NEW YORK — Most businesses in the United States are small, family-owned enterprises. Typically, a son or daughter joins a parent’s company but, increasingly, young entrepreneurs are hiring their parents.
That's the case with Alexandra Ferguson's home decorating business.
The 30 year old started her company in the New York City suburb of New Rochelle in 2009, designing pillows with phrases on them like "Think Big" and "Be nice or leave" emblazoned on them. The room is full of bolts of blue, pink and red felt, and trays of individually-cut letters waiting to be sewn onto pillows.
Ferguson's mother, Charlotte, works for the business 15-to-20 hours a week. For now she’s unpaid, but Ferguson says when they eventually divide up equity in the company, her mom will receive a large chunk. There’s no one the daughter trusts more than her mother.
“I know she’s always got my best interests at heart," Ferguson says, "and if my best interests is the company’s best interests then I know that she’s going to root for that. There’s no ulterior motive for her except what’s going to be be good for me.”
Charlotte, who finds it's "very strange" to have her daughter as her boss, says she’s the practical one when it comes to getting things done behind the scenes. She also offers moral support and, in typical mom fashion, even tells her boss when her skirt’s too short.
Charlotte says she’s glad to let her daughter shine. “She should do. She’s the front face of the company. But I’m happy to be behind and help her. Sometimes I feel like ‘Hmm I don’t really want to do that.’”
But she usually obliges.
But not every child/parent business partnership is as functional as Alexandra and Charlotte's.
Wayne Rivers, president of the Family Business Institute, a consultancy, says his company once advised a business owner who had hired her father.
“Unfortunately dad had a wandering eye and of course his daughter didn’t know this, until one day when she caught him sort of in the act with the office manager,” Rivers says.
As she would any other employee in the same compromising position, the daughter told her father he was fired. But dad refused to go, citing his parental authority, among other reasons.
Parents often think the usual rules don’t apply to them, Rivers says, and both parties tend to think the business relationship will work because they love each other.
“We don’t need a job description and we don’t need accountability policies and we don’t need this and we don’t need that because love will be enough," he says. "It’s not.”
Rivers suggests pre-hire planning is key, which is what Katie Weiford and her mother, Sheila, have tried to do.
They’re opening Kookiedoodle Krafts in Kansas City in September. Even though it was Katie’s brainchild, they’re splitting the business equally.
Katie, 35, admits to some frustration that she’s doing more work than her mother but acknowledges that there is a good reason.
“Starting a business in this day and age, a lot of what you have to do involves technology,” she says.
“I do detect some frustration in her voice at times when I seem to be a little not accepting exactly what I should be learning with, uh, in the technology,” Sheila Weiford says.
But Sheila feels she has other strengths and her daughter agrees. While Katie can multi-task and usually does, her mother has a different approach to business.
“She takes one thing at a time and really puts all of her energy into getting one thing done correctly," Katie says, "and I think, especially with our vendors, they appreciate that.”
Their relationship is going through some changes, most of which are good, according to Sheila. “She’s learning new things about me and I’m certainly learning new things about her every day.”
Still, sometimes things get emotional and when Katie feels exasperated she has to remind Sheila she’s irritated with her business partner, and not her mother.