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Is a Family Business Always a Good Idea?



Having family go into your business may not be the best thing. Shocking as that can be, it is the parents' job to give their children roots and wings-it is not the parents' job to force their kids into some predetermined career path. Serfdom died out a few centuries ago, fortunately.

Take a look at Dodd Camera (Cleveland, OH), Dan's Camera City (Allentown, PA), or ShutterBug Camera (Santa Rosa, CA). Each of these organizations is thriving today. What they have in common is that over the last few years their respective owners sold the business to nonfamily. Contrast that to many firms that are no longer with us.

A study McCurry Associates did for an industry vendor showed that more than two-thirds of camera store financial failures studied from 2000 to 2003 were succession plan–related. This less-than-scientific survey showed that many "kids of the boss" weren't prepared academically, intellectually, or emotionally to go from "kid" to "boss."

Growing up in the family business doesn't make someone any more capable to be in charge than growing up by an airport makes someone ready to be a pilot. Sure, being familiar will help. But familiarity isn't the same as competence.

Don't confuse jobs during school with the reality of post-school education. Again, drawing comparisons, let's look at Wolfe's Camera (Topeka, KS), Noble's (Hingham, MA), and The Camera Shop (Bryn Mawr, PA). In all three of these cases, Mike Worswick, Brian Noble, and Michelle Bogosian-HECKMANN, respectively, got jobs outside the family business. Then they were "hired" back into when they had established themselves in successful nonfamily careers.

The experience outside the business is critical. It builds the self-esteem of the younger generation because they've been successful in their chosen field. This gives them confidence so that if/when they rejoin the family, they're being brought back because of their skills, not their genealogy. This is important, since life is truly lonely at the top. Business owners must make decisions that may not be popular and may go against "conventional wisdom." If the younger generation lacks confidence in themselves, they can be too timid when tough decisions have to be made and thus make the wrong decisions.

Another benefit of outside experience is that it reinforces the fact that the family business is not always current with state-of-the-art options, nor are all solutions found within the families.

When family members are hired back into the business, their pay rate has already been established by market conditions. We know of a family business that felt one of the nephews would be the best CEO they could hire. He was practicing a lucrative specialty of tax law, and his paycheck was more than both of his uncles' combined. It wasn't a major issue because the market had set his worth. The uncles didn't have to decide what he was worth; they had to decide if he would be worth that to the business. (He was worth every penny-he sold the business a few years later for an unheard-of price; his nonfamily education paid off handsomely for the family.)

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