Editor's Note: This is the first column in Chuck Gremillion's Family Business series. Read the introduction for his series by clicking here.
By Chuck Gremillion
Family in a business can be its greatest asset or its Achilles heel.
The foundation of all successful relationships is trust. Because of this, I strongly believe that trust is the most basic element of success in family business. No amount of money or breakthrough strategy can overcome an absence of trust.
Family businesses start with an inherent advantage because family members typically know and trust one another. The key becomes to build upon that trust and never breach it.
I am the oldest of eight siblings. I have four brothers and three sisters, and I can truthfully say that we love each other and enjoy one another’s company. Preserving those relationships and our love for each other was far more important to us than anything else. As a result, we had an unwritten rule: “Love one another first and then run the business.” In other words, don’t be selfish! (Honestly, growing up in a family of eight kids, selfishness was not an option.) Our love-one-another-first rule made things easier for us because it kept us centered and provided clarity.
In our family business, the old adage of “the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts” applied, as I believe probably applies in all family businesses. The key becomes for everyone to find his or her niche and work together.
I have listed below some practical advice related to preserving and building trust that worked for our family and might work for yours:
- Family meetings regarding the business are for shareholding family members only. Spouses are only welcome if they work in the business. The first time we had a family meeting to discuss A&E, I made the mistake of inviting all spouses, not just those working in the business, and it was a disaster. Way too many uneducated opinions that were not desired or needed. My dad, being very old school, called me aside after the meeting and told me, “We will never have a meeting like this again.” And we didn’t!
- Pillow talk can be a dangerous thing if one’s spouse is providing advice that could damage familial relationships.
- Success should always be about the family and the team, not the individual. Celebrate success in the family business as an organization.
- Make strategic family business decisions by consensus. If there is a big divide or difference of opinion the answer is probably no. We followed this advice in our family and never made an important family-business decision that was not unanimous, even though a consensus vote would have been acceptable.
- It is important that all family members working in the business find their niche. In our family, I was the president, Roger was vice president of administration, Pat was vice president of sales & marketing, and Rock and John were account managers. Our brother in law, Tom, was our controller at one point but became our lead software programmer. We all enjoyed what we did and each individual’s skill set fit his role.
- Follow the Golden Rule, “Treat others as you would have them treat you”. Isn’t this the definition of unselfishness?
- Have fun! We celebrated success at work and in family get-togethers. Invariably, our family events always included talk about A&E because we were having a blast! I still remember the day we sold A&E. We had a private room at a Houston restaurant and my brother Rock was going around the table chest bumping his brothers while holding a glass of cabernet. Still makes me laugh! Oh by the way, spouses not working in the business were invited.
What I have shared is what worked for our family, and all families have different sizes and personalities. Each family must develop a philosophy that works best for it.
However, one piece of advice that I believe applies to all family businesses is to remember that selfishness divides families and kills family businesses. If you remember to “Love one another first and then run the business,” there is a great chance that you can leverage your family’s greatest asset: each other.
Chuck Gremillion now runs Gremillion Consulting Services LLC, which focuses on the needs of small businesses. He is a past president of IRgA, and chairman of the IRgA President’s Council. He welcomes input and questions from other family business owners. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.