The Challenges of Family Owned Businesses

Is there any business in the world tougher than a family business? Regardless of industry, no operation is as emotionally draining, loaded with more personal drama, laden with unspoken and often misguided intentions than a business operated by family members.

Family involvement in any industry heightens the importance of roles, responsibilities and the need for defined boundaries… Are final decisions reflective of what’s best for the business, or best for the family?  Are salaries a function of paying the market wage, getting even, or a systematic means of wealth transfer?  If one family member gets a bonus, do all family members receive bonuses? How do managers outside the family perform their own duties without stepping on toes, or bruising the fragile egos of those with 24/7 access to the patriarch or matriarch?  And when the time comes for succession planning, rivalries, jealousies, misunderstandings and more can overwhelm what might have otherwise been sound business judgment. (There go those blessed, relaxing and once-joyous Thanksgiving dinner celebrations!)

I should know. My father’s attempt to involve his own children in his multi-market business ended in failure.  Worse yet, it created a decades-long chasm in our family relationships. When dollar signs and new opportunities were presented to some, and not to others, long-simmering family issues that many families keep under wraps, moved to the front and center of mine. This family business thing—whoa! Family business is fraught with problems, misunderstandings and (all too often) the feeling by some that no amount of money (or charity) would ever be enough. Every conversation, no matter the subject or how trivial the topic, was ruined during family get-togethers for more than a decade.

So when I watch how some families successfully navigate these issues by working together, while building significant businesses, I watch in complete awe and amazement. This is happening every week at the Crozat family’s G&C Auto Body, a top-tier automotive services company throughout the North Bay.  The company’s founder, Gene Crozat, was a dynamic man [with good business instincts and great street smarts..  Without question, he was a rough-and-tumble guy who boot-strapped his way to success. Yet,  like a modern-day Will Rogers, Gene observed the world in ways no one else could. He’d often summarize his "findings" with the same sort of charming phrases Will Rogers made so famous. Here are a few of Gene’s phrases that have always stayed with me:

“Keep doing what you’ve been doing, and you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting!”

“Greedy mice eat stale cheese!”

“The meaning to life is to find your gifts; the purpose of life is to give your gifts away.”

His success might also be attributed to his ability to always put family first. He couldn’t hold a conversation without expressing his love for his wife and family. The closer he got to the end of his life, the more important his link to Teri, his children and grandchildren became.  And he always looked you right in the eye to make sure you knew that you were loved, too.  Bo Kearns’ story featuring   the Crozats gives a wonderful glimpse into this family and how they have taken Gene’s business well into high gear. There’s no doubt in my mind that Gene would be proud of how his sons and daughter have grown the family business.   Yes, they argue. Yes, I’ve heard complaints from one about another. And yes, I know they aren’t perfect.  But geez, they make it work for their employees, their customers whom they refer to as "guests, and their entire family.

Another Sonoma County family business is making waves in food service. Next time you enjoy pizza from Mountain Mike’s, a drink at Stout Brothers or Beer Baron, or a delicious meal at Bollywood, you’ll be patronizing the businesses of the wonderful Chandi family. This is another great family of brothers and one sister guided by all they learned from their mother and father. They’re building an amazing restaurant empire, but more importantly, they’re doing it together. Mutual respect, a loving temperament and a nonstop work ethic are their winning ingredients.

We cover a lot more about family business in this issue such as the importance of succession planning, and how the Seppi family of Costeaux French Bakery will carry on the family legacy of the Kozlowski family, producing pies and tarts.  We also take a look at the declining lack of soft skills in the workplace. What are soft skills, and why are they in decline? How are employers managing the problem? And what do you do when someone in a leadership position has a serious lack of soft skills? Read all about it in this month’s issue. And finally, our special report this month is all about how to age well with the latest tips from North Bay health experts.

Our NorthBay biz editorial team rarely disappoints, and this issue is no exception. Sit back and enjoy our "Family-Owned Business/Trends" edition, and I hope you’ll share your own trials and successes navigating such treacherous waters at Lawrence @Northbaybiz.com.

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