Insurance and Technology and Small Business

25A-32A All in the family: Good relationships key to living and working together

August 28, 2006

25A-32A All in the family Good relationships key to living and working together

The family that plays together stays together, as the old adage goes.

But what about the family that works together?

Many-if not most-of the estimated 450,000 small businesses in Indiana employ more than one family member, local smallbusiness experts say.

In some cases, family involvement might be limited to a spouse who helps out with the books part-time or a child who comes into the office occasionally to tackle filing. At the other end of the spectrum, family members may work together daily to run the business.

No matter the situation, those who own family businesses say the key to success is developing a good working relation ship-separate from the family dynamic.

"You have to learn to develop your strengths and let the other person develop theirs," said Ted Miller, who opened Broad Ripple's Brugge Brasserie with his wife, Shannon Stone-Miller, in April 2005.

From the beginning, Ted has concentrated on the "big-picture" side of the business, plus brewing its Belgian-style beers. Shannon handles the accounting and manages Brugge's 25-person staff.

Ted credits the couple's time spent living abroad when he was working for a brewing-equipment manufacturer as the basis of their working relationship. Living in China forced them to rely on each other more than they might have at home, he said.

Now at Brugge, Ted and Shannon split their schedules so that they are in the restaurant on different days. Each after- noon, they meet there to discuss business issues over one of Ted's handcrafted brews. The couple's three young children are frequent visitors to the restaurant and regularly hear their parents discuss the family business. Miller said he expects they will work there someday.

"If they want a car, they'd better work here," he said, laughing.

Children, whether they are infants or adults, are often part of a family business. For younger children like the Millers', the enterprise can shape their perceptions of work-positive or negative-and can teach them valuable life lessons, said Ann Kinkade, director and faculty associate at the Family Business Center at the University of Madison-Wisconsin.

Pat and Danielle Robinson have been working together at Indy Aero LLC for about six years. The couple expanded Pat's existing business when Danielle came to work for the company, which offers numerous services at Mount Comfort Airport, including flight lessons, chartered flights and the purchase and sale of airplanes.

The family crew at Indy Aero also includes the Robinsons' teenagers, who mow the grass and handle occasional light office duties during the summer.

"Working together is the best thing we ever did," said Danielle, whose family owned an agricultural business when she was growing up. "I'm very detail-oriented; he's big-picture. Together we fill in the gaps."

Although leaving work entirely at the office is difficult, Robinson said she believes their children benefit from hearing mom and dad talk shop.

"The kids are very much a part of [the business] and know what's going on," she said. "It's a great way to teach life lessons."

Indeed, children often learn a lot from their parents' business, Kinkade said, including how to balance work and family life, and how to resolve conflicts at home and at work.

As adults, many children join an existing family business or take on an increasingly greater role as their parents age. But regardless of whether the family relationship is husband-wife, parent-child, or brother-sister, the issues of appropriate family-work balance and conflict resolution remain important.

Conflicts and negotiations should be seen as an opportunity for growth and change-not as a negative, Kinkade said.

When families see conflicts that way, they can lead to growth of the business. Locally, some companies have added separate divisions when family members didn't see eye to eye on the company's vision.

Tom and Dennis Godby split their company into two more than a decade ago, with Tom running Godby Brothers heating and air conditioning and his brother leading Godby Hearth & Home. It helped preserve the brothers' relationship, Tom Godby has said. Both have since been sold.

But when conflicts aren't handled well, the dispute can land in court or the entire company can founder.

In addition to keeping conflicts friendly, family members working together should make an extra effort to communi cate, Kinkade said. In a family dynamic, it's typical for relatives to assume they know what the other is thinking. In business, however, that may not be the case.

Businesses also require more structure than the average family, she said. As a business grows, it requires well-spelledout processes, quality control and efficiency to succeed-not traditionally topics of the average family meeting.

Although every family works out a different system, several owners of family businesses echoed Kinkade's suggestions to play to each others' strengths, delineate responsibilities and avoid letting disagreements become arguments.

"Yes, we do have a few disagreements," said Don Born, who owns locally based Born Aviation Products with his wife, Judy, and son David. "But in six years, I don't know if we've had any arguments."

Born Aviation is a wholesaler of items sold in aviation museum gift shops and at air shows, such as T-shirts, key chains and mugs. Don, 66, said family members are jointly responsible for coming up with ideas for new products to market. Beyond their weekly marketing meeting, each has a distinct role in the company, such as running the company's 8,000-square-foot warehouse or coming up with artwork for Born's semi-annual catalogs.

In many cases, adult children coming into the business can not only ensure longevity, but also provide for growth through new ideas and the energy of a younger person at the helm, Born and others said.

Tim Barnett, for instance, is embarking on ambitious growth plans for Barnett Insurance Agency, founded by his father Dan 35 years ago. While the elder Barnett still advises the business and is available for advice anytime, Tim is preparing to open two new offices in addition to its original office on the east side of Indianapolis. One will be headed by his sister, who lives in Seymour, while Tim will oversee a west-side office.

One of Tim's other initiatives was to improve the agency's technology, using his background as an independent IT consultant. The increased efficiency allowed the company to add clients without expanding its staff, he said.

Tim banks on growth for the agency because of the existing business he took over, as well as the ongoing working relationship with his father. He frequently calls his father for advice or to talk through a problem, he said, but the two still manage to keep work and play separate.

"When we golf, we golf," he said. "[But] I'll still call him after hours occasionally."
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