Family Ties

Partners, Not Parents

"One of the major advantages of starting a business with a parent, as opposed to entering an existing family business, is that the older generation doesn't hold the `I know better' stick," says Fredda Herz Brown, managing partner of The Metropolitan Group LLC, a Leonia, New Jersey, family business consulting firm. As partners, both parent and child are expected to bring something of value--experience, contacts, skills, savvy--to the company.

For Karofsky, that "something" should also include money, which symbolizes shared risk. "If the parent brings money, the adult child should also make a financial contri-bution--though it needn't be an equal amount," he says.

Still, it's not always easy to separate the parent from the partner. Especially during difficult times, partners can fall into what Robin Greenleaf calls "automatic default--the way you dealt with conflict with your parents when you were a child." How can you keep the relationship equal?

*Be clear on who brings what to the business. "Not only do parents and adult children need to respect the other's skills, experience and ability, they have to be clear about who is going to do what," says Karofsky.


  • Use first names only. Symbolically, "Mom" is a deferential term. "I hate it when Rob tells someone on the phone `My mom will call you back,' " says Joan Fields, who, with her son, founded Synergy Realty Inc., a New York City firm specializing in commercial leasing. "When we're at work, we're both executives. I don't think of myself as Rob's mother then."


  • Talk about difficult subjects. The senior member's retirement may be an issue traditional family businesses like to duck, but in a partnership, it should be clearly defined in a written partnership agreement.


  • Minimize start-up risks. Learn as much as you can about business basics before and during a venture's early stages. "Take advantage of courses for entrepreneurs through colleges' continuing education programs and private organizations," says Leo Rogers, director of the George Rothman Institute of Entrepreneurial Studies at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey.

Being partners with a parent or adult child can be hard--even impossible--if you don't like and respect each other going in. "But it has enhanced and improved my already good relationship with my father," says Gregg Levin, to which father Barry responds, "It's a ball. It's a treat to think I'll be sharing the next 15 years with Gregg."

Patricia Schiff Estess publishes the newsletter Working Families and is the author of two new books, Managing Alternative Work Arrangements (Crisp Publications) and Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage (Betterway Press).

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This article was originally published in the October 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Family Ties.

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