It’s All Relative

August 12, 2011
Written by Andrew Hind
For most people, their career is separate from their home life with very little overlap between the two.
For most people, their career is separate from their home life with very little overlap between the two. If one has a bad day, they go home to escape the stresses and concerns of work. They may vent to a loved one, or seek impartial opinion about workplace matters and co-workers.

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But what if your family and your career are one and the same, as they are frequently in the garden centre industry, dominated by family-run businesses? In this situation, there is often no escape from the drama and tension of the workplace. This can become a problem so serious it slowly erodes the health of the business.

Conflict between family members, whether the tension starts in the family and spills into the business or starts in the business and affects the family, is a major factor in family-run businesses having such a poor survival rate: studies indicate that only about one-third of family businesses successfully transition to the second generation and fewer still survive to be passed on to a third.

Such discouraging figures really shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s perfectly understandable, in fact. Running a business can be challenging and stressful under the best of conditions, but a family business brings with it a whole new range of challenges. A lifetime of shared experiences creates a complicated history even for the most “functional” of business partners, and it’s easy for arguments about personal, family-related issues to bleed into the business sphere.

Yet, many family-run garden centres are remarkably successful, passing from one generation to another in seemingly flawless transition. How do these businesses rise above the family landmines to endure for decades? It’s actually a lot simpler than one might think, as long as family members are willing to identify and address a few key points.

Business is business
Much of the strife in family businesses occurs because the lines between personal and professional lives become blurred. It’s easy to bring up work related matters around the dinner table or at a Sunday barbecue, but resist the urge at all costs. Do not bring work home with you; never discuss business matters with family members after you’ve left the centre for the day. This can be hard to do – it’s convenient to ‘talk shop’ when everyone is together at a family function – but it’s vital that you keep your family life separate from your business life.

Why? First, it creates an environment that allows one to escape from work and unwind, a necessity for a balanced life. Just as important, it reminds everyone that the business is not an extension of the family, and reinforces psychological barriers that will keep problems in one area from seeping into the other. One way to ensure business remains separate from family is to hold a formal business meeting at some predetermined interval, perhaps weekly or monthly. Here progress reports are made on “action items” from previous meetings, and new ideas and issues are discussed and debated in a formal environment. It’s important to have a clear agenda to keep “on point” and only address topics directly related to the garden centre.

Communication is crucial
Just because people are family doesn’t mean they necessarily know how to communicate with one another. Family members have disparate personalities and rarely have a common view of how things should be done and to what end. In fact, in many successful family businesses, as in any corporation, there is a surprising amount of disagreement or lack of consensus when new ideas or issues are first being debated and discussed. This can be a healthy thing, as long as people know how to effectively communicate with one another.

Learning to communicate is critical to any company, but especially so in a family-operated business where far more is at stake than just sales. Here are a few important tips:
  • Consider everyone’s point of view. In a typical garden centre a greenhouse manager may not have a say in HR issues,
  • but when that greenhouse manager is also the brother of the HR manager his opinion should have some bearing.
  • Accept and understand that being in a family business does not result in solidarity of opinion.
  • Always keep perspective. The garden centre is more than a job, it’s also the family’s legacy. So, while disagreements on issues may be strong, don’t forget the family’s values are a shared bond and represent a shared commitment to the common good.
  • Create “rules of behaviour” for interaction among family members and abide by them. Being family does not excuse lack of business etiquette or professionalism.

Clearly define your roles
While it is acceptable, and even preferable, for every family member to have a say in the operation of the garden centre, it’s still vital that everyone have a clearly defined job and set of responsibilities. When the business was new and small, perhaps this didn’t matter as much. But you’ve grown over the years, and as the sales multiplied, so too has the work load. Clearly defined roles are now vital to avoid stepping on one another’s toes and creating tensions. They allow people to work more efficiently and provide a clear management structure so employees in any given depeartment know whom they report to and what’s expected of them.

But it’s not enough to merely define one’s roles. Family members must have clearly defined goals to reach the centre’s strategic objectives, and they must be held accountable, just as would any employee should these objectives not be met. Write out store policies and responsibilities expected of all employees, including family members, and if possible use formal agreements and contracts. The clearer you are, the more secure and content everyone will be.

Most garden centre owners founded their business with the dream of making it a family enterprise, passing it down from generation to generation. That’s a worthy ambition, and sometimes it pans out exactly as imagined in the mind’s eye. In most cases, however, the realities of complex family relationships and never-ending challenges faced by small businesses mean the road is a little more bumpy than was originally expected. There’s no shame in that.

The good news is, with a bit of forethought, some common-sense practices and understanding among all members of the family, these potholes can be easily navigated. The result is well worth the effort: a happy home life and a more efficiently run garden centre. Your children, and perhaps their children, will be the beneficiaries of dynamics you establish today when they inherit the family business. 

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