Working with family members can be rewarding and trying
By Laura Petrecca, USA TODAY
Gathering with family during the holidays can be trying enough…
(Dec 2, 2009) —
Gathering with family during the holidays can be trying enough – and that's without
your slightly overbearing older sister as your boss. Or your workaholic uncle dissecting
sales figures as you take a forkful of pecan pie.
For the millions who work with relatives at family-owned firms, little separates
the dining and board rooms.
Kyle Franklin, a third-generation aerobatic pilot, says he can't remember a holiday
when his family didn't talk about airplanes and air shows. "We catch ourselves from
time to time and say, 'Can we think or talk about something other than airplanes?'
" he says. "I don't think I have a single (family) picture that doesn't have an airplane
in the background."
Sean Fisher's family has that same passion for precious metals. "I still remember
being 3, 4, 5 years old and talking treasure at the dinner table," says Fisher, a
third-generation family member and acting director of Mel Fisher
's Treasures, a company that salvages gold, silver and other artifacts from sunken
ships. "All we ever talked about was treasure."
While treasure hunting and piloting portend glamorous vocations, even members of
more mundane family businesses such as butchers and bakers frequently talk shop during
downtime. Louis Savarese, a 58-year-old second-generation owner of Brooklyn-based
Michael's Prime Meats, says he spent a good part of his childhood listening to his
uncle and father confer about the meat-merchant business.
This intertwining of personal and work life gives family firms a special place in
the world of entrepreneurship. Many have grown strong because of institutional knowledge
passed down through generations, as well as the blood bond between siblings, loyalty
to parents and the built-in drive to keep the family trade alive.
But there are also inherent weak spots, including having to contend with highly emotional
issues such as sibling rivalry, succession planning and redefining family roles as
the business evolves.
"The big deal about family business is that you're running on two levels at all times,"
says family business counselor Karen Calcagno. "In the ideal world, you're a family
at home and business at work. The reality is that it's not that clear-cut."
John Hillerich IV, the fifth generation to run Hillerich & Bradsby, maker of Louisville
Slugger baseball bats, says he had to re-examine his professional and personal roles
when he took the CEO post from his father in 2001.
"For me, the hardest part was to say, 'OK, how to separate our father-son relationship?'
" he says.
He wanted to forge his own leadership path but sometimes found it difficult to take
advice from his father, John "Jack" Hillerich III, who is chairman. "It was hard
for him to step away" because he had run the company for more than three decades,
says Hillerich IV.
Sean Fisher developed deep bonds with many family members after rejoining Mel Fisher's
Treasures upon college graduation in 2005. He is close with his father, Kim, who
leads various company units, and counts his co-worker cousins among his closest friends.
But Sean says there are also trying times.
When a relative/employee goes through a tough personal time, "It goes on everyone's
shoulders," he says. Another issue: Family problems are hard to keep private. "Employees
see personal dirt."
The wonderful bonding moments run together with times of utter dysfunction when working
with relatives, says Joe Schmieder, senior associate at The Family Business Consulting
Group. "The best part of being in a family business is working with your family members
– and the worst part of being in a family business is working with your family members,"
Allen Gillespie of Simpsonville, S.C., says his wife and two children had to contend
with the awkwardness between him and his father-in-law after the two disagreed about
the value of company shares that had been granted to him when they worked together
at a packaging and warehouse firm. Five years later, Gillespie still gets emotional
about how that tore the family apart.
"It's like I divorced my in-laws and kept the wife and kids," he says. "They (the
in-laws) get visitation all they want and take the kids on trips," but the extended
family no longer spends holidays or any other significant time together.
Some type of widespread discord is always a risk at family firms.
"When you work with your family, it can really blow up," says Joe Astrachan, executive
director of the Cox Family Enterprise Center. "You're always at risk of not just
losing your livelihood; you're also at risk of losing those who are nearest and dearest
While some disputes are unavoidable, one way to lessen the odds of friction is for
company leaders to document financial agreements and clearly lay out job responsibilities,
says Rocki-Lee DeWitt, a management professor at the University of Vermont's School
of Business Administration and other experts.
"There should be at least a minimal set of policies and procedures," says Calcagno.
And it's incumbent upon management to adhere to – and enforce – those rules if they
want to avoid ill will among employees.
In addition to workplace expectations, other elements have been vital in successful
•Communication. Leave it to a family of auctioneers to tout the importance of talking things through.
But communication has helped the Doherty family maintain strong ties. The late Jack
Doherty was the first in the family to take up the trade – auctioning off commercial
restaurant equipment. His daughter, Jill, entered the vocation in the late 1970s,
and her daughter, Erin, followed suit a few years ago.
Jill and Erin now work together at Star Benefit Auctions in Long Island, N.Y.
"That's one thing we do, we talk," says Jill. And it's not just the elder generation
passing down tips to the younger bid callers. "I've learned a lot from (Erin), as
I'm sure my dad learned a lot from me," says Jill. "It's a back and forth – it's
not a one-way street."
Hillerich IV also stresses the value of communication.
His family brought in a consultant to help foster more family discourse. They also
set up a "family council" of Hillerich kin that meets once a quarter "to get issues
on the table."
As for his dialogue with this father, "our conversations are much easier" since they
got some outside advice.
•Innovation. Often, it's difficult for families steeped in tradition to try new things, says management
professor DeWitt. But successful firms embrace change and take advantage of it.
And innovation can take many forms, from inventing new consumer products to updating
a wing-walking act for air shows.
"We're always trying to come up with new ideas and new ways to sell ourselves," says
aerobatic pilot Franklin. "I go to bed thinking of ideas."
The advances at Hillerich & Bradsby are less harrowing, but also complex. Among the
latest: "bionic" gloves.
The company is working with an orthopedic hand surgeon to make anatomically correct
gloves that are designed to work in concert with hand movements. They've created
the gloves for sports such as hockey, baseball, golf and weight lifting – and are
now designing them for cycling, tennis, racquetball and even for driving motorcycles.
"Innovation is really the key to our long-term success," says Hillerich IV.
•Perspective. Last month, Kim Fisher's two youngest sons had a mishap that would horrify many:
The boys accidentally bumped into each other and a chunk of gold that one was holding
– worth more than $100,000 – skidded across the wood deck they were standing on and
plunked to the bottom of water about 40 feet deep.
Nobody yelled. Nobody pointed fingers. Instead, Kim used a piece of broken deck wood
to mark the spot where the artifact fell in. Sean then jumped in, diving to the bottom
of the murky water.
That type of "no shame, no blame" attitude is essential to keeping a family business
running strong, say Calcagno. Of course, those who make mistakes should own up to
it, she says, but after that, a family should focus on the course of action to correct
Most successful family businesses reduce the drama, and think of it as just "stuff,"
and say, "We'll take care of this," she says.
After the first dive, Sean surfaced and announced that it was dark and silty at the
bottom. After another dive, he surfaced and said he'd found a bicycle.
A few dives later, he surfaced triumphant.
He held up the nearly 7-inch gold bar, which glistened in the setting Key West sun.
And the other Fisher family members all told each other that they knew he would find
Link To Articlehttp://www.usatoday.com/money/smallbusiness/2009-12-01-familybusiness01_CV_N.htm
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