Connect with us

Getting Along in the Family Business

Cooperation comes down to specialization, communication and respect.

Published

on

Mark Tapper wasn’t sure, as a young man, whether he wanted to join the family business in Michigan. He was motivated to work on Wall Street, first, which he did, but still realized he felt a pull to be an owner operator, to chart his own destiny. That idea kept him coming back to considering the family business.

“During summers, when I had the opportunity to come home, I worked in the business,” Tapper says. A turning point came when he worked with a customer to repair the watch their son had been wearing when he was killed in a car crash. “I created an emotional bond over that repair and felt more of a connection with the business. I realized that we see our guests at the best times of their lives and at the lowest times of their lives, and we can develop long-term relationships with them.”

When Mark did join Tapper’s, his father and uncle were ready to slow down a little bit. “My dad realized he wasn’t connecting with younger generations, and my sister and I were young and ambitious; little by little, he gave us more responsibility and opportunity. My dad coached us, but he handed over the reins and allowed us to make mistakes and have successes.” 

David Brown of the Edge Retail Academy says such openness is key to family harmony. While the younger family member needs to be open to learning from the older generation, the older generation benefits from being receptive to new business methods and opportunities. “We live in dynamic times, and what got you there won’t keep you there,” Brown says.

Outside experience, whether in or out of the jewelry business, can be invaluable. Kate Peterson of Performance Concepts says that ideally, family members should spend a year or more working with another, similar jeweler in another part of the country, learning sales and operations as an employee rather than as an heir.

Peterson also advises owners to be sensitive to their existing associates when bringing new family members into the fold. “Communicate honestly with staff members about your hopes and expectations for your son or daughter, about the steps you’ve taken to ensure his or her value and contribution to the team, and about how you see the chain of command evolving — both in the short and long term.”

Advertisement

Peterson says it’s important, although challenging, for the owner of the company to separate their roles as business owner and parent.

“Talk to your son or daughter as you would to any person applying for an eventual management position with your company,” she says. “You’ll want to make sure that your objectives, as well as your understanding of career path and process, are compatible. Now is the time to discuss timelines, expectations and performance standards.”

Mike Kanoff of Michael’s Jewelers in Yardley, PA, says he started at the bottom of the family business, an experience which, looking back as an adult, he recognizes as formative. “This is what made me the person I am,” he says. He advises patience on everyone’s part, because despite the best of intentions, parents will inevitably view their offspring as children, no matter their age or experience. “Don’t take it personally; it happens to all of us,” he says. “They will appreciate you more as they and you both get older and grow together.”

When a family member joins the firm, says Toby Joseph of Josephs Jewelers in Des Moines, IA, they will benefit from exposure to different areas of business to figure out what they enjoy. Discuss among family members and key members of the team how you can find someone to take on areas in which no one is strong or interested.

Sarah Hurwitz Robey credits a clear division of labor for ease of operation at her family’s store, Colonial Jewelers in Frederick, MD. Everyone plays to their strengths. “It’s not always perfect, but having different areas that we are responsible for, which happen to be the ones we enjoy the most, helps to give us all our own space to do things our own way.

“For example, my dad is responsible for diamond buying and inventory controls. He is really great at keeping our inventory lean and turning well to leverage our buying to make it as profitable as possible. So when a question comes up about bringing in more merchandise, I would defer to him on the purchasing budget, but we would pick out styles together. One of my areas is marketing, and while we will collaborate on the marketing budget for the year, the details of the way we spend it and the creative aspects are up to me. My mom, whose pre-jewelry store background was in social work, is our master of dealing with staff, customer relations and community philanthropy.”

Advertisement

Rhett Ramsay Outten, who owns Croghan’s in Charleston, SC, with her sister Mariana Ramsay Hay, says her third and fourth-generation family management team would all agree that working together is one of the thrills of their lives. “Our relationships have evolved and matured, and honestly, we really just like each other. The interesting thing about our situation is that we all bring very different strengths and weaknesses to the table. We know our lane and we have allowed each other to lead and excel in the area in which we each thrive.”

