The Family Business:
And the only reason I’m singin’ you the song now is ’cause you may know
Somebody in a similar situation
Or you may be in a similar situation, and if you’re in a situation like
that, there’s only one thing you can do
- Arlo Guthrie, Alice’s Restaurant
For my whole life, everyone I knew assumed that I would be working for the family business — a distributor of industrial packing supplies located on Long Island, NY. My dad started the business with my grandfather in the 1970’s. My uncle(s) were part of the business in various capacities, my mom was the website manager and I too worked there on and off my whole life. I worked in the warehouse, customer care, purchasing and business development groups. It was a family business with a family culture and some employees knew my father longer than I was alive. I was destined to take over.
Family businesses are great but they also have their own set of unique challenges. Growing up, I developed a love hate relationship while working at the family business. I absolutely loved working with my dad. He was my mentor and allowed me to learn about a business from the inside out. However, the work wasn’t particularly exciting to me. Cardboard boxes and bubble wrap is not the sexy and exciting industry that a young aspiring millennial dreams about at night. The cardboard box has remained relatively unchanged since its creation and the real purpose of bubble wrap was psychedelic wallpaper. When packages were delivered to my childhood home, my Dad and I got excited for very different reasons. I was excited about the cool new game that I was about to open and play with but my Dad was excited about the cardboard box and all the void fill packaging that was used to protect my new toy. Clearly we had different mindsets.
There were a few other challenges I was wrestling with:
- I felt that many of the employees treated me as the “bosses son”. They saw me as the future boss rather than their peer.
- I felt that potential employers negatively valued my experience because it was a family business. I constantly found myself covering up the family connection on interviews.
- I was worried that I was using the business as a fall back plan. One time, I was unhappy at my job in retail sales so I joined the family business because it was an easy out.
When I was 27, I decided to go back to school to earn my MBA with hopes that I would have some magical breakthrough and figure out my career path. I explored lots of different industries and career paths. I even created a project to work with a fellow classmate, who also had a family business, and our strategy professor, to devise growth plans for our respective businesses. While I was proud of my new strategy for the business, I still found myself wrestling with the same old question — should I join the family business?
Within 3 months of graduation, I received a job offer as a Product Manager in Corporate America. Corporate was an experience I felt I was missing from my resume and Product Management was the new hot job for MBA grads (still is). I decided to accept the job offer with the following mindset: If I loved my new job, awesome! However, if I was unhappy after 1–2 years, I would return to the family business, not like a dog with his tail between his legs, but with corporate experience/structure, MBA knowledge and a diverse industry background ready to apply to the family business.
My dad was encouraging of my decision and felt it was a win-win scenario. After all, he was the ultimate optimist. Unfortunately, only a few months after starting my new job, he suddenly got sick and abruptly passed away due to cancer. Then, the family felt it was best to sell the business and just like that, the big decision in my life was over.
I have now had about 3 years to reflect on my indecisiveness. Why was it so hard? Why did I struggle so much? If you also have a family business and unsure if you should join or not, or if you have a big decisions to make in your life, perhaps this will help guide you:
Just because it’s easy, doesn’t make it wrong
I think my pride got in the way. I wanted to prove to myself that I could get a “real” job and I devalued the family opportunity. For some reason, I felt that the family business was a cop out but just because it was the easy path. With every success comes a little bit of luck and being born into a family business can be your bit of luck.
Don’t be narrow minded — change is inevitable
I was afraid that if I joined the family business after B-School, all I would know in my life is industrial packaging. I would be known as the packaging guy. However, I did not realize the ample opportunity I had to pivot the strategy of the company or start something completely new under the existing brand name. Samsung started out as a grocery trading store in the 1930’s and is now one of the top technology companies in the world. I assumed that the family business would still be a distributor of industrial packaging supplies 10 years from now.
Passion for a specific industry is overrated
I overlooked how much meaning/value the day to day activities would provide rather than the general topic of packaging. I was so caught up in the industry that I lost sight of what I would really be doing. For example, my wife loves her job as a physical therapist but she specializes in something rather unique. She treats men and women for pelvic floor pain/discomfort. She always knew she wanted to be a physical therapist, but not once did she say that she wanted to be a pelvic floor PT until she fell into it. What she is passionate about is figuring out what is causing someone’s pain and creating a recovery plan to restore their quality of life. That passion can be accomplished across a variety of industries.
Don’t take anything for granted
I thought the family business was always going to be there for me. No one foresaw the abrupt turn of events but I was too nonchalant in my decision making ability. If you think it’s an opportunity that can provide some value to you, go for it. And remember…
Discuss an exit plan
Nothing is permanent! With a little bit of time and money, anything can always be corrected. Unfortunately, I never spoke to my Dad about an exit strategy. I was so focused that my decision would be forever that I never discussed how I would leave the family business in the event it wasn’t the right fit for me.
While sometimes it’s hard to wonder “what if”, I am extremely thankful for my life. I do not take anything for granted and I am constantly opening new doors that would have never been available to me. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason, even if it’s initially hard to see.
“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
- Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist