It’s a Family Business

UPDATED: November 4, 2009
PUBLISHED: November 4, 2009

Great family businesses share certain traits: loyalty among the team, vigilance and competitiveness in their fields. Those that pass successfully from one generation to the next have a sense of cohesion because, deep down, family members really do care about each other and they can get through the hard times. They’ve found ways to manage confl ict—not always resolve it, but manage it. They’ve also figured out ways to make decisions when there are differences of opinion. Yet, real pitfalls lurk.

The biggest challenge is being insulated from the outside world says Ted Clark, executive director, Center for Family Business at Northeastern University. Another is the boundary issue—mixing up family and business, so they’re making business decisions based on family issues and vice versa, says family-business consultant Jane Hilburt-Davis, president of Boston-based Key Resources.

The payoff for family businesses that can make it, though, can be great. “When a family business works well, you can’t beat it,” says Northeastern’s Clark, who considers publicly traded corporations at a disadvantage due to their short-term horizons. Family businesses “pull together for the right reasons, and it’s not a 13-week [profit] payoff. It’s for the good of the family. It’s good the employees, it’s good for the community, and it’s long-term. “It’s really hard to compete against them. You think about a business that is saying: I’m going to take my payoff next year, or I’m going to take my payoff in the next generation.”

So how to avoid the pitfalls? Here are some keys:


Use them proportionately, says family-business consultant Paul Karofsky. He was a third-generation CEO of his family’s wallpaper business before he sold it and eventually helped launch Northeastern University’s Center for Family Business. Communication is essential, he and other experts say. While close family members tend to have insights into each other’s thinking that wouldn’t exist among business partners who aren’t related, it’s essential they hear each other out on business matters, rather than assuming they know each other’s views.

“Really, the lesson is: Enhance your listening skills. Employ active listening techniques,” says Karofsky, now principal of Transition Consulting Group in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and a Family Firm Institute board member.

During conversations, our energy tends to be mainly focused on ourselves and our own responses instead of understanding what the other person is actually saying, Karofsky says. “But what we need to say is: It’s OK to take time out. It’s OK to listen. That, to me, is absolutely vital.”


“I don’t think you can name one long-term successful family business— and by successful, I mean of any substance—that’s had longevity and not used an advisory board,” Clark says. “You need an outside perspective. That’s the common pitfall.”

No golf buddies, not your attorney, not your accountant—they don’t belong on the advisory board. (You’re already paying the latter two for advice, Karofsky says. Plus, they’re never going to recommend firing themselves.)

Think of the critical success factors for your company, and then choose impartial experts in those areas to be on your advisory board, Karofsky says. Example: You run a restaurant. One critical success factor is food; others are government regulation, marketing and location (real estate). “Once you get a handle on critical success factors, you then go seek the best and the brightest who have the knowledge, skill and experience in those arenas,” Karofsky says.

The advisory board adds knowledge, skill and experience that go above and beyond the family members. You need people who will tell the truth because they have nothing to lose. “Otherwise, you get in a situation where the king has no clothes. Everyone’s afraid to tell the truth because they don’t want to cut off the gravy train,” Clark says. “You need to have people around you who you can trust to tell you what’s in your best interest, not theirs.”

Usually advisory board members are paid for their time. Karofsky recommends a prorated amount equivalent to the CEO’s salary.


Strategic planning means creating a plan of action which, Hilburt-Davis says, should envision such issues as: Where is the business going? What are the goals? How will we get there? Who will do what? What are the time lines?

Strategic planning is especially critical for when there’s a transition of leadership because, Karofsky says, “if you don’t know where the business is going, how do you know what’s expected of the next leader to get it there?”


A certain amount of conflict is healthy. Businesses need diverse opinions. The trick is to manage conflict. And you can manage it, Karofsky says, by managing expectations. There are two key pieces to this: 1) Anticipate someone else’s reaction. If you’re unable to anticipate someone else’s reaction before you say something that may be volatile or testy, then don’t just come out with it. 2) Anticipate the consequences. “I think we then move to try to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully,” Karofsky says, “we can minimize conflict.”

In family businesses, “the relationships are more tender and deeper and the consequences are greater,” he says. For instance, if you’re rude to someone in the supermarket or in another car on the highway, that’s one thing, but if you’re rude to your sister, she’s hurt. “There’s much more at stake. The consequences are greater.”


Does this describe you? Every time you see a problem, you try to solve it instantly. Resist that urge, Karofsky says. Instead, try to figure out what’s really going on. When you hear about a problem, think, What caused that? Then, what caused that? Keep peeling back by trying to understand the cause. Then explore the options and talk about solutions. “It’s like peeling back an onion,” Karofsky says, “trying to get to the depth and the substance, the core.”


Stories of current and past generations are the way to get the message through to the younger generation about values, Karofsky says.

He often told his kids about March 1, 1959: “I woke up in the morning, and my house was quieter than usual when I came downstairs. My mom told me that my dad’s business had burned to the ground in the middle of the night. It was a five alarm fire. We all got in the car and went down to see what was going on,” says Karofsky, then 16.

His dad was already there. The teen ran up to fi nd his father standing across the street from the fire and jotting notes on a clipboard. “What are you doing?” young Karofsky asked. “Making plans to order four 40-foot trailers fi lled with wallpaper to fill the warehouse on Wednesday,” his dad replied. “But it burned down,” the surprised teen noted. “Well, today is Sunday. I’ll have a new location by Wednesday. And when they’re on the road, I’ll call them and tell them where to deliver it,” came the reply, as Karofsky recalls.

And so it was that the Northeastern Wallpaper Corp. in Boston got a new home on Tuesday, and the teen would grow up to work there for more than 20 years, ultimately as CEO. Moral: Instead of issuing dry commandments, tell stories. “I can tell my grandchildren to plan, or I can tell them that story,” Karofsky says. “The story is indelible…. That’s how you get the message through about planning.”


A family business that’s successful long term has a board of advisors and a board of directors, Clark says. They communicate the goals of the family and the goals of the business, and they run the business like a business.

Tell the truth. It’s easier to remember, says Karofsky, who considers it one of his top essentials for a successful family business.

A major challenge in coalescing as a family is figuring out how to minimize the next generation’s sense of entitlement—“a brutal epidemic in this country today,” Karofsky says. “It’s critical to help try to minimize that. We need to talk about it and help our kids understand that even though we’ve given them a lot, it’s their turn to take over and their turn to earn.”

One strategy: Don’t simply give the business to the next generation. It’s “very important” the transfer involve a combination of a purchase by the younger generation and a gift, he says. “There are two kinds of ownership—there’s a material ownership and there’s an emotional ownership. Emotional ownership can come in a far deeper sense,” Karofsky says, “when it’s earned.”

At Reynolds’ Garage & Marine, which recently turned 150, fifthgeneration president Gary Reynolds says one secret to his company’s longevity from its 1859 origins of building carriages to today selling and repairing cars in Lyme, Conn., is this: Each successive generation has had to buy the company from the previous one.

“Not that my father or any of the rest of them didn’t give or help me do part of it. But it was a transaction, not a gift,” says Reynolds, 65, whose three children work at the garage. “I paid my father $2,412.55 a month for more months than I care to admit. I think that’s a reason that it’s worked—at least you have to work for it.”