The challenges of family business (Part 5): Family matters in business

Almost exactly eight years from the date we started our family business, the challenges we have today are very different from those we were confronted with in 2008.

In 2016, we should generate revenues exceeding £10 million, employ approximately 80 staff, and will take occupation of vast new premises. In a sense, we have achieved a degree of success, but that success is actually limited.

And, honestly speaking, we take very little satisfaction from our current position. We have substantial ambitions for the business, we are very early in our development plans, and the growth itself brings many new issues.

Also, it is not a story of unqualified good judgement. We have made plenty of bad decisions along the way, but I think the important thing is that we have been in a position to quickly change direction if we felt something was not working out.

As it is my final blog, I have spent some time thinking about what lessons I could take from the experience. It is difficult to pick out clear themes, but here are a few that I could confidently offer:

A well-chosen lawyer can make a difference

I understand why lawyers are not always popular. They are expensive, and often it is not immediately easy to see what they have really added. I am sure that there are plenty of occasions where that withering assessment is fair and accurate. But a good lawyer, who is compatible with a particular business, can be very valuable.

The crucial thing is to pick them carefully. It can be tempting to select them on the basis of price alone, but I don’t think that is a good idea. If you can identify someone who understands your business, is proactive, who works in tune with you and your objectives and advises from the inside perspective of the business, they can really add something and create opportunities. In a world where fine margins can make a big difference, this can be significant in putting you ahead of your competitors.

If I could take our family business as an example. We have progressed through a blend of corporate arrangements and organic growth. Understanding the options and being able to execute them has been crucial for us. It was not rocket science, but it did take initiative and it did require cohesive thinking between the lawyer (me) and the day to day management. There are many good advisers out there. Choosing well, and communicating with them, however, is a fundamental part of getting value.

It does not require miracles to turn a business around

It can be tempting to walk away from a struggling business to a less challenging and more immediately rewarding position. Many, many people (literally everybody except us) told us it was time to shut the doors and cut our losses. I always understood why they would say that.

As we sat round our boardroom table (in my kitchen) in 2011, it was almost impossible to see any other outcome. In the end, though, it didn’t require miracles to change our fortunes. Our business was not transformed by a single sweeping event. It was the accumulation of many, many things, but a clear, simple (and good!) plan, hard work, and unwavering determination to see things through was a good starting point.

Family matters

Ultimately, this is a story of family business, with all the complications and virtues they carry. I am quite certain that family businesses are inherently distinct, but I would not want to say much more in terms of their specific characteristics. They come in all shapes and sizes and by their nature, they are as different and complex as one family to the next.

What I can say is that, in our own situation, our relationships as a family meant that we risked more, committed more, felt more and received more as a result. For eight years, we have lived and breathed the business. Many people beyond those mentioned have played important roles. (For example, my wife Margaret and the counsel she willingly offers on a daily basis. And my mum, who taught us that determination, hard work and appreciation of family are key values in both life and business.)

We have ambitious plans for the future. Nobody knows what that might actually hold for us. What I am certain about, though, is that I will always remember the way we came together, harnessed our combined skills and developed something we are proud of. Dad, Kevin, Chris, Stephen, Alex and I will forever be bonded by that.

Finally, as I reflect back on the last eight years, dad is at the front of my thoughts. For all of the difficulties we were confronted with in 2008, it is a story of redemption; fighting back from the brink using every strength he possessed. As my mum has always told me, everybody will face challenges in life, but it is how you respond that matters.

The manner with which dad bounced back, and the resilience he showed, was special and will forever be an inspiration for me. He gave me much more than he ever realised. My son is two years and eight months old. My daughter is six months old. They never met dad, but as they grow up I look forward to telling them about their charismatic, compassionate and indefatigable grandpa and how he refused to be beaten.

For all of the other distractions in life these days, family relationships still sit at the very core. Thank you for reading.

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