Keys to a successful family owned business

WWC business staff  contribute bi-weekly Women@Work columns to the Bangor Daily News Friday edition offering tips for small business owners, and featuring many of our entrepreneurs and partners. We will be posting them here.

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’d 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 are generally 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 others sentences,” added Sara.

The Fraser’s, who opened the candy store 8 years ago, admit they are driven to be successful even as they struggle with the lack of down time. “There is no time to think.” January, though is when they carve out the time to set goals for the business.  “People who set goals are always more successful,” says 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 out 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,” related Anne.

Anne is still 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 on bringing 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.” Living on the farm with her parents, she admits 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, appreciate the value of what’s 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.”

The Fraser’s would agree. When faced with the 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 adds, “And, you can’t be angry for long when there is chocolate around.”
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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. For more on family run business, see: The Institute for Family-Owned Business http://www.fambusiness.org/  is holding its first Women in Family Business Affinity group program January 26. And, the Richard E. Dyke Center for Family Business at Husson University in Bangor http://www.husson.edu/index.php?cat_id=296  has recently hired a new Executive Director and will be offering programs focusing on leadership, relationships, and finances within family businesses in the coming months.

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