The Tapper family has been open to innovation and new ideas as younger family members come aboard.

Outten is the creative one, while her sister is a problem solver and planner. “Next generation Mini and Kathleen are similarly opposites. Kathleen has a love of spreadsheets and data and enjoys the analysis of numbers. Mini is an artist and designer, our style director. They work beautifully together.”

Although they have very different skill sets, they all share the values handed down from their grandfather and mother, she says, which include a deep faith, a belief in ethics and honesty and putting family first. “On challenging days, sometimes you just have to wake up and decide that the most important thing is to get along,” she says. “Our mother would expect that of us.”

MAKE SURE EVERYONE IS ON THE SAME PAGE

W hen Mark Tapper moved into the business, the Tapper family met individually with a family business consultant, who asked each of them if the family or the business came first for them and told them there was no right answer. “We all answered family first,” Tapper says. “So we had that as our foundation that the decisions we are going to make are for the family. That really helps drive the family culture, the business culture and the business performance.

“When things aren’t at their best, it’s because we aren’t communicating,” Tapper says. “The more you can talk and plan and be open and honest with one another, it benefits the family and it benefits the business.”

Advertisement

Brown says that effective, regular (timely), structured communication and meetings are vital, but only if they have context. If people don’t know what the goals and objectives are and where they all fit in, there isn’t much to discuss.  With those things in place, family members should meet weekly for an hour to review what’s working and what’s not.

Third and fourth generation owners of Croghan’s Jewel Box say that working together is one of the thrills of their lives, but on challenging days, they make the decision to “just get along.”

At Croghan’s, Outten says the family meets once a week with their CFO, their head of HR and their store manager. “This is where we discuss all of our plans, problems and triumphs,” Outten says. “It is a crucial part of our success and allows us to be on the same page as well as to be intentional in both short and long-term planning.”

Brown notes that multiple generations working together must know and agree on the short-term (one year), medium-term (five years) and long-term (five years and beyond) goals and objectives of the business and the family members involved. It’s important to discuss expectations upfront, including who will be running the business in the future. “There are few things more destabilizing than surprises, such as one of the younger generation thinking they will be taking over the business only to find someone else is earmarked for that role,” Brown says.

Other important topics are: How do the current owners get paid? How do they make it equitable? “There is nothing worse than close family members falling out due to a lack of understanding about where they fit in and how it is all going to work,” Brown says.

ADDRESS QUALITY OF LIFE ISSUES

O wners may discover that family and quality of life issues are at the forefront of expectations when it comes to millennial and Gen Z employees. “Expect to hear ‘I can’t put in the kind of hours you did’ and avoid the temptation to utter the dreaded phrase, ‘Pay your dues,’” Peterson says.

Robey is grateful that her parents recognized how important it was to her to bring her young sons to work, ever since they were six weeks old. “If someone just needs a hug from Mommy, I am right here,” she says.

Matthew Clark joined his wife’s family’s business, Spath Jewelers, in Bartow, FL. Emily works there, too, and they both have the title of vice president of operations. For them, working together is quality of life. “People are amazed that I work 10 hour days with my wife and say they could never do it,” Clark says. “But I could not imagine working 10-hour days away from her and coming home to see her just a couple hours before having to go to bed. I know it would not work for everyone, but we are very blessed to make it work and I would not have it any other way. ”

Advertisement

SPONSORED VIDEO

Wilkerson Testimonials

When Liquidation Is the Best Option, This Legendary Jeweler Chose Wilkerson

George Koueiter & Sons Jewelers, a 65-year old jewelry institution in Grosse Pointe, MI, had always been a mainstay in this suburban Detroit community. But when owners George and Paul Koueiter were ready to retire, they made the decision to close rather than sell. “We decided our best option to do the liquidation sale was Wilkerson,” says Paul Koueiter. The results, says George Koueiter, exceeded expectations and the process was easy. “Wilkerson just kept us in mind,” says George. “They never did anything without asking and whatever they asked us to do was just spot on.”

Promoted Headlines

Most Popular