To launch Three Twins Ice Cream in 2005, Neal Gottlieb siphoned startup capital from his savings and borrowed from The Bank of Mom and Dad. But a loan wasn’t the full extent of his parents’ involvement in the Petaluma, California, business. Maxine and Simon Gottlieb, newly retired, decided to move to California to be near their grown sons and grandchildren. “Without thinking about it,” Neal said, “I offered them jobs.”

Parents hiring kids is the norm in family businesses. Kids hiring parents is more unusual. Some of the same problems crop up in both situations. Suspected nepotism is a common theme: Neal’s 85 employees “might harbor a little resentment that what my parents do and say tends to carry more weight because of their relation,” he admits. And when families work together in any combination, business matters leach into private moments. Neal’s parents “bring up mistakes at work over family dinners when I’m trying to relax,” he said. “I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to put a brake on that.”

But hiring parents can be more challenging than hiring children for reasons both practical and emotional. For example, kids who join family businesses often have scant life or work experience and can easily learn new skills and adapt to the culture. Parents present more of an old-dogs-new-tricks scenario. Simon Gottlieb, a machinist in New Jersey for 25 years, had zero culinary background when he joined the company: his adventures in ice-cream making were not terrifically successful. Also, Simon “isn’t used to a liberal contemporary California workplace,” said Neal. “Sometimes he’ll say something off-color that would work just fine in a New Jersey machine shop but doesn’t fly here.” (On the few occasions when Neal must reprove his parents for some aspect of their performance he makes sure not to do it in front of other employees.)

Old power dynamics and the inversion of the normal parent-child relationship can also complicate things. Maxine and Simon happily recognize Twin Ice Cream’s frequent successes, such as record store sales or prominent media mentions. But they are also acutely sensitive to missteps. “Mom and dad seem to always know when somebody leaves a freezer open and melts a bunch of ice cream, when $20 is missing from the till, or when there aren’t quite enough cookies in the Lemon Cookie,” Neal said. “Even though I’m her boss when it comes to the ice cream business, I always feel like my mom is scolding me when she points out these problems.”

Another downside: parents working in an adult child’s business may learn more about that child’s personal life than he or she would normally share. Neal shrugs off the additional exposure. “Having a business in general is intrusive,” he said. “You’re surrounded by people who know a lot about you.”

More stressful are financial concerns. Neal’s parents are also investors, which makes them vulnerable to the fate of the business. And although they are retired, they rely on their income from Twin’s Ice Cream to compensate for their higher cost of living in California.

On the bright side, when things go well, they go really well. Neal is thrilled to have given his parents rewarding new lives in retirement. Simon drives one of the company’s delivery trucks, and he and Maxine work the huge Berkeley farmer’s market every Saturday, giving out samples and selling ice cream. “They love it,” Neal said. “It’s a social outlet, and they love participating in my success. Working for me is a way for them to be more than spectators.”

And no employees could be more loyal to the company or its founder. Maxine and Simon “want me to succeed no matter what and will do anything to help,” Neal said. And he delights in the stronger bonds they’ve formed: “You go off to school, you lose touch with your parents,” he said. “It’s been amazing to have that closeness and time together and to get to know them in a different way. Because of the business, our relationship has deepened.”

Published on: Aug 28, 2014