The Good and Bad of Working With and For Family Businesses

The Good and Bad of Working With and For Family Businesses

I have had the pleasure (and pain) of working with numerous “Family Owned” businesses over the past twenty-odd years.

On balance, I really like working with family-owned businesses. In general, they understand the value of strong relationship building between business partners, they tend to be extremely loyal (to a fault in some instances), and understand the challenges that face their vendors trying to service them.

There are some definite drawbacks in working with and for them as well.

Many Family-run companies have a myopic view toward payables; while they see it valuable that they get paid on time, they can be pretty lax in paying others. Nothing personal, just family first. There is even a certain lack of empathy that I have found with many family run businesses where they have a hyper-aware sense of what is owed them but cannot project that out to their own vendors. I have seen this first hand with my mom’s business, and I come across it at least once a month with some of my other family business clients. I’m not even talking about these companies owing me. Again, this is symptomatic and not personal; it is a family first mentality.

There is no “exit strategy” or “transition plan” with regard to continuing company operations if something happens to the key family member holding everything together, funding the enterprise, or with the talent that makes the whole thing work. Dad retires, or the “smart kid” gets fed up and strikes out on his own, a death in the family leadership, medical tragedies – all of these things can spell a quick and unforeseen end to even the best of going family concerns. I have lost many favorite eating spots owing to this sad reality (the Grove Park Cafe in Islamorada, now closed for nearly a decade, was one of my all-time favorite places to eat and drink, felled by the death of the husband-owner-chef).

If you work for a family owned business and your are not part OF the family, unless you plan on marrying into the brood, your career future is already written. You will never be part of the sanctum sanctorum regarding becoming management. Look at this as an opportunity to do your own thing. Stroud’s Bar B Q here in the middle Tennessee area is a great example of this; Sean Stoud went to work for Whitt’s, another local family owned chain, saw that he was never going to be more than a glorified store manager, and decided to start his own chain. Has worked out pretty well so far.

Family owned businesses also tend to be run more like – well, families – than professional enterprises, too. That is to say, one tends to run across decisions based more upon emotion than sober reflection in many cases than one would find in a typical corporate environment. Sometimes an offhand comment made at the most inopportune time can quickly end a carefully cultivated business relationship, built up over years, on the whim of a pissed off family owner. I’ve seen it happen to others and I’ve had it happen to me.

The challenges and rewards of dealing with Family-owned businesses can be vexing, but extremely rewarding. Just don’t expect reason and rhyme to win the day all the time, most of the time, or even some of the time.


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