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Working with Family Can Be Bad for Business

  • David Welch

International conglomerates might capture the headlines, but family businesses are on the rise in the United States. Thirty percent of the companies listed on the S & P 500 are family owned and run, and that number is growing. In fact, so-called Mom and Pop operations -- large and small -- aren't just on the rise here in the United States, they're growing in Europe and Asia as well. But when you trade in the stresses of the invisible corporate boss for your husband or your mom, you might be getting a bigger headache instead.

That's what Jane and Tim Heartfield have learned. They've been married for almost 35 years, and they've been business partners for 25 of them. The 2 own a bakery franchise in Portland, Oregon. Great Harvest Bread Company sits in an old brick building downtown and the Heartfields say the location has really helped business: the breads are popular and lunch sales are brisk. But like any small business, owning a bakery has its ups and downs. The same is true for their marriage, but they're quick to point out that it's often the bakery's fault. "If there's a problem in the business, whether it's from an employee or an ingredient or the sales," Jane Heartfield concedes, "you can't leave it behind, you take it out on each other."

For these partners, the hardest part of working together is managing employees. They try their best to maintain a unified front even if they disagree. Rule number 1: Don't argue in front of the staff. But Jane Heartfield says that just means they argue later at home. "That's the hardest thing, not taking it home and having it consume you. Because when things are really difficult here, it does, it consumes you," she says. "You'll be in conversation at dinner, even over a glass of wine, and one little word just sends you down the road again. And you're going 'Wait a minute, wait a minute, I don't want to go there, just stop!' I don't want to talk about it because we have a relationship apart from the bakery as a couple and we don't want it to ruin it."

None of this surprises Dr. Kathy Marshack. The psychologist has spent years counseling couples with family businesses. She says contrary to common belief, families with strong relationships have the hardest time working together, mainly because what makes a healthy family doesn't necessarily make a successful business. "The family's goal is to take care of each other, to protect people, to love each other, to connect," she explains. "So if the business needs to move in a direction that isn't compatible with some of the family members, there's a tug, there's a struggle."

Like when someone in the family isn't very good at their job. In a normal business setting, they'd be fired. But Dr. Marshack points out that families will do anything and everything to protect each other. "They just know that they really love their son-in-law and they want to make a job for him in the business, and darn it, he's just not very good at what he does. But they're just going to cover for him anyway. But then, customers depend on that person, employees depend on that person…"

And that can end up ruining the business. But Kathy Marshack believes this fate is avoidable. In fact, she argues that running a family business could actually strengthen relationships.

That's been true for Michelle and Steve Ferree. They've been meeting with Dr. Marshack for over a year and say their business relationship has helped their marriage.

As co-owners of Mr. Rooter, a plumbing franchise, Michelle Ferree says that before they sought help, working together wasn't easy. "I think anybody who owns a small business, it can be consuming. When you add the layer of a married couple that's co-managing a business it can be very, very consuming, especially if you allow it to be."

But after a year of counseling things have gotten easier. They're no longer competitive with each other, they've defined clear roles in the business, and most important, she says, they've learned to choose their words much more carefully. "The communication between spouses obviously is much more personal [than between co-workers], much more candid. In a corporate environment, you may stop and think about how you're going to present something to a fellow department head before you say it," she says. "When you're working with your spouse, you have a business issue to cover during the day, you're putting it all out there, and you're a lot more candid… and the person takes it a lot more personally."

Michelle Ferree says one of the things she and her husband really had to work on balancing their roles as business partners and spouses. "We want our business partnership to be an asset to the business, and we obviously want a thriving and successful marriage, so we weren't going to do this unless we could make it a positive impact to our business, an asset to our company and be a happily married couple." Which is exactly what they feel they are, now.

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