Building a family business poses a special set of challenges when you're working with people with whom you grew up and intend to have life-long relationships. After all, it's not like working for someone else's company where you can just walk away if something goes wrong. Terri Sniegolski, CEO of Creative Colors International (CCI), a franchise system of on-site fabric repair and restoration solutions, knows a thing or two about the subject. She and two of her siblings bought the company from their parents, who retired in 2009. Now operating in 22 states throughout the U.S. and Canada, CCI has nearly 40 franchise owners running approximately 90 units with plans to expand the business to 250 franchise territories and 500 mobile repair units by 2017. Here are a few simple rules for any family business, she says.
1. Develop a thorough family business policy guide.
Sniegolski says CCI used the Family Business Consulting Group to create a 100-page policy manual that covers job responsibilities, salaries, voting, hiring family members, opt-outs, and much more. Before taking the company over from their parents, the siblings took six months going over the manual to make sure they all agreed on each policy. "Today, we refer back to the manual a couple times a year, usually when we are in disagreement," Sniegolski says. "Everything needs to be put in writing. Otherwise it's hard to talk about salary and responsibilities. There are still some things in the policy manual we don't agree on and are still being discussed."
2. Set up an advisory board that includes nonfamily members.
Sniegolski recommends setting up an advisory board that meets regularly and includes other business owners, a banker, and an accountant as well as a financial adviser. The group should discuss the direction in which the company is heading in terms of hiring plans, buying more assets, and strategy for growth, as well as where the company needs to pivot.
3. Have family members meet regularly to air their honest feelings.
Sniegolski and her siblings meet at the end of each week to discuss any business or personal issues that could affect the company. But because they're family, their feelings and opinions can be expressed more freely than if they were nonrelated business partners. "Sometimes things said get taken out of context because emotions are looser when dealing with family," she says. "Sometimes you say nothing at all because it's not worth the pain. However, if you don't say what is on your mind, tension builds up and then you end up saying things you regret, which is never good."
4. Make younger family members entering the company start from the bottom.
There is no special treatment for family members who want to join the company, and they start out at the bottom just like an outsider would. "Anyone who starts with our company starts as a 'gofer,' meaning they'll get the towels, bring me the spray, put the extension cord away. Everyone has to learn the ropes," she says. "As a family-owned business, we take great pride in treating all technicians and employees like family."
5. Limit how much to talk about the business outside of work.
Sniegolski says because she and her siblings spend so much time working together every week, they value their space and typically don't discuss work for more than 15 minutes at a family gathering. "Because we are a family business, it is inevitable to talk about business, even if only for a few minutes," she says. "But we definitely know when not to talk about certain things. It's about giving each other the space and respect we all need."