How to run a family business

Employment & Skills | How To

Written by Sean McGarry Jr, Founder of ShowerGem

Running a business can be a complex job, so it’s important to surround yourself with people you trust. This is why working with members of your own family can be such a great way to guide your business to success. In this piece, Sean looks at why family businesses can work so well, as well as the challenges of working with close relatives.

Whether you’re a start-up founder or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you can guarantee that running a business won’t always be smooth sailing. You will likely tackle a great many obstacles throughout your business journey, but in my experience, it’s the people you surround yourself with who will shape the way you tackle those obstacles, as well as the success of your organisation.

In times of crisis, as in times of success, I’ve found that having family by my side is invaluable. While running a family business does come with its challenges, it provides a sense of security and trust which I don’t think can be rivalled – especially in times of difficulty. Who better to have alongside you, helping you to tackle the many trials of the business world, than the people you’ve known and trusted the longest?

My business for example, ShowerGem, was first launched by my father. He was frustrated with the constant clutter strewn across the floor of our shower at home and was tired of using traditional metal shower caddies that were prone to rust. Having worked in plastics for more than 30 years, he decided to create his own solution in his workshop.

I was so impressed with my father’s design that I decided to take it to market and took over the business after graduating from university. Fast forward three years and myself and my father are still working together, employing four other full-time staff, including one of my younger sisters. My mother and sister are also involved in ShowerGem on a smaller scale, offering a helping hand at trade shows and events in their spare time.

Personally, I find it easy to work alongside my family and I’m not the only one – two thirds of UK business are family-owned, employing more than 13 million people and generating over a quarter of UK GDP*. Many of these businesses have been operating for decades, some for hundreds of years, and their proven successes are a testament to the benefits that close family relationships can bring.

However, running a family business isn’t always an easy decision. It requires patience, dedication, discipline and honest communication. Here are my top five tips for anyone considering starting a family-run business:

Set boundaries

When my father first created ShowerGem, it became, as you would expect, a big talking point in my family. We would often discuss the business around the kitchen table, and it was just as easy to talk about family issues during office hours. However, while we still catch ourselves slipping into old habits from time to time, we’ve had to learn how to set boundaries – something which is key to our success.

It’s important to establish a clear separation between ‘family’ and ‘business’, limiting business discussions outside of the office while also keeping family matters out of the boardroom.

Communicate openly

Poor communication can be the downfall of any business, let alone a business with the added complication of family dynamics. Without clear communication, it can be easy to assume that the whole family shares the same understanding of the business and its direction. It can also be easy to let simple disagreements spiral out of control.

You need to take the time to build trust as colleagues, air any concerns openly, encourage each other and discuss individual ideas. Start by asking each family member what the business means to them and how they see themselves involved in the future, and arrange regular meetings to encourage open communication, analyse progress and resolve any issues that arise.

Appreciate individual skills

A critical factor in the success of your business will be putting the best people in the role suited to their particular skill set. It can be tempting in a family business to put family members in specific job roles either because that’s where you want them to be or it’s what they’ve asked for. You might be right; however, you can just as equally be wrong, and fill a role to avoid conflict or a lengthy recruitment process.

It’s important to remember to play to the strengths of each individual – not everyone is suited to handle positions well, and there may be another family member or even outside talent who can help the company perform better.

Treat your non-family employees equally

It’s not uncommon to employee non-family members of staff in a family business – while it can be much easier to employee and retain family members within a company, it will most likely outgrow your family resource. It is at this point that you will have to start the recruitment process and though it may be daunting to welcome non-family employees into the fold, they can often be instrumental in strategic decision-making, providing a balanced perspective while maintaining the same drive and passion.

At ShowerGem, I employ staff who aren’t directly part of my family, however that doesn’t mean they’re treated any differently than my father or sister, for example. It’s important to ensure that every member of staff is given the same opportunities to succeed and progress, without anyone receiving special treatment.

I find it easy to work with my family, and I honestly don’t think the business would be where it is today without them. However, even though my family and I enjoy working together, it can often throw up problems which other founders might not experience.

Running a family business isn’t easy for everyone but if you get it right, working with parents or siblings can allow you to take your business to new heights. The biggest positive is being able to surround yourself with and work alongside the people you trust most in the world – being able to see my family every day is something I would never give up.

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