Business Management – Family Operations

One of the worse case scenario of family members working for a company that I've come across was that of a business I called one day. This company was both a client and a customer. As the new account manager of the organization I represented, I needed to meet their account manager who was also the owner, since we would be crossing paths many times and would be working together on a lot of projects.

After identifying myself to the receptionist who answered the phone, I asked to speak to our account manager. She said that she didn't know who that would be and asked what I wanted. I told her and she said that she could help me. Respecting the fact that she may have been more than a receptionist – we have a lot of that now with the corporate downsizing of the last decades, people sharing the telephone answering – I began to relay some information and then asked pertinent questions about equipment used in our mutual business.

After giving a couple of foolish responses and comments, I realized she was the wrong person to talk to. She got all excited and speaking of my organization she said, "Oh not again, they keep getting new people and we have to start to train them all over again, and went on and on.

I patiently said to her that she didn't have to train me, because I had been in my own graphics business for several years and was perfectly in tune with the operation. She replied, "Yea, that's what they all say". I politely asked again if I could speak to the person who looks after our account. She said she was that person. Subsequently I found out that she did the billing and thus, to her, "account" meant accounting.

I tried re-wording to "sales account", "account executive", "the sales representative who looks after this company", but it didn't do any good. To make a long story short, finally, one day I had to call on another matter and she said I would have to "talk to John". I asked her who John was and she got excited again and said, "Well, he's just John, he's John".

Since John wasn't there, I left a message for him to call me. When John called me back, that's when I found out he was our sales representative, account manager and production coordinator all rolled into one as well as the owner of the company. And then, the mystery unveiled itself as to why "John was just John" – she was his mother.

It's nice to have your mother help out but, putting her at the front desk without experience and training is a bit daring. Your whole company is judged there by visitors and callers who connect with a lot of other companies.

In another example, I was operations manager for a small company in the hotel magazine business. The receptionist was the sister of the owner of the company. She would come in late every morning after 9 o'clock. When she was approached on the matter, she would explain that it wasn't her fault, "the bus didn't arrive before 8:45. She was a very soft spoken, pleasant young girl, but she didn't believe that she should have to take the 8:30 bus. But as the sister of the owner, it was a difficult problem to deal with, since he wasn't bothered with it. In other words, she was his sister and she could come in late every morning.

Working with family members can be very difficult for both the family and non-family members. First, members of a family operation must forget they are family when they step into the business premises. They must give themselves titles with attached responsibilities. Even if they wear various hats – then have various business cards with the various titles / responsibilities. All members should be following regular training programs, even more so than any other businesses. They should treat one another in front of customers and suppliers in such a way that these people wouldn't even have a clue that they were a family team. That goes for a husband and wife operation or father / son, brother / sister, etc.

Some years ago, I was in the sailboat business with my husband – our first business when we were in our twenties. Having both been working in the corporate world prior, we would always strive to operate in a professional manner, keeping both our areas of responsibilities separate. I looked after finance and administration and my husband looked after sales and service. When visitors, customers and suppliers came in for either of these areas of business, we would take them to the one in charge.

When it comes to business management in a family operation, it is critical to make sure that the people who are placed in their positions are experienced or have been given proper training, because not only will it put stress within the company but it can ruin the total reputation of the company. Constant professional, outside training is the survival key here, more than in non-family organizations. / dmh