What’s the difference between a family business and a business family? Are they really different, or just two ways of saying essentially the same thing? I like to think that the main difference is on the emphasis on each word, depending on the situation.
A family business is a Business first and foremost. Often in the early years the founder will call it a family business, even if he or she is the only fulltime family member working there. They are, after all, doing it for the family. As things progress, the spouse and children sometimes end up joining in, with the next generation getting their feet wet in the summers of their teenage years.
At this point, it becomes more of a true family business, and slowly but surely, as the size of the enterprise grows and the involvement of family members increases, all of a sudden there are more than business issues to consider, but family ones as well. Welcome to the world of the business Family.
There usually is not a “threshold moment” when a family business becomes a business family. Sometimes one member of the family notices it before others. Often the founder can be the last one to make the realization that they have entered into a new paradigm.
Back in the 1980’s, my father decided to join CAFÉ, the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise. It offered him the chance to interact with other business people who were encountering similar situations in both their businesses and their families. He made some great connections with other family leaders that lasted for many years, past the point where most were even involved in their businesses.
So you might think that he realized that the family part was important, but that may not be entirely correct. Like many founders, it was his business, and everything he did was done his way. At least that was the way we saw it. But that was fine, it was his money, his effort, his risk, we were actually content to go along for the ride.
Simply joining an organization like CAFÉ does not automatically make you pay enough attention to the family part of the equation. It often does not come naturally to an entrepreneur, who will usually be preoccupied with other, seemingly more important tasks.
But the family is always there, somewhere in the background, or maybe some members in the foreground too, and the family issues can come along and overtake the business issues at a moment’s notice.
If things stay small, and few family members rely on the business for their livelihood, things usually remain relatively simple. But as the business grows in size and scope, and as more family members become involved in one way or another, complexities inevitably set in.
When things get complicated, I usually stress the importance of communication. I always prefer to over-communicate in order to minimize the potential for misunderstandings. Many business owners don’t seem to find the time to take care of the family communications, as they are often too busy tending to the business communications.
Family meetings, where everyone is present, can go a long way to keeping everyone on the same page. I will always suggest that these meetings involve only the immediate family members (no spouses or significant others).
Most families do not start having these meetings until they approach a significant event or transition. Better late than never. But once you set up the framework, the family members will usually actually look forward to the meetings and the realization that everyone now has the same story, and knows where things stand.
It is hard enough to solve all the business problems that can come up, trying to stay ahead of the family issues with regular meetings can at least minimize the important family aspects that need to be dealt with, not ignored.