WOMEN@WORK

How to manage a successful family-owned business

Posted Jan. 19, 2012, at 7:18 p.m.
Eloise Vitelli
Eloise Vitelli

When my husband and his partners decided to sell the health food store they had owned for 18 years, our 8-year-old son took the news the hardest. He had grown up “in the business” and figured he would get to run it one day. Together with his friend and fellow business child, he had spent time after school and weekends helping to stack shelves, break down cardboard boxes and, favorite of all, use the pricing gun to tag prices on boxes of tea, whole grain cereals and other inventory.

Family businesses are like that. There is an emotional attachment to the business, as if it is another member of the family. Owning a business can be all-consuming, and even if others in your family circle are not directly involved in the business, they are affected by its presence in your life. But the boundaries between family and business become especially blurry when more than one member of a family is engaged day-to-day in the business.

The challenges of leadership, decision-making, roles and responsibilities are amplified when layered on top of family relationships. According to the Institute for Family-Owned Businesses, a membership organization based in Brunswick, family-owned businesses represent approximately 90 percent of all businesses in Maine, yet less than 30 percent survive to the second generation and only 13 percent make it to the third generation. Family-owned businesses generally are understood to be ventures that are “owned, operated, and cherished” by two or more members of the same family.

Joan Fraser, her husband, Paul, and youngest daughter, Sara, work side-by-side in the Bath Sweet Shoppe, taking turns bagging goodies and serving customers. While Joan is the creative force and the chocolatier behind the business, all work equally hard keeping the business running.

“We naturally fell into our roles,” said Joan.

“Sometimes we even finish each other’s sentences,” added Sara.

The Frasers, who opened the candy store eight years ago, said they are driven to be successful even as they struggle with the lack of down time.

“There is no time to think,” said Joan.

January, though, is when they carve out the time to set goals for the business. “People who set goals are always more successful,” said Joan. “We prioritize both high-level and simple goals for our business, from getting new accounts to new curtains for the upstairs production room.”

They also set goals for the family: things to do, things to buy and places to go during the year.

When Anne Trenholm came back home a year and a half ago to join her family’s diversified farm business in Winthrop, she asked her mother for a job description. She had worked in agricultural ventures in the West after college but knew she had a steep learning curve to establish her place as the third generation on the Wholesome Homestead farm. The job description provided structure and helped Anne and her mother set up systems for decision-making and communication.

“We do quarterly check-ins and use a wall calendar to coordinate the operations and marketing,” Anne said.

Anne still is learning how best to use her talents to “keep the farm alive” for the next generation. Her mother, who grew up on the farm, brings historical perspective and experience and oversees production and quality control. Together, they set specific product and income goals for the farm as a whole and then set individual goals within that larger vision. Anne, for example, is working to bring more people to the farm for special events.

Her job description has evolved.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself. It’s hard work and takes a lot of time,” she said.

Living on the farm with her parents, she said it can be hard to set boundaries. She finds taking walks through their woods with her father to be rejuvenating and allows her to step back and appreciate the value of what has been created by previous generations.

“At the end of the day, what really matters, what pushes us, is to grow good food for our neighbors and ourselves,” Anne said.

The Frasers would agree.

When faced with inevitable conflicts, they have learned to pause and ask: Is this a family argument or a business issue? And they know that at the end of the day no one gets a paycheck unless the store is successful.

Joan added, “And, you can’t be angry for long when there is chocolate around.”

Eloise Vitelli is the program director for Women, Work, and Community, a statewide organization that has provided training and assistance to start-up entrepreneurs since 1984.

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