Hank Hilty's grandfather peers down at him from a portrait on his office wall, a constant reminder of the family legacy.

For Hilty, his family's history and that of the business he heads are one and the same. He figures his forebears would look favorably on his stewardship of A.F. Gilmore Co., which is best known for its crown asset, the Farmers Market.

"I think they'd be delighted," said Hilty, 50, who is president of the family firm.

Besides the market and 30 acres of prime real estate at Third Street and Fairfax Avenue, A.F. Gilmore is the holding company for Gilmore Bank and conducts oil exploration in five states.

It all goes back to Hilty's great-grandfather, Arthur Fremont Gilmore, who established a dairy farm at the Farmer's Market site more than a century ago. The firm's current offices are in an 1852 adobe adjacent to the market where Gilmore lived.

But while Hilty heads one of L.A.'s oldest family-owned firms, he does not see his role as merely caretaker of a family relic. "The Farmers Market is a business and it has to be allowed the opportunity to change. If it can't change, it'll die," Hilty said.

Early next year, ground will be broken for a 640,000-square-foot retail-entertainment center adjacent to the 64-year-old market. The Grove at Farmers Market, as it will be called, is the culmination of more than a decade of planning. And as with other major decisions at the A.F. Gilmore Co., family members reached consensus on those plans.

In fact, the story of the Farmers Market always has been one of change.

A.F. Gilmore moved to Los Angeles from Illinois in 1870, and with a partner bought two ranches in the area. They later drew straws and Gilmore's secured 256 acres on which he created a successful dairy farm.

At around the turn of the century, he hit oil while drilling for water for his cows, and the dairy soon gave way to the Gilmore Oil Co. A.F.'s son Earl Bell Gilmore created an oil and gas distribution network and the West's largest independent oil company, which was sold to Mobil in the 1940s.

The Farmers Market was born in 1934, when two entrepreneurs approached Gilmore with an idea for a village square on his large vacant field, where artisans could sell handmade goods from stalls surrounding a central produce market.

Gilmore had already built a racecar track on the property and later added a drive-in theater and Gilmore Field to accommodate a minor league baseball team. Much of the property was sold over the years, including a large portion to CBS in 1950.

Earl Gilmore's two daughters did not work actively in the business; a manager, John Gostovich, took over after his death. Hilty succeeded Gostovich in 1987, more than 11 years after he started working for the company as a staff accountant not counting summer jobs at the market as a kid.

Only one other family member is involved in the day-to-day operations, a niece who heads the human resources department. Hilty's sister and two cousins also serve on the board.

While family decision making can be a slower process than in the old days, careful deliberation could be the key to the company's longevity.

"We're very conservative financially and the way we approach decision making," Hilty said. "We take a hard look at the risks and rewards. Maybe that's one reason we've survived so long."

Elizabeth Hayes

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