Lessons Learned from Decades in Family Business

 In Blog

August 20, 1986 upon my graduation, I left the University of Maryland and drove directly to my dad’s office where I began work that day.  Well, it wasn’t my first day in the building as I had worked in the warehouse since I was able to drive, but this was my first day working in the front office.  I was very excited to be part of the sales team as an associate, learn that side of the business and as I thought, “not get my hands dirty”

As the “entitled” child, son of the owner, why did I work in the warehouse for all those years, learning to ship packages, unload containers, load trucks, rewind twist tie ribbon and sweep the floors?  The answer was simple, according to my father, to be a manager to another employee, you needed to understand and perform the jobs of the employees you want to manage.  If you don’t understand how a job is done, the responsibilities, time allowed to do a task, and what is involved with that job, how can you be a successful manager?  Looking back on that lesson today, I see how valuable this was.  There are many stories of executives whose children, by entitlement of being the son or daughter of the owner, enter a business at a level way above their experience and or skill set and expect to manage people and or the company and this often leads to nothing but failure.

When I initially discussed the idea of joining the company after my graduation from college, my dad said no.  He wanted me to learn how to work in an outside business environment to gain additional experience for a few years and then we would talk.  Well, that plan didn’t work when his partners (my uncles), without my dad’s knowledge asked me to join the company upon my graduation.  I asked them why they were asking me without my father’s knowing and they said I had earned it through my work in the warehouse, which made me very proud and I agreed.

The horror stories around family businesses are real, widespread and often hurtful.  Families who have tried to work together have completely broken up to the point of full estrangement from each other.  There are claims of family members who do not carry their load or feel that they are carrying too much of the load, who feel entitled because they are family, take too much time off and many, many more conflicts based on the specific dynamics.  I am sure that these stories are true particularly when considering the different generations, personalities, upbringings, morals and ambitions involved.

There are also many success stories around family businesses, though you don’t seem to hear about as many of these as we do the bad ones, which is a shame.  As an active participant, I can say very sincerely that when they work, it is a wonderful situation.

My personal story about our family business wasn’t always happy and joyful and I had my moments where I questioned my decision to join the family business.  The love I had for my family never waivered but there were times I didn’t necessarily like the people I was working with.  In any office environment, you have different personalities, different points of view and different goals, but when there is family involved there is an expectation that everyone is going to work for the common good.  This isn’t always true and when there are disagreements and sometimes fights it is hard to separate the business and personal lives that we all have.

Over the years, my 2 uncles left the business and I have to say that working with my father, just he and I were some of the best years of my life.  Not only did we see each other at the office, travel together, we respected each other’s abilities, skill sets, knowledge and learned from each other.  We also very much enjoyed our relationship outside the office at football games, golfing or just hanging out when “office talk” wasn’t allowed.

Family businesses require care, love and an understanding that not everyone’s thinking, work ethics, ambition and goals are the same.  These are aspects that should and must be taken into account and discussed internally and between the family before approaching and hiring of that person takes place.  Like any employee, a job description and terms need to be set, documented and agreed to including work hours, responsibilities, travel, goals, vacation, sick time, salaries, and benefits.  Also documented should be ramifications if the job description and terms are not met.  It is important to create a contract (or at least a signed document) stating the above, that also includes a succession plan, in case of a disability or an untimely death.  This succession plan should be shared with all heirs of an employee with ownership of the corporation.  This will avoid any misconceptions about ownership and or what is due in the event of disability or an untimely death.  The more documentation the better and everyone agrees to the terms and signs the document, it avoids problems that could come up at a later date

Some may question the need for all of the above, isn’t this being pessimistic, thinking the worst: “we are family, we love you and will always respect you” but once in the work environment personalities and people can change.  Signed documentation can and will hopefully assist in avoiding problems and allowing the family to stay together should disagreements and or eventual break ups occur.

Working in a family environment can be extremely, satisfying, challenging, rewarding and fulfilling but it does create some specific needs that should be addressed upfront.  As long as these are addressed, agreed upon and documented then it can be the best situation ever.  I am proud to carry on the legacy started by my family and will continue to do this for many years to come.

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