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Matt Spangler

Matt Spangler

Posted: January 24, 2011 02:20 PM

It's mid-January 2011, but I am still pondering 2010. I decided to set aside these first two weeks to reflect on this past year's themes, partially in an effort to identify what gave my life the most joy and meaning in 2010. I usually avoid year-end recaps but as I read JWT's 100 Things To Watch In 2011, I couldn't help but think that there was a trend missing, one I saw in 2010 and expect to see grow in 2011: an increase in the number of individuals working in family owned and operated businesses, both new and established.

For me, it was a defining part of 2010, something that I found personally and professionally fulfilling. And as I looked at my colleagues and friends, I saw the indicators of a growing trend worthy of mention. Was it a reaction to a deepening recession? Was it the declining allure of corporate America? Was it the "gig economy" on the rise? Was it in response to feelings of disconnection brought on by too many channels? Did it reflect a desire to turn back the clock; an embrace of family values nearly forgotten? One thing is for certain, the lingering memory of the last two years has prompted many people (young and old alike) to rethink their priorities and redefine their career goals.

Dunbar's number
The numbers speak volumes. Nearly 35 percent of Fortune 500 companies are family owned and operated. These same companies employ nearly 60 percent of nation's workforce. Family-owned giants include WalMart, News Corp, Koch Industries, and the Carlson Companies among many.

I feel the growth potential of this trend is best viewed through the lens of Dunbar's number, suggesting that there's a limit to the number of people one can maintain personal relationships with. Few would argue that the key to improving and maintaining close personal relationships is time. The more time you spend with the people you love the better you feel. As work related demands increase, less time is spent with family and friends -- holidays, a couple times a year if you're lucky, and if your parents and siblings are like mine, successful people with busy lives of their own consistent contact becomes all the more difficult..

As our communication options expand, so rises the anxiety we feel around connections as Barry Schwartz states in his book The Paradox of Choice, "Increased choice may contribute little or nothing to the kind of freedom that matters. Indeed, it may impair freedom by taking time and energy we'd be better off devoting to other matters."

My decision to work more closely with my family's business in 2010, like others I spoke with, was partially a conscious choice to spend time and energy on those relationships which were most important. And as a result of time spent with my CEO mother; CFO father, and writer/editor brother, I gained a rejuvenated connection with my family -- an antidote, so to speak, for my 1200 Facebook friends.

More than a number
And I wasn't alone. It seemed that all around me friends and colleagues were making similar choices. Derek Lo, a successful strategist and account executive at one of the world's most successful marketing agencies, Anomaly, made the decision to leave his job and join his mother and brother in a small business venture --

"A ton of people in the agency dreamt of starting their own companies. I wanted to eventually be an entrepreneur, and was just waiting for the right opportunity. I just never thought that opportunity would be designing premium travel bags. A big reason why I decided to join the family business was to help my mom make her idea a reality. I saw her passion for what she wanted to create, and even though I knew nothing about the bag world or the travel industry, it inspired me to take that leap of faith."

Increased career flexibility and the gig economy have placed a premium on who you work with or for. For a modern day tale of partner picking, one only had to look as far as the 2010 film, The Social Network. Finding the right boss or mentor is no different, an extremely difficult challenge that is vitally important to your mental well-being and long term success. Finding someone whose personality, work ethic, skill set, and attitude toward others, aligns with yours is difficult at best. Until you work with someone, you don't really know how they interact with others in the work place.

But with family members you're able to make an informed decision. Building on what you already know, you can clearly determine if the essential factors that go into a great work relationship are present.

"As family, you're able to confront certain issues with a level of honesty and openness that you might not be able to if you're part of a large organization," said Derek.

Working closely with your family instills everything you do with a passion that comes from helping those you care about most. A great "team" environment is something that countless people tell me they are seeking in the work place -- and nowhere is that spirit more evident than in a family business.

"One important part of what makes this experience so amazing," said Derek, "is that it's our family name. Lo & Sons is embedded in the brand, so there's certainly a sense of family pride that goes into our work and products. It's also an amazing feeling selling a tangible good, and not a service or some obscure application on the internet. There's something nice about creating a product that you can feel and touch."

It's worth it
Admittedly, each family business environment is different. Some, like the Trump family, work to maintain an already successful brand. Others, like Derek, relish the challenge of the start-up environment.

"I'm most thankful that I've had the opportunity to wear so many hats. I'm no longer just an advertising executive or a "suit". I'm a product designer, customer service rep, photographer, social media manager, and, occasionally, the IT guy".

As for my family, the foundation for building a brand was already in place -- babies. We had product and revenue, combined with big goals for the future. As entrepreneurs, we retain a startup atmosphere, and our past successes and failures help guide us toward our vision of the future: becoming a brand synonymous with the best in modern parenting and a premier resource for practical advice and products related to breastfeeding, nutrition, health, and safety.

