Many of Ireland’s best restaurants/ pubs/ eateries are owned and run by families, some third and fourth generation and beyond. They weather storms, innovate, get bigger and better and collectively employ thousands of people across the country. They are critical to the economy and the social fabric of cities, towns and villages. Not all family businesses are so lucky.

The definition of family is ‘a primary social group consisting of parents and their offspring’ yet another is ‘ a group descended from a common ancestor.’ Whatever way it is described, the business that is termed a ‘family business’ has a unique chemistry not seen in corporate entities. Being an ‘offspring’ of such a family business and with decades of experience of working with family businesses, a number of commonalities seem to be present.

However, what makes the family business so powerful in it’s perfect form and yet so destructive if it all goes pear shaped? The business world is littered with the savaged corpses of family businesses leaving a trail of destruction that can infect generations to come. When fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, cousins and other kin decide that the business is just not working for them, the consequences can be unforeseen and bitter. When sifting through the ashes of a once proud and profitable business, it can be almost impossible to accurately pinpoint the cause. Was it a throw away comment that was the final straw, was it the failure to follow through on promises, was it a round member of the family being shoved into a square hole, was it one person shouldering it all or was it simply terrible communication all the way through?

If you are running a family business, how robust is it in times of the greatest flux for decades? How clear are the lines of communication? How many family members are as qualified as they need to be to hold the role/ shoulder the responsibility that has been given to them in the business?  Are they being supported to carry out that role? What will happen if the business needs to grow? Are there family members that the business is ‘carrying’ because they don’t fit in anywhere else? What would happen if the founding member was out of the picture? Would the business carry on seamlessly? What would happen if you were not there?

Are there family members working in the business that you would not employ if they came in off the street looking for a job?

What parts of your business are working really well? What parts of it are causing stress, causing that gnawing feeling that you simply cannot control it? Are those parts related to family stuff?

We put up with stuff in families. We may make excuses and turn a blind eye. We tolerate stuff that causes stress- because ‘that is just Johnny or Julie’; while employees wonder what is going on.

A business is a business and all business rules apply. There are some simple processes that can be part of the business operation that safeguard against the family taking down the business.

  1. Set up a clear management structure in the business.
  2. Set up a robust financial management structure.
  3. Identify which family members are qualified to competently fill the role/ responsibility they are being assigned.
  4. Should a family member not wish to participate at all in the business as an adult, it might be best to allow them to follow their own path, rather than ‘guilting’ them into it.
  5. If they are not qualified but are interested, there are excellent business courses through which they can upskill, confident and competent.
  6. Resist the temptation to elevate a family member to management just because they are family. Are they qualified, can they manage people, processes, facilities? Have they the emotional intelligence to lead and motivate others?
  7. Seek out well run restaurants/pubs/ hotels (preferably those with longevity) where a family member can gain valuable experience without the pressures of family.
  8. Actively learn to listen. One of the most underrated skills in the business/family  environment is real engaged listening. Families can develop a way of communicating which is not always helpful in a business context. There are also courses where the skills of truly, respectfully listening can be learned.
  9. Conduct meetings in a structured way. Do not allow a family member to waffle, obfuscate, make excuses, pass the buck or otherwise hi-jack meetings for their own purposes. Ideally the meetings would be chaired by a strong member of the management team who would be given authority to run the meeting in a professional way.
  10. Meetings need timeframes. Stick to the time allocated. Note topics discussed, agree action to be taken, allocate responsibility, allocate time frame. Job Done. Do not allow family members to ‘get away’ with indecision or failing to complete an allocated task.
  11. Finally, once robust business structures and operating systems are in place across the business, have some fun. You are creating something wonderful with the people you love. When it works it is awesome.