Joining the Family Business: 6 Tips
My family’s company, Crane & Co., was founded in 1801 in Dalton, Massachusetts. It’s one of the oldest family companies in the country; ownership is now split between family and private equity shareholders.
Walk through the Crane Museum and into the archives and you will see a framed document written by Paul Revere, on Crane paper, during the American Revolution. Walk a little farther and you will see the sympathy acknowledgment card we printed for Jackie Kennedy after the death of her husband, President John F. Kennedy.
But despite all that family history, I never thought I’d end up working there. I lived in New York City, had a busy career in media and was so immersed in the daily news cycle that I never considered leaving it to join the family ranks.
And when my plans changed—when I came back to the company that's been part of my family for more than two centuries, to open a New York office and lead Crane’s digital business—I wanted to prove myself.
I pushed myself harder to show that I could lead the division in a new direction—not because of who I was, but because of my skills and experience. I wanted people to see me not as a Crane, but as another employee.
Working Extra Hard
To be accepted and respected by my colleagues, I believed, I needed to be more capable than non-family members. This meant working harder, longer hours, late phone calls, frequent travel and weekends in the office. They weren't required by my managers or peers, but I required it of myself.
One of my cousins, a sixth-generation Crane, joined the company in the late 1950s. When he started he was taught that developing relationships with other employees was just as important as learning how to produce paper. That stuck with me. I spent time at headquarters in Dalton; I engaged people instead of waiting for them to approach me.
Here are a few other lessons I learned as I built my team and my position within the company.
- Learn the whole business. In establishing my role at the company, I felt it was important to understand all areas of the company. I spent the first week touring the mills, meeting with the product development and sales teams, and better understanding the complex operations that make up the business.
- Build relationships. The relationships I’ve formed with people across the company are the foundation of my position within this company. There are only five family members in a 1,500-person business—so it’s important to build trust, loyalty and partnerships with non-family colleagues.
- Seek out a mentor. Find a mentor who is not a family member—someone to give you honest feedback and help you develop your career in a way a family member might not be able to. I wanted someone whom I admired and respected, as well as someone who could offer me new growth opportunities.
- Ask questions. People may assume that because you are a family member, you already know the ins and outs of the business. This is not true: I spent the first six months asking questions. (It helped that I had a background in journalism.) Don’t be ashamed to speak up about what you don’t know: It will save you time in the long run and help build loyalty and trust among co-workers.
- Acknowledge others. Although it was important for me not to be viewed as a family member, the reality is that most people will still see me as one. I take pride in the way the company has treated employees over the years. It’s become especially important for me to treat my staff well and to acknowledge people, even if they don’t report to me, for their accomplishments and hard work. Right after I joined, my team my team completed a large project--and I wrote each person a thank you note to express my gratitude.
- Keep a sense of humor. Laughing is the best way to make people feel comfortable. During my first year, some people seemed a bit cautious or guarded around me, A healthy sense of humor can make any situation less intimidating. And it makes the days more enjoyable for everyone.
Merging Old & New
To this day, one of my favorite things to do at work is to walk through the mills. I listen to the muffled thump of the engraving machine’s shifting gears as the operator helps create an exquisite engraved notecard on thick 100% cotton stock.
But as we continue to innovate in the digital space, I’m often reminded that we are no longer solely a paper company. As the vice president of our digital division, I’m focused on building our digital footprint.
Over the past year we’ve built a team in New York to create innovative types of digital products and services that give our customers new ways to connect with one another. It’s an exciting time for our company—now in its third century—and I’m honored to be part of it.
Less than a year into my time at Crane, a colleague called me, stunned and embarrassed, to say she’d just found out I was a Crane family member. I laughed and told her it was the best compliment I’d been given since joining the company.
ELIZA BROWNING | VP of Digital, Crane & Co.
Eliza Browning is the vice president of Crane Digital, where she oversees the company's online business and digital strategy. Before joining Crane & Co., Eliza worked in digital media for news organizations including CNN, ABC News and the AP.