Recently Galen Lehman took several weeks off from his job as president of Lehman’s. He spent this time visiting suppliers and other businesses he knew and admired. The companies he visited ranged from 1 employee to 300 employees. Most were owned by Amish or Mennonite families. At each stop, he asked, “What is the secret of your success?” This is one of a series of postings about what he learned
I just spent two weeks traveling across three states talking with nearly two dozen other family business owners and trying to learn everything I could about what makes family businesses succeed or fail. I was surprised to discover that every business shared common traits.
Family businesses succeed in the first generation because they are family businesses.
I doubt there is any other setting where a family would be so invested in a job that requires year after year of 60-hour and 70-hour work weeks. Family businesses in the first generation succeed because the business becomes a calling for every member of the family.
Work invades every pore of the family character. Work is suddenly an acceptable excuse for missing family events like Little League games and reunions. Work is discussed over the supper table (instead of legitimate family issues). And, work can be an acceptable excuse for requiring family members to work for little or no pay. Family businesses succeed in the first generation because every family member is willing to make huge sacrifices.
During this time, decisions are often made from the heart, not the head. Family members may be paid based on what they need (rather than what they are worth). Owners make decisions based on what they like to do, not what the business requires. This may not make good business sense. But, somehow, it all works!
I grew up in a such a setting. And, without exception, every single family business I met with did, too. The funny thing is, we all enjoyed it. We loved having a dad who was the “Iron Man”. We loved when he included us in his work. We reveled in the bond of shared sacrifice.
What’s your experience been with starting a family business?