The differences and universalities of a family business
Would you fire your sister?
Would you put your introverted brother in a high-exposure marketing role?
Would you want to work in a company where everyone else was related and it seemed like you would never be considered for advancement?
It’s obvious that the dynamics of a practice may be different when family members are involved. You naturally will be inclined to communicate differently with a sibling, parent or child than with a non-related colleague.
To go deeper into this scenario and learn what elements are specific to family businesses and what components can be applied to any practice, we sat down with 13-year MDRT member Ana Sofia Rodriguez, MBA, of Panama City, Panama, who works with multiple members of her family, eight-year MDRT member Adam Blumberg, CFP, CLU, of Houston, Texas, who worked in another family’s business, and six-year MDRT member Matthew Joseph Murphy, EPC, of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, who does not work in a family business.
Rodriguez: I think the most basic difference is that when there’s family involved, there are always feelings involved. There’s an extra layer there that you always need to take into account. You also have to find real ways to keep non-related staff motivated and show them they have opportunities for growth in the company. If it’s a family-owned firm, they can come into the company and form the idea that there’s no growth for them there because they think it’s going to end up with the son or the daughter of the owner.
Murphy: I never thought of it from the perspective of an outside employee looking at future growth potential when there is family in the business. I always assumed the biggest challenge someone in your shoes would face is, “How do we make the family happy?”
Blumberg: When I was an advisor with a family firm that wasn’t my family, I realized I’m never going to get this business, because my name isn’t on the door and the owner of the business has five kids and I’m not one of them. And I better get out of here before I build up too much and it’s too difficult for me to get out.
Murphy: Was it a good training ground?
Blumberg: It was a great training ground because they were fantastic mentors and were ethical and moral and did the business right. They were longtime MDRT members, which helped. They’re the ones that got me into the Million Dollar Round Table. But at one point I realized they’re going to take care of their family, which is what they should do. If it were my family business, I would take care of my family.
Murphy: Ana, are you looking forward to going through the semi-retirement process with dad? If dad retires, mom’s probably not going to be too far behind.
I think the most basic difference is when there's family involved, there are always feelings involved.
— Ana Sofia Rodriguez
Rodriguez: I think it’s bittersweet in the sense that I look forward to the challenge of stepping up to the plate, but my parents are my mentors. I’m looking forward to finding a way that they can remain in the business in the sense that they don’t retire completely because I think there’s still so much to learn from them. It would be like any other job in which you have someone leave who you really look up to. You feel that there will be a part missing there. But at the same time, you want the challenge to step up and show what you have learned throughout those years.
Murphy: I think we, as non-family business owners, can look to the family-business-owner market for structure and putting people in positions that add value. I think a lot of times, as business owners, we employ people based on positions we want to fill. They apply for the position based on key metrics, benefits, wages, all these different things that matter to them.
But if we were able take all of that out of the equation, hire people for their skill sets and create a position based on what they can bring to the business, that would be something we’ve taken out of that family business model. When you have a family business, you know intimately what each individual is skilled at. Say your brother was an introvert; you would not put him in charge of marketing the company, going out and entertaining clients. That would go to somebody better suited in that role.
Blumberg: You have to be creative because you have to say, well, I can’t necessarily fire my brother or I can’t fire my son. I’ve got to figure out something they can do here. Unless you get to that point in some family businesses where you just have to start firing people and never talk anymore.
Rodriguez: Something that can be translated from family businesses to non-family businesses is the fact that, in a family business, you feel like you’re all in the same boat and you’re rowing together. Whenever I had to take a trip, I would tell clients, “Don’t worry. If you need to call me or need anything, you can call my business partner, which, by the way, is my sister.” That would give them an extra level of confidence, but it would also give me an extra level of confidence because there was no competition between my mom or my dad or my sister.
When you have a family business, you know intimately what each individual is skilled at.
— Matthew Murphy
You sometimes see that in companies. Your partners are supposedly part of the team, but you compete between each other. I think if you could translate the sentiment, “This is my family, this is my team,” to all types of business, clients would feel that too and also give you an extra sense of trust and tranquility when you are trusting someone with your clients.
Murphy: I think too it resonates with the clients when they see that, from a business standpoint, you have your house in order. That’s one thing I learned from seeing family business and non-family business. Even as business partners, we can compete internally with each other and always try to push each other to be better. But when it comes to what the client perceives and is exposed to, it is a fairly symmetrical operation. We are a team. We work together. It is a joint effort. I think seeing that in a family business context can add some value too.