Working successfully with your family

August 18, 2017

Simon, Bob, Jackson & Boe Berry

Oamaru’s Whitestone Cheese has always been a family business. By the time I arrived on the full-time scene in 2003, fresh from corporate roles in London, Auckland and Vancouver, my father Bob had already been running the business for 16 years.

I was slightly concerned when during my first week Dad handed me a handwritten reply on a printed-out email, adding, ‘Simon, type that up and send it back to them for me.’

My polite response - ‘You type it up and send it!’

How would I have handled that situation with a non-family member, or a boss in my old corporate role? I’d probably have done as I was told and moaned about the situation as soon as I got home. I’d probably have said, ‘This guy at work is treating me like his secretary!’ But because it’s your Dad, you can answer back. When family is involved you don’t have the professional barriers for arguments or push backs, which certainly works both ways.

Running a family business is not all fun and games. I learnt very early on to avoid both of us working on the same task. When I look back, the times Dad and I argued was when we both delved into an identical project. The generation gap brings different perspectives, ideas and merits. If that happens you can potentially have conflict. My advice is to clearly define who is responsible for what early on and be wary of the overlaps.

I soon found my bearings at Whitestone and was delighted to learn we had a senior management team together who believed our company would grow - but how exactly? One obvious challenge was technology. At that time, we were still heavily paper reliant and a single email address for the entire organization. If we were to catapult ourselves into the future we needed to ensure everyone was responsible for their own efficient communication and our accounting and traceability systems had to be developed.

This was a major challenge.

Drawing on my international commerce and industry experience, I brought a new level of administration thinking we hadn’t seen before in terms of operations and processing. What used to be a complex and manual invoicing and stock-taking system is now a smooth operation, we adopted New Zealand’s first wireless random weight scanning technology, enabling us to efficiently and accurately supply the retail market factory direct.

This was not without growing pains.

For a family business to thrive the family relationship must be a solid foundation. A tense relationship won’t improve by being in business together. I knew Dad and I were reasonably tight. We’d always been regular communicators. We kept in touch while I was travelling and working overseas, especially around skill set developments for each role I accepted. Together we always kept a keen eye on the business back home.

What is a business dinner versus a family dinner? Good question! Like many people in our situation, we always end up talking shop around the table. So we soon set down some rules about where and when we’d talk business.

It’s getting that balance right, nowadays with Mum and Dad being based at Lake Hayes the work discussions are more defined. Dad can pick and choose when he wants to contribute, or alternatively shoot off overseas and be able to spend some well-earned time on the golf course. I admire his achievement to such a balance of life, by being active in the business but not so much so that it becomes a burden.

Are bad days made worse or better by working with family? Well at least they know you’re not going to pack up and leave! Thankfully I haven’t had one of those days for some time. Three years ago a quality control event proved to be a living hell, as was a two-year-long litigation programme that followed, which I now have to thank for providing me with a thick skin. These days it takes a bit to upset me.

Don’t we just turn into our parents, older and wiser? I don’t think you really see maturity in business until you’re over 40. When I was 30 I used to complain about people not paying us on time and end up going home in a frustrated huff. Bob would reassure me we’d sort it out, and he was right.

In a family business, your strongest bond can also be your greatest weakness. If those bonds break, it can be irreversible. Alternatively, these bonds can create real strength in terms of both working together and achieving a common goal.

It’s all about trust. Sit down and talk about it early on. Put all cards on the table. Be willing to have those awkward conversations. If there is push back from family members, perhaps avoid the leap of joining in business together.

Successful succession is the older generation being prepared to hand over the responsibility and decision making to the next generation, with them still being on hand in the background for support.

Many times Bob and I have to be careful we don’t end up in an argument, but in our case a decent glass of scotch with some Vintage Windsor Blue normally sorts things out. 

Here's cheers, Simon Berry.