The Family Business: Finding the Perfect Balance

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No one is more important than family. No one can grate your nerves like family. Some folks can’t wait to turn 18 to slip the familial bonds, while others actually commit to working side by side with their relatives for all or part of their working lives.

Take jewelry designer Esmeralda Lambert. For eight years, Lambert ran operations for her family’s retail bicycle stores and warehouse. She had such a good experience that, last year, she bravely struck out on another venture—jewelry design and sales, with her husband. “I had a very good experience working with my parents,” she said. “They allowed me to learn from my mistakes, and never made me feel guilty if I did something wrong. We would analyze what went wrong and put procedures in place so that the mistake would not happen again. I worked in every department of the company so that I could learn the whole business. I worked next to my father and learned first-hand how to run a company and manage employees. When the time came for me to run the operations of the company, I was prepared.”

Carrie Rosenblum co-owns the Children’s Orchard, an upscale boutique in Manhattan Beach, California, with her sister, Cindy Kehagiaras, and mother, Carol Mintz. “The best thing about working with my mom and sister is that we can always cover for each other and help each other out when we really need it,” she explained. “If one of our kids gets out of soccer practice early, we can always ask the family member who’s not at the store to pick him or her up for us. It’s not something you can ask coworkers that you’re not related to!”

Yet there are also downsides.

“We never turn off work!” exclaimed Lambert. “Because my parents, my brother, my sister and I all worked in the business, every time we were together, even outside business hours and on vacations, we talked about work.”

Another pitfall? “On many occasions my father would schedule management meetings during the weekend or late at night. Because it is our business, we could not complain about having a meeting during our personal time. As owners of a family business, you all wear 100 hats. You have to work harder than anybody, longer hours and the success or failure of the company directly affects your family.”

“Things can easily get emotional, and quickly,” shared Rosenblum. “Since we’ve spent our whole lives together, there are days when we get frustrated with each other and we may argue, but at the end of the day, we know we need to keep our emotions out of it.”

Carrie Enders, VP of front office at the family-owned RE Suspension, advised, “The number one rule we follow in our small family business is this: No business, no job, no disagreement is worth more than our family. My father, my brother and I work well together, but it’s certainly not easy. We are all stubborn, independent thinkers and have definite opinions on everything. But, each of us has learned to pick the battles we feel strongly about; and each of us has learned to compromise—a lot.”

Before diving in, make sure your goals for the business are clearly defined and in line with one another, Enders adds. For example, what is your exit plan if someone decides to leave the business? What is your five-year goal? Your ten-year goal? If you’re starting this business at home, when do you move into a new space? “Make sure the expectations you have for each other are the same—work hours, vacation days, schedules, roles and responsibilities. Who’s going to take out the trash? Who’s going to do the bank deposit? What time does the work day start? One of the best things about owning your own business is the freedom and flexibility to be your own boss, but one of the biggest pitfalls is that with family, emotions run deeper, and if one person feels another isn’t pulling their weight, resentments will certainly follow. Talking about those little issues up front can save a lot of headache down the road.”

Stephen Sheinbaum, founder and CEO of capital funding provider Merchant Cash & Capital, urges families to consider a succession plan prior to going into business. “Small business owners often treat all of their heirs as equals, even though the actual responsibility of inheriting a business will fall to one or a select few.” Other business professionals recommend written and funded buy-sell agreements and exit strategies.

For Rosenbaum, togetherness trumps everything: “Most families only get to see each other on the weekends when they’re not working, but we are able to stay connected and up to date with each other, even during the week. The store is like our very own social network.” ■