The family-run business is one of the oldest and most common forms of commercial organization, whether a family owns and operates a neighbourhood convenience store or a global mega-conglomerate. Having what is effectively already a team behind the business, bolstered by bonds of kinship and everyday experience, can often translate into a stronger sense of dedication. But they also come with many traps, speed bumps, and pitfalls to avoid, such as when an unhealthy family dynamic spills over into the workplace—which is never much fun for the staff who aren’t related to each other.
Families always come with an array of personalities, each with their strengths—something that comes in handy while running a business that demands several different skill sets. On any given day at Jeanie’s Market Bakery in Mississauga you’ll find a surplus of family members there, including Jeanie Buckley’s husband, daughter, and sisters.
Whomever Buckley hires, a sense of dedication is the quality she looks for most. And with family you can usually rely on your employees’ loyalty and commitment that much more intensely, given the emotional bonds and feeling of common cause. Another benefit, adds Buckley, is having trusted voices—people you know deep down will have your best interests at heart—when hard or challenging decisions need to be made. Buckley, for example, has what she calls a high tolerance for risk, while her husband leans more toward caution and prudence. Having that honest, alternative perspective, from someone who knows both you and your business intimately, has enabled Buckley to make better informed, balanced, and more measured decisions. Sometimes it’s only from family you can trust to get hard-to-hear feedback.
Natalie Rivas runs Bodega on Main, a successful Vancouver tapas restaurant with her brother Paul. She largely attributes the restaurant’s success with how they are each able to apply their different but complementary skill sets, on top of the deep level of trust they have for each other.
“We definitely have our own areas of expertise and responsibility,” says Rivas. “My background is in business, so I handle a lot of the day-to-day operations with our general manager, and take care of the finances. My brother Paul is definitely the creative one and an incredible chef. He focuses on menu planning, creating new dishes with the kitchen. We are lucky given how well we balance each other.”
And sometimes with family there also comes a deeper sense of mission. When the Rivas siblings opened Bodega on Main in 2015 it was to sustain the family’s legacy as a staple of Vancouver’s food scene and honour their father, who ran the popular restaurant La Bodega from 1971 until 2014.
It’s often said that experience is the best teacher and that’s especially true when it comes to family-run small business. That’s why so many entrepreneurs, big and small, grew up with parents or family members who themselves ran a business.
Britt Rawlinson thinks of her Toronto shop VSP Consignment, which opened in 2013, as the “little sister” to her mother’s longstanding business in Calgary, Vespucci—both stores specializing in second hand designer clothing. “My mom Dianne opened Vespucci in 1986,” says Rawlinson, “and I pretty much grew up working in the store. Even the name VSP is a winking homage to Vespucci. My sister Blake now runs Vespucci along with my mom, and we are in constant contact, always discussing different products that may work better at the other location.” Rawlinson’s dad designed the interior for both stores so they even share an aesthetic.
The value of intergenerational knowledge sharing in business can never be underestimated. Entrepreneurship was also something that ran in Jeanie Buckley’s family. “My dad had a shop back in Jamaica, where we grew up with my great-grandmother always around. Retail was something that always fascinated me,” says Buckley.
At the same time, having a history of business and entrepreneurship in the family doesn’t necessarily mean you should get into business with them: it pays to be mindful of how family dynamics play out in the actual workplace, and recognize any instances when personal relationships might be coming under stress. If getting into business with anyone, it’s obviously important to understand how those involved will work together and complement each other's strengths—but it is perhaps even more crucial with family, given how complicated relationships inside them can be.
“If you get along well,” says Rivas, “there’s a lot of upside to working with family. In our case, we have a shared vision, and that makes work both fun and exciting. But I would say respect for each other is key. You have to respect each other’s strengths and try not to step on each other’s toes.” One of the downsides, adds Rivas, is the overlapping of work and personal life. The fact that she and her brother are unable to take holidays off at the same time means no big family vacations.
But if you’re confident in your collective ability to work toward a shared goal, and suffer the invariable hardships of running a small business together, the pay off can be huge, with the kind of success that can mean more than just money.
“Of course, you need to be sure that it's not going to affect your relationships in a negative way,” says Rawlinson. “But there's a sense of pride that comes from creating a business with your family that you just don't get elsewhere. A family business becomes embedded in the fabric of your family life, and it creates a legacy and bond that connects the generations.”
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