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Building Stronger Businesses And Stronger Families

Plan for family growth within your company.

What do you and your material handling equipment distributorship have in common with NASCAR, Marriott, and Bush Brothers Beans? You, too, are a successful, growing, family-owned business that contributes to the economic vitality of this nation. Having worked long hours and sacrificed personal time, you are proud to be able to provide an opportunity for future generations as well as an enjoyable lifestyle for your family. Having family members work with you in the business is the fulfillment of a dream, and now you can relax and savor the joy that comes with knowing your business will remain vital and alive for at least another generation.

Family businesses represent 80 to 90 percent of all U.S. companies.

Or can you? Lately, the Norman Rockwell scene of family bliss is fraying at the edges as the signs of tension and strife move from the boardroom to the dinner table. Grumblings about family gatherings turning into stockholders’ meetings and the fact that your five-year-old granddaughter asked you why you are so mean to her Mommy at work have you dreading the next graduation or birthday celebration. In addition, you found yourself looking through sports catalogs to purchase a striped shirt and whistle to referee the daily turf wars that are turning the business into a smoldering battleground.

You know how to run a successful, thriving business, but the family conflict is affecting operations and taking precious time that needs to be spent on superior customer service. The competition is getting fierce inside as well as outside the business. How do others build stronger businesses and still maintain family harmony?

Closing the door and ignoring the problem only diminishes the sound but doesn’t make the problem go away. In fact, you are in good company as family businesses represent 80 to 90 percent of all U.S. businesses, and 60 percent of all public companies are family-controlled. What do these other businesses know that you don’t? Perhaps they recognize that creating business success and family harmony require some foundation building blocks.

Employment vs. Entitlement
Being the boss’s daughter, son, in-law or out-law does not establish the right to employment. Develop a sound plan for bringing family members into the business. Begin by asking these questions:

  • Am I creating a position for this person, or is there a need for these particular skills?
  • Are the requirements different for family entry into management and hourly positions?
  • What are the required minimum educational standards?
  • How much time should be spent working outside this business to be seen as a valued player?
  • Are the expectations clearly defined?
  • Is there a mentor available to ensure success?
  • Would I hire this person for this position if we were not related?

Family Meetings: Pride vs. Panic
Sharing information about the business in a safe, structured environment decreases anxiety while increasing family membership pride. The Family Meeting is not a shareholders’ meeting, a strategic planning session or graduation party; it is clearly a time for family members to understand the past, present and future of the family business. Telling the company’s story is vital to establishing pride in the enterprise. The following are some points to remember when planning a Family Meeting:

  • Be clear that the owner or chief decision-maker is at the meeting as a family member participant, not as the boss.
  • Hire an experienced family business facilitator to plan and guide the meeting; he/she will expect civility and keep the group focused on the business while not allowing a gripe session to occur.
  • Begin with a short half-day session at a site away from the business to minimize distractions.
  • Help family members understand the history of this great business as well as the original struggles and development process responsible for the success enjoyed today.
  • Create a visual living history.
  • Share individual family contributions to the community.
  • Celebrate and enjoy the fact that coming together as a family to grow a stronger, vital business contributes to the future of the economy.

Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate: Boundaries vs. Uproar
Setting safe boundaries for communication is necessary to avoid uproar. Accept that the “invisible gorilla” sitting in the middle of the room remembers everything negative and is waiting for the appropriate moment to leap and reveal who received the best wedding gift, who was always Dad’s favorite, and who always received special privileges. Understand that the gorilla grows stronger under stress and loves uproar. Decrease potential conflict and increase the power of your communication by doing the following:

  • Listen and understand that acceptance is not agreement.
  • Realize that their perception and your reality may collide.
  • Embrace conflict by listening for the learning. What are the opportunities here?
  • Park egos outside the room.
  • Don’t accept temper tantrums and uproar, especially from yourself.
  • If sharing the same home, choose a space to retreat for business discussions; don’t allow business to permeate every room, especially the bedroom.
  • Express gratitude daily.
  • Celebrate small successes.
  • As in other aspects of your business, if you need outside help, hire it!

Always remember that every day your family business is either growing or declining; there is no standing still. Just as you have a strategic plan for business growth, have a strategic plan for family growth within your material handling business. Begin with one small step but begin today!

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association
Camile Donnelly, Ph.D.   


Meet the Author
  Camille Donnelly, Ph.D. is the owner of Donnelly Leadership Counseling in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As a founding member of the West Michigan Family Business Council and the Family Owned Business User Group, she is recognized for guiding family businesses to resolve conflicts, clarify roles, map strategic direction and improve communication.


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