Family-owned businesses are as much a part of the American culture as baseball, apple pie, or even popcorn. But as a fourth generation leader of our family owned company, I can tell you it's not just a business anymore: It is a legacy that carries your family name.
Before starting to work in the family business, we believe it is beneficial for a family member to hold a job in another company. That's the path I followed, spending five years working for Commonwealth Edison as an engineer before joining our family's business. Before my children could join our company, they, too, had to gain some experience working for other businesses. It is important for family members to spend time in the company working summer jobs and part-time jobs to get a taste of the business. Hopefully, this will whet their appetites for the business and make them want to eventually come back.
Too often, family members who come directly into the company don't have to deal with the every day pressures associated with earning a paycheck. They don't appreciate the perspective of the employee because they have never been in a similar position. After working for another business, my daughter pointed out that people working in the company react differently to the owner's family.
It is also important to divorce ownership from function. If a family member enters the business as an engineer, for example, their compensation should be commensurate with the salary of other engineers in that industry. Failure to properly align compensation with function can result in a business living beyond its financial means. To ensure this happens fairly, our human resources department sets the level of pay for family members entering the business.
That salary serves as the family member's starting point for compensation. If the company is profitable, that person shares in that because they are ownership/family. This, too, keeps you in touch with real life. I am not such a genius when it comes to this sort of thing but this approach has worked for us.
Your communication and the way you work with your employees needs to be consistent in good times and bad. Let employees know what happens within the business and help them understand the depth of the problems. By understanding the state of the business employees can apply their expertise to help the company better meet customer needs. For example, what's bringing our company out of the hole is a brand new machine at a new price level designed by the guys in the shop.
Stay close to your employees. I work with our employees every day. If you develop an "us" and "them" mentality, you will have a hard time going to work. If you like what you do, it is easy for them to see that. And it is important to work hard and put in your hours. Don't be an absentee owner.
Many years ago we were at a Loyola Family in Business meeting and the speaker discussed how family businesses differ from others. He said the major difference was that most corporations focus on the next quarter or next year's profits; they think in months. The family business thinks in generations.