Four rules to live by when a small business is all in the family

Small business is the backbone of America’s economy, and family-owned businesses can trace their roots back to the earliest times in business history. Some companies are “mom and pop;” some are passed down from generation to generation. In today’s global market place, many business start-ups are family-funded, family-staffed, and family-operated.

Family businesses start with the best intentions, and when they fall apart, the repercussions can impact both the family and the business.

One concern of many in family businesses is the ability to separate the work world from the family world. No one wants to take work home with them, and no one succeeds when the family turmoil infuses the workplace.

It’s important to understand and separate work and home dynamics. At home, a mom or pop may be patriarch or matriarch. At work, the parent may work for the child. At work, the older generation may do things as they have for years and years, while the younger generation sees innovation as the right path to success. It’s important to understand the dynamics, and define the roles that each family member will have in the business.
Then, develop guidelines and formats that keep the work emotions and dynamics completely separate from the home dynamics.

Craig Hankenson and his wife, Kathy, met when Craig was an executive with Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, and Kathy was employed at Wolf Trap. Craig founded Producers Inc, a Tampa, FL,  entertainment industry agency in 1980. He and Kathy were married shortly thereafter, and Kathy joined the company. Today, he’s president, supervising a staff of seven, and she’s vice president, handling the books and office.

“In show business, our line of work, it’s a 24/7 work world,” says Craig.“ Work can impose on our personal life, yet on the other hand, it’s convenient to work with your family. Both worlds can get emotional, and we try to keep work at work and home at home. It’s important to define roles in business and roles at home. They vary. We work to keep business emotions at work, but we both know that our personal relationship is more important than work.”

Michelle van Schouwen and her husband, Steve, founded vanSchouwen Associates (now VSA Marketing), a strategic marketing and advertising company in Longmeadow, MA. They worked together for 21 years, until Steve’s untimely death. “Our best secret was to have defined some specific areas of expertise for each of us, and to respect each other’s leadership in that space” says Michelle. “We got along well that way, and shared goals sealed the deal.”

Michelle says they started the company in a wing of their home, and both work and home shared common space. “I had a toddler in the office, and realized one day – when asked his name, he replied “Zach vanSchouwen Associates” – that it was time to move the office to an office. Our work roles were separate and didn’t interact much except for major company decisions. We learned that we work to live, and we didn’t live to work.”
Cecilia Calhoun, chief marketing officer for Cognate Nutritionals, is the stepdaughter of company founder, Theodore VanItallie, MD, and wife of the company’s CEO, Robert Firger. Cognate Nutritionals manufactures Fuel for Thought, a coconut oil beverage used by people who want to increase their ketone levels to provide energy to the brain. Calhoun and Firger share close quarters at work, and, at the moment, their workplace is in their home.

“Bob had been involved as an attorney in start-ups before, and he knew that it could be a 24/7 proposition,” says Calhoun. “We try to stick to a ‘no business on weekends’ schedule, but it’s sometimes difficult, because we both share an incredible passion for our company. The idea that we’re doing something for the greater good hooked us,”

“I’ve talked with spouses whose spouses have built start-ups,” says Calhoun. “It’s a lonely life. A start-up can consume someone. I’m not lonely working alongside my husband, and we have different roles at work. Still, we need no-work periods in our lives.”
Gay Ashley and her mother started working together backstage at Wolf Trap, where they ran the food concession for ten years. Gay’s sister, Shari, often helped out feeding stagehands, actors, and musicians.

“It was very difficult starting out in business together,” says Gay. “There’s so much good energy and desire to succeed, that nearly every discussion turned to business. After years of working together, we found that we missed the mother-daughter/sister-to-sister interaction. It’s hard to get used to, and so very easy to slip back into work discussion. You just need to keep at it until the switch shuts off in your head and let other things prevail.” Today, Gay and her mom work within The Ashley Realty Group in Northern Virginia, where Gay is prinicpal broker/owner.

The bottom lines on working together in a family business:
1. Define the organizational flow chart for work, and recognize how it differs from the organization flow chart at home.
2. Discuss in advance how you’ll handle work issues at work versus bringing them home.
3. Family takes priority over business. If you can’t work together without it negatively impacting family harmony, then don’t work together.
4. Just because you’ve defined roles between work and home, don’t assume everything falls into place happily ever after. Continue to work at maintaining a separation between home and work and a respect for roles at work and at home.
Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.

1 comment

  1. Yasmin says:

    Great post

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