"It hasn't all been smooth sailing or easy," says Derek Lo of Lo & Sons, "but being able to overcome challenges and work together as a team has made it all worthwhile." I encourage all those considering it to take the chance. It could be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. If you're lucky enough to have a close relationship with your family and take that leap, here are some tips from my experience in 2010 that will hopefully help:

For the right reasons
For whatever reason, I had always associated nepotism with working with family. It was too easy I said to myself, and I needed the challenge of making it on my own. My parent's Midwest, blue-collar sensibilities taught me that hard work was what contributed to success. At the same time, my mother's father built a family business and passed it on to the next generation, so I was able to learn from those experiences.

In 2009, intent on continuing my independent path, I established a small consulting firm which allowed me the time to carefully analyze the family business from an objective point of view.

baby gooroo began in 2000 as a small publishing company. My mother, an internationally recognized expert on breastfeeding and child health, made the decision to self-publish her first book, BREASTFEEDING, A Parent's Guide -- now in its ninth edition and read by millions of new parents. Over the years the company expanded its product line to include a variety of educational materials, products, a YouTube channel, and an editorial website. An analysis of the market revealed vast opportunities. The number of "connected" parents was on the rise; mommy bloggers were a growing market; products and materials that appealed to modern parents, but offered a professional filter were hard to find. The need for quality design and clear communication matched with a constantly regenerating customer base convinced me that this was a significant opportunity where my expertise could provide great value.

Learn the business
Working for a family business is no different than working for any other company. You don't come in on day one and get an executive office. You start in the mail room... or someplace low on the totem pole. Treat the structure of the business and the arrangement as you would in any normal business environment. Create realistic titles and job descriptions. Put benchmarks in place. It's easy to let that slip with family, so some rigor in this area is extremely important.

Junior Bridgeman, a former NBA player who had a celebrated career with the Milwaukee Bucks and LA Clippers, bought a franchise restaurant after he retired from the NBA. Late this past year his impressive business, nearly 300 Wendy's and Chili's restaurants with over $500 million dollars in revenues, was profiled in the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of Franchise Times.

Junior reminded me of my own father, emphasizing the importance of hard work, modesty, and paying your dues as the backbone for a successful career. The Bridgeman kids were taught the same lessons, while working as waiters and janitors in the family's restaurants before they could move up the corporate ladder.

The middle Bridgeman child, Ryan, age 28, is currently in Los Angeles doing a year-long internship with Taco Bell's finance department, acquiring financial management skills in a position outside the family business, but poised to gain valuable knowledge that will bring value to the Bridgeman organization. I would not have had the skills needed to work in the family business had I not worked on my own for 10 years in marketing, branding, film & video production.

Play to your strengths
Any successful business person will tell you, if you can't do the job, hire someone who can, because successful businesses all have one thing in common--great people. By the end of 2009 I wasn't a baby expert, but I had a skill set that I believed could fill a gap. In 2010 I developed a 3-year growth plan and we began launching a list of new initiatives and products, hired a talented staff of community managers, editors, writers and designers, and increased our revenue by more than 30 percent.

I'm reminded of the sons and daughters of the Trump family, and how each has risen through the ranks to eventually manage companies under the Trump umbrella. At the end of the day, I began to realize, they were in those positions of leadership (in most cases) not because their name was Trump but because they had earned the right; because they added value to the business. The Donald is shrewd enough to know not to give responsibility to blood relatives unless they can be a valuable asset to the team.

According to Eden Bridgeman, "We put more pressure on ourselves to earn the spot in the business than our parents or coworkers do. It's all about family pride."

The new generation brings new ideas and a fresh perspective on the business. They bring new skills and new contacts. Balanced with the essential elements of success that the parents instilled to create the initial success, this can be a powerful way to propel the business forward.

As Derek Lo reminds, "Be open-minded and look to learn, because there is a lot to learn from the rest of the team. It was easy for me to come into the business thinking I know more than my family about advertising, when in fact they've probably taught me more about marketing than I've taught them. So I've really learned to let go of some of my ego, and stay open minded."


More about Lo & Sons: Inspired by the needs of frequent travelers and daily commuters, Lo & Sons is a bag brand for professionals on the go. They offer lightweight bags that combine the elegant and simple aesthetic of classic handbags with the functionality of travel and work/laptop bags. Founded by a mother and her two sons, they spent years looking for easy-to-use, streamlined and practical luggage for their frequent travels. With a clear gap in the bag world, Lo & Sons emerged as a fresh alternative to the old-fashioned concept of "luggage".


 

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