Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Lesson #228: Beware of Joining a Family Business

Posted By: George Deeb - 3/16/2016


& Comment

Back in Lesson #42, I wrote about the plusses and minuses of working with family members.  This post talks about whether a third-party employee, should sign up to work for a family-owned and operated company.  Hopefully, it will help you avoid a lot of unexpected grief down the road, that can often come from working inside a family owned business.


First of all, we need to define what we are talking about here.  A family business is one where one family owns the majority of the company (and most likely 100% of the equity), and often has one or more family members operating in the management team.


There is not one single answer here.  But, typically, the biggest differences versus non-family businesses are: (i) there are no outside third parties on the board of directors or advisors helping the company make decisions; (ii) which typically means there is no-one to keep the family member CEO accountable to making the right decisions in maximizing shareholder return; (iii) such CEO is typically making financial decisions at the intersection of what is best for the company and what is best for his or her family; and (iv) all decision making typically starts and ends with the family members of the management team (even if outside managers are involved).


The worst thing that can happen is you think you are joining a business that will approach growing their business with a "business first and business only" mindset, and then those types of strategies and decisions get overridden by personal needs of the family.  For example, let's say the business needs outside capital to be successful in hitting its goals.  A family member may not dig into their own pocket for those funds (as it may be better spent on their kid's college education, in their mind), and may be unwilling to raise it from outside investors (as they don't want to deal with the change in 100% control that they have today).

Not all family businesses are poorly managed or have these types of issues, but the vast majority struggle with issues like these.  Which puts strains on the relationships between the family members and the non-family members that are participating as part of the management team.


I was working with a company that was family-owned and operated.  They wanted to materially scale up their business and started to hire professional managers around the table.  The managers told the company it needed to raise capital to effectively hit its goals, materially raise salaries to better attract talent and launch a stock option plan to better retain talent.

The resulting actions were none of the above were accomplished.  The company simply lowered its growth target to a more affordable level within the cash flow of its current business (upsetting the outside managers that thought they were joining a faster growth business), they partially raised salaries (but not to the full level required to be competitive) and didn't think a stock option plan was needed (based on the poor advice they were getting from inexperienced advisors).

Worst yet, the company didn't fully appreciate the long-term nature of investing in sales and marketing in a business selling into enterprise scale companies.  The limited investment the company did make (a fraction of what was needed), was unwound the minute the company got into a cash crunch (which was easily predicted by the outside managers well ahead of time, but ignored by the family members that thought they could get away with a lower spend scenario).  And, I am not aware of any business that can quickly grow without fully investing in sales and marketing.  So, now the whole plan is in jeopardy.

Instead of doing it right from the start (raising enough capital and solving the recruitment issues), going down the "half-baked" route only caused more strains and heartache on the business, negatively impacted the company morale and resulted in a revolving door on talent.


When you are looking to join a new company that is family-owned and operated, it is critical you do your homework first.  Always bias family-owned companies that have professional outside boards of directors or advisors that can help keep the family executives educated and accountable on the best ways to realistically build a business.  Otherwise, be prepared to work for some family's lifestyle business, where the only opinions that are truly listened to are their own, and driving material and sustainable growth will be hard to achieve.

For future posts, please follow me on Twitter at: @georgedeeb.

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