Running a Family Company?

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Here are five things you need to know

Family. You can’t live with them, and … (long, uncomfortable pause).

If you thought what came next was, “you can’t live without them,” then consider yourself lucky. While many of us love our families, making a relationship work doesn’t get easier simply because two people share DNA. In fact, shared DNA often can make a tense situation — like working together — even more difficult.

Navigating the sometimes-choppy waters of family-owned companies can be hard. It can also be worth it. Many of Whatcom County’s most successful companies and many of the entries in this year’s Business Pulse Top 100 are family owned and managed. While working with family can be hard, the passion present in family companies can propel businesses to unheard-of success. Just ask Hershey, Ford Motor Company, or all the super-wealthy Walton children.

Your family’s company might not be on the Top 100, but here are a few things you can learn from some of Whatcom County’s most successful family-owned companies.

Have defined roles and responsibilities.
Being a family-owned company doesn’t mean that a coat of arms with your last name sits atop the org chart in the space where the bubbles for “CEO” and “COO” normally go. You still need to create a structure that plays to your team’s strengths while minimizing weaknesses.

“My father, James Hall, started the company in 1992,” said Kelsey Van Miert, president of customer relations for Northwest Health Care Linen. “We provide medical laundry services to 14 hospitals and about 450 clinics and surgery centers in the Puget Sound area. My brother and I are second generation owners. We have about 110 employees.”

Van Miert focuses on external activities, including customer relations, while her brother focuses on operations. These specified roles give the siblings separate spheres of authority while playing to their professional strengths. It must work, because Northwest Health Care Linen is one of the fastest growing companies in Whatcom County, and Van Miert and her brother get along well.

“My brother and I share an office,” said Van Miert. “We are already a tight family, and keeping good professional boundaries will help maintain those relationships outside of work.”

Rick Adelstein, president of Louis Auto Glass, agreed it’s good advice to keep family business relationships and personal relationships separate. “We all get along on a personal and professional level,” he said. “We do work at it all the time.”

The Adelstein family has owned and operated Louis Auto Glass for four generations.

Don’t let things fester.
Businesses of any size and structure require frequent, honest, transparent communication — but in a family-owned company, good communication becomes even more important. Keeping everyone informed and focused is key, Adelstein said.

“Everything comes down to communication,” said Brent Cowden, president and general manager of Cowden Gravel & Ready Mix and Cowden Brothers Trucking. “Be open, transparent, and clearly talk through any issues that come up. You can’t let them fester. Don’t let little things become big things. If you do, they can be much more complicated.”
While communicating in a family company can be hard, Cowden and his relatives have made it work. The company has been in business since 1945 and has roughly 150 employees.

But making a family dynamic work in a professional environment requires more than just communication for communication’s sake.

“Sometimes I’ve found that we don’t talk to each other the same way we do non-family members,” said Cowden. “That’s inevitable, but it’s important to remember that talking to a family member in a professional context still requires professionalism.”

That jerk down the hall might be your brother — but if he is also your vice president of sales, be cautious before taking the gloves off.

Require the next generation to gain experiences elsewhere before assuming a leadership role at your company.
One of the worst things you can do for your family business? Hand the keys to the company over to inexperienced employees solely because they are family members.

“The people at the top of a family company really put a lot of heart into their work,” said Van Miert. “You’re really carrying on your family’s legacy. If you take the idea of legacy seriously, then you really need to make sure they are just as qualified as anyone else.”
For well-run family companies, guarding the family legacy requires going out in the world and seeing the challenges and opportunities that exist beyond the world you’ve always known.

“My brother and I both worked in other industries before we came here,” Van Miert said. “We knew we wanted to be involved in the family business, but we still needed outside experience. My father told us that if we wanted to get involved in the family business, then we had to go out, get experience, and bring something to the table. He would not hire us just because of our last name.”

John Barron, owner of Barron Heating AC Electrical & Plumbing, said his No. 1 advice for a family member is to get experience elsewhere first.

“It’s good for the family member personally to find validation outside the family business, to prove himself or herself elsewhere.”

His company, founded in 1972, is now in its fourth generation of family ownership. “Learn from other jobs, and get enough life experience, to know that this (family business) is where you want to be.”

If they want to succeed, family companies are no different from any other company. They have to hire the best possible candidate. If your only qualification is that you grew up calling the CEO “Mom,” then you’re not ready to lead your family’s business.

Have an expansive definition of the word “family.”
In a family company, there is family … then there is everyone else. While non-family members understand the distinction, it is crucial that leadership do what they can to expand the definition of “family.”

“Work to ensure that everyone, employees and family, feels like a part of the family,” Adelstein said.

One of the best things about a family-owned company is realizing that employees who’ve been with you for many years are part of your family now, too, he added.
Van Miert agreed.

“The best part of being in a family business is that you really take care of everybody,” she said. “We look at everyone who works for us as part of the family. It isn’t just that my brother and I are the family and our employees work for us. The whole place is a big family. That’s how we view it.”

All family companies face a unique challenge. The idea that there is a select group of insiders with special privileges is baked into the company’s DNA. There is no avoiding it. The only effective way to manage it is to follow the examples set by companies that are doing this well.

If you want to succeed as a family company, then the entire company has to become family.

Don’t lose sight of how fortunate you are.
While family-owned companies face specific and often difficult obstacles, the rewards far outweigh the challenges.

“The best part is the hometown feeling,” Cowden said. “Our company has been a part of this community since the Second World War. We’ve seen Whatcom County, our employees and their families grow and change. It’s hard to describe the feeling of pride that creates, but that really is the single word I would use to describe the benefit of running a successful family company. There is just an enormous sense of pride.”

That word, “pride,” comes up frequently among family businesses.

“Having our own business gives us the flexibility to give back to our communities,” Adelstein said. “We take a lot of pride in knowing we make a difference.” Running a family company is “extremely rewarding” and worth all the struggles on the way to success, Adelstein said.

Kelsey Van Miert couldn’t agree more.

“Running a family business has its moments. I can’t stress good communication enough. In the end, though, it really is a special experience. My brother and I have been able to spend much of our career growing our family legacy and supporting our community. Even with the occasional difficulty, building something that matters with the people you love is wonderful.”

Adelstein referenced the same feeling. The best things about being part of a family-owned company, he said, include enjoying working with your family, getting to see them daily, and knowing your work and contributions will outlive you.

Barron said he’s equally proud of both his sons. One came to work for the family business after seven years’ work experience elsewhere, and the other pursued a career in the medical field.

“The key is to understand their natural talents. They’ve got to love what they do; they’ve got to have a passion for it.”

Building a family company is notoriously difficult — but it can work. The Business Pulse Top 100 is full of families who’ve created businesses that have made prosperity a cornerstone of the Northwest Washington economy.

If you follow the advice of leaders like Brent Cowden, Kelsey Van Miert, Rick Adelstein and John Barron, your family company can do the same. ■

Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy contributed to this article.