even the third generation, he said.
Several of the Ayres' 12 grandchildren are already eager to get into the business, family members say.
"I want to work my way up," said Chase Ayres, 17, who has taken summer jobs as a bus boy and bell boy.
While grooming his sons for the business was unofficial and impromptu, getting the grandchildren into the action will need to be much more organized because there are so many, Donald II said.
A 1924 letter from Frank Ayres to his son, Donald Sr., provides a glimpse into how the family business endured.
"If you would come into my office and work as conscientiously and as hard as you would for someone else, you would ultimately do as well as you would for anyone else, but with this added advantage: that you would be building a business for yourself," Frank wrote. "Within 10 years, no doubt, (you will) earn more by such method than by working on a salary for someone else." From World War II through the 1980s, the family built about 30,000 homes, including some in Huntington Beach and Newport Beach.
Then Donald II "got tired" of the ups and downs of the housing market and of selling what he built, so he decided to get into the hotel business. On a trip to Europe with his daughter, he noticed a beautifully decorated countryside inn. He modeled the hotel chain after that inn, he said. The first was built in 1985.
His daughter, Allyson Ayres D'Eliscu, did a lot of the chain's decorating, which includes much artwork and imported antiques for a warm, home-style ambiance. His wife, Janet, helps out here and there; his daughter, Victoria Ayres, has opted to stay out of the family business.
At first the hotels were named Country Side Inn, then Country Inn & Suites by Ayres. Recently, most of the properties have been named or renamed without the "country" and with the "Ayres" coming first.
Just three weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the family purchased land to build a hotel in Hawthorne/Manhattan Beach. They were confident tourism and travel would bounce back.
"Our gut said life will go on," Doug Ayres said.
The Newport Beach family owns some commercial property, but hospitality is their true business passion, they said.
The Ayres Hotels of Southern California is "strong" as a business, president James E. Roos said. While he declined to give details about the private company, he confirmed that profits grew by more than 10 percent in 2004.
Trueblood praised the Ayres for hiring Roos.
"That's a difficult pill to swallow for families," Trueblood said. "But they have to realize that as the business grows, they may need someone else's management talents." Despite the president and major support from his three sons, Donald II, 74, still likes to help out with the day-to-day operations. He isn't sure when he will retire.
"I'd get bored," he said.
Doug Ayres credits the many sailing expeditions and races that he, his brothers and his father took when the boys were young with training them to work as a team.
Former and current employees of the family said the Ayres are honest and down-to-earth.
"I wouldn't want to work for anyone else," said Gaylord Muilenburg, who's worked as the family's building renovator for 28 years. "They treat you like family." The Ayres say it's that family atmosphere -- the Ayres often get to know the guests personally -- that makes them different than the large corporate hotel chains.
"They give miles," Doug Ayres said. "We give smiles."