An Independent Voice: A few simple rules

A family business can be a wonderful thing, but everyone needs to follow some guidelines to make it work.

By Jane Olszeski Tortola

The challenges of working together in the family business are many and having everyone on the same page when it comes to following a few simple rules will no doubt make the upcoming Thanksgiving dinner even more harmonious.

Last month’s An Independent Voice column featured several suggestions for working more successfully together and creating an atmosphere of respect not only among family members, but among your hard-working associates and loyal customers, as well.

As promised, here are a few more basic guideline that must be considered non-negotiable for those wishing to keep the family—and the peace—in the family business.

Work closely with your advisors on succession planning. Your lawyer, certified public accountant and life insurance experts can assist in establishing a written succession plan that’s clearly understood and agreed upon by all. Whether the plan includes buy/sell agreements funded by life insurance, the establishment of a family trust, or other vehicles such as an ESOP that outline passage to the next generation, it’s critical that no family member, whether they work in the business or not, is left in the dark.

The more these plans, which often seem very complicated, are discussed, the easier they are to understand and fully implement. Ask questions. When it’s done, proudly share with your management team the fact that a written plan is in place. They’ll appreciate that you value their futures as much as you value your own.

Be prepared. As a leader in the family business, do your homework when it comes to being prepared for family meetings whether they deal with operations, succession planning, charitable giving, or some other topic. Be one to present challenging questions—as well as potential solutions—to the group in an effort to help everyone to be on the same page with how to resolve issues. And by all means, limit the length of the meetings to one hour, when possible, to ensure maximum productivity.

Take time to read, understand and find ways to improve your employee handbook. Yesterday’s rules may not apply to tomorrow. As a family member and an associate of your company, abide 100% by the rules that you expect others to follow.

Establish hiring policies for family members. Don’t assume that your 16-year-old son or daughter will automatically be hired in the position they wish to work just because of your last name. Establish written rules of entry—and follow them—for all family members to avoid any potential resentment and conflict. Likewise, don’t assume that it’s OK to hire your son’s best friend, your sister-in law’s nephew, or any other associate without discussing it with the store or department manager. Respect the authority you’ve given to your store manager and his or her abilities to build a strong team of associates.

Only family members actually working in the family business should receive a paycheck. Learn to separate management from ownership.

“We” is much more powerful than “I.” Incorporate the word “we” into your vocabulary by making statements such as “Let’s think about how we can this week improve the associate handbook for our team,” versus “I want that darn handbook updated and I want it done now!”

Separate politics from the family business. Congrats to your wife’s brother-in-law who has entered his hat into the race to become the town’s mayor. While you wish him well, that doesn’t give you the right to post political signs on store property without confirmation from other owning family members. If you all agree, great. If not? Enough said.

Honor those who came before you. If you’re not the founder of your company, show respect for those who came before you and built the foundation on which your company has grown and prospered.  Mom and dad no doubt gave it their all to establish your store(s) and they should be recognized.

In little ways, remind your associates and customers of the history of your company by hanging photos of the founders and sharing their story on the walls of the employee break rooms, the front lobby, or even in the associate handbook. Or perhaps you wish to establish an annual scholarship in their honor for associates attending college. Whatever your plan, do it in heartfelt way that shows appreciation for their sacrifices and hard work.

Jane Olszeski Tortola is a freelance writer who devoted over three decades of her career to working in a family owned supermarket company founded by her late father.  She is a graduate of The Ohio State University and is active in a number of food industry organizations. She can be reached at

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