Business And Son: Keeping Things Harmonious In The Family Business

Being a Dad is a great and rewarding vocation that makes you a better person and benefits you in so many ways in your personal and professional life. There are many aspects to being a Dad which are wonderful, unforgettable and afford you joy and a sense of edification that money can’t buy. Look at any father’s family photo album (or iPhone if you’re one of those tech savvy Dads who likes to keep it all digital) and you’ll see a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of perfect moments. Moments that can never be recaptured or replicated but will remain etched in their hearts forever. One of the greatest gifts a parent receives is seeing their child grow in maturity, knowledge, maturity, character and skills and feeling the humble satisfaction of knowing that you’ve played a part in shaping the person who will one day help to change the world for the better.

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From seeing them take their first steps to seeing their driving license arrive in the post, nothing makes a father’s heart swell more than seeing his children benefit from the skills that he has helped to impart to them. While all Dads are profoundly blessed, there are some lucky enough to have been able to share a trade, a skill or a business with their children, creating a lucrative business together as a family though a pool of shared skills from which legions of happy repeat customers can benefit. If you run your own business with your grown up kids or are in the process of training them up to join the family business, you may well believe that you are living the dream. Getting to work with your kids while watching them hone and refine their skills and earning a pretty penny into the bargain. Sounds great right? Well, it certainly can be… But if it were easy, everyone would be doing it!


Running a family business brings with it its own set of challenges that even seasoned entrepreneurs would struggle with. If your family business is to be harmonious it’s up to you, the guiding patriarch to ensure that things run smoothly and that your customers get to continue enjoying your products and services long after you’ve retired as your kids hand their skills down the generational line to their own children.


Remember: The deck is stacked against you


As idyllic as the idea of working together as a family may be, it’s important to remember that the odds are never in your favour. In fact, only 1 in 3 family businesses survives to be passed on to the next generation, despite the fact that family businesses are a huge player in the small business arena. In fact, in 2013 it was estimated that family businesses generate around 50% of the Gross National Product of the United States. This means that you can never afford to be complacent. You may have a very specific idea of what your business is and needs to be, but your kids will have a much better idea of what it will need to be tomorrow so it’s important to ensure that their voice is heard and that you take your insights seriously (more on that later). Because you’re statistically more likely to flounder you all must pull together even harder to ensure that your business is able to weather the storm and flourish whatever tomorrow may bring.


Make sure your kids get some experience elsewhere


It may be tempting to enrol your kids in the family business as soon as they are of age or they have benefitted all that they can from their education and / or training. But to do this will hobble them in a number of ways. They will develop a myopic perspective which may stunt your business’ longevity. If your kids only ever learn how to do things your way, they will be far more limited in what they can bring to the table. It’s beneficial in the long term if your kids can gain some formative experience elsewhere before you bring them into the fold. The more creativity, experience and ingenuity gained from years of trial and error elsewhere the better for your business’ longevity and agility.


Remember, your workplace is a microcosm of the family unit


Many of the things that make a business successful are the same things that make a family successful. Things like trust, empathy, patience, compassion, encouragement, loyalty and, yes, love are all essential cogs in a fully functional business machine. Without love and passion for what you do, your kids will only ever be willing participants in your business. They will never ever drive its success. Just as a dictatorial “my way or the highway” approach to parenting will never truly positively influence a child’s behavior, neither will the same approach in business guide your kids towards wanting to help shape the future of your enterprise. Your business must be a collaboration and not a dictum. If your kids are to contribute meaningfully to it they must feel some sense of ownership of it. Which brings us to…

Listen to and implement their ideas


Listening is easy. Active listening is hard. It’s one thing when your son or daughter suggests a new production method, marketing strategy or branding initiative for your business and you give them a non-committal nod of approval only to react with blinking incomprehension when they next raise the idea. It’s another thing entirely to evaluate, adapt and implement their idea into your business plan. Whether it pertains to something as transient as what colour to print your corflute signs or as lasting as your customer loyalty policy, your kids deserve to have their voices heard and their ideas implemented (or at least taken seriously). If an idea isn’t viable for your business, that’s absolutely fine. Just explain to your son or daughter why it isn’t but let them know that you’re excited to hear what they’ll contribute next.


Seek advice from outside the family unit, too!


As great as it is to forge a business from the melting pot of your family’s skills, ideas and contributions, it’s also essential not to operate in a vacuum. As hard as we may try to be objective, it’s virtually impossible to extricate the operations of a family business from how we feel about the family members that contribute to them. It’s impossible to ask a parent not to allow their love for their sons and / or daughters not to colour their perception of what they contribute to the business.


For this reason, it’s essential to network with other small businesses and get an outside perspective on your operations. It can be a sobering reality check and force you to look at your business in new ways which may improve your enterprise in the long term.


Be wary of providing “sympathy jobs” for down on their luck family members


All small businesses are a balancing act in a number of ways. There’s the balance between keeping overhead costs manageable and ensuring that you invest enough in your business to facilitate optimal efficiency and growth. There’s the balance entrepreneurs face between spending time in the office focusing on the strategic elements of management and the time spent at the coalface with their employees. But family businesses face a unique balancing act. The balance between family and business. All too often, this can lead to affairs of the heart making for poor business choices. If, say, a son, daughter, niece nephew or cousin is down on their luck, has lost their job and is desperately struggling to find a new one, offering them employment may seem like the most logical step in the world. But it’s a step that could be harmful of your business. If the family member in question lacks the skills, work ethic or personality to keep up with the rest of the team, this may lead to less than harmonious working relations at best and rumblings about nepotism at worst. By all means, employ a family member if you feel that they need a break, but make sure that they earn it.

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Formality matters


When starting in business as a family, it’s  very tempting to let word of mouth agreements, verbal contracts and unofficial arrangements become the order of the day. But in any small business you should hope for the best and plan for the worst. Be sure to draw up legal contracts for family members just like you would any other employee and ensure that any offers pertaining to promotion, salary and the like are submitted in writing. This will insulate all parties from risk and recriminations should any disputes arise.


Treat your business as a business and your family members as employees


Remember that your business is a business and not a forced labor camp. As tempting as it may be to hire your kids for free or cheap labour or to use siblings as a source of unofficial business loans, this is not becoming of a great family run business. Your kids should be afforded all the perks your other employees enjoy and your siblings should enjoy the same benefits as any other investor.


Tie all of the above together and you have the makings of a family business that will withstand the test of time.


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