Families in Business

Man sitting at a laptop

A man came into a psychologist’s office looking for help. When the therapist asked the client what the problem was, the client said, “well, you see, I come from a family.” In other words, no matter how stable our family looks on the outside, being part of a family can be crazy making from time to time. Adding a business relationship to that dynamic can produce even more insane moments. The question is whether or not we can throw personal and business relationships into the same pot and end up sane. From what I have seen, both personally and professionally, there are fewer families that thrive as business partners than end up wanting to separate from one another. The trick then, is how to divorce oneself from a unsuccessful business arrangement with a sibling, parent or child while keeping the personal relationship they once shared and enjoyed, intact. This, for many, can be a very difficult, if not impossible, task.

Dale, a middle child, sandwiched between two brothers, is thriving as a partner in a successful insurance company started by her father over thirty years ago. She was the last to join the company about 9 years ago. At the start, she was uncertain about her career move, a far cry from the field of social work. However, over the years, she has grown to love being involved in the family business and takes pride in watching the company grow and evolve. As well, she feels that her personal relationship with her brothers has grown in strength. Dale says that being part of the family business means that she can take time off without worrying about how the office is being run. “The business is in equally good hands because we all have the same interest.” She says that having a strong relationship with her siblings prior to venturing into business together, made a difference. She says that her parents were good at allowing them to resolve conflicts on their own for the most part. Nowadays, she says their conflicts are far and few between and they never remain angry at one another for more than a day. Sometimes, her conflict resolution skills come in handy too! Keys to success, she says, are not allowing jealousy to creep into petty issues towards one another. Another key to their success has been allowing their semi-retired father to remain involved as he likes. Respecting their father’s expertise and skill and looking towards him for advise as opposed to bullying him out and wanting to take over, has also helped to maintain harmony and a positive feeling in the family.

Another key to their success has been acknowledging their individual areas of strength and allowing each other to head different parts of the business, as opposed to stepping on each other’s toes. Dale says that there are parts of the business that she is not nearly as strong in and her brothers know her strengths too. For Dale, her brothers, their families, and her parents, being involved in business has been an incredibly positive and rewarding experience.

Carlos, on the other hand, shared a completely opposite and disappointing experience in family business. Carlos, the patriarch of the family, had always seen himself as peace maker in his large family. When he and his brother became partners in the construction business, he found himself constantly having to put out fires between them. When his daughter joined them, the sparks escalated beyond Carlos’s peacemaking skills. His daughter and her uncle had never seen eye to eye and her uncle had only reluctantly agreed to accept her as office manager from the start. The issues that arose in the office put Carlos in the middle. One day he felt that he should best defend his daughter and the next, his brother. Of course, he was in a no win situation and ultimately had to make a choice. In this situation, how can a business decision not affect the personal relationship between father and daughter or siblings? Ultimately, in a fit of rage and in defense of his daughter, Carlos abandoned his business relationship with his brother and set up shop elsewhere. Ten years later, Carlos and his brother do not speak. In fact, they are in litigation around business issues. Had they not embarked on this business relationship or had Carlos not insisted that his daughter join them, their lives might have been much different.

Unfortunately, I have found that in varying forms and degrees, the majority of business relationships between family members end up more closely resembling Carlos than Dale. While it is true that a strong and healthy family business can be very valuable, there are many risks involved. It is always best to choose your business partners or employees very carefully – especially if they are family. As much as we believe that we can wear one hat in the office and another when together as family, the transition from one to the other can be very difficult, especially if the road is not always smooth.