Family Firms Share Secret to Balance
It's all relative...
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," he says.
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 to you."
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 family businesses:
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 the situation.
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 it.