The Parent Trap

Switching from parent to owner and back again takes some serious coordination.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the March 1998 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Think of the qualities you need to be a good parent: patience, gentleness, tolerance for trial and error, and the ability to support, nurture, protect and teach. Now think of what it takes to be the head of a family business. None of those parental qualities would make it into most business owners' top 10 list.

So it's no surprise it's so difficult being parent and boss to offspring who work in the business. Parents concerned they can't get it right may be consoled by Ft. Worth, Texas, family business consultant Sam H. Lane's observation: "Practically no one who's been emotionally invested in the business for a long time does a good job at [balancing the two]."

Patricia Schiff Estess writes family business histories and is the author of two books, Managing Alternative Work Arrangements (Crisp Publishing) and Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage (Betterway Press).

Juggling Roles

Marianne Hovivian, co-owner with her husband, Ted, of Brooklyn, New York-based Rialto Furniture Co., is one entrepreneur who found it difficult to shed the traits that served her well as a mother. "When my son would make a mistake in our business," she says, "I would say to myself, `He's learning, and that's good'--much to my husband's chagrin."

Charles L. Campbell admits he probably errs on the other side. "I'm harder on my two kids who work in the business than I am on other employees," says Campbell, who, with his wife, Henria, owns Studdard Moving and Storage in Leavenworth, Kansas. "My expectations for them are higher, and I want the other employees to see they're carrying their weight."

And Dublin, Ohio, realtor John Stinchfield indicates his is a somewhat split approach. "I've been accused of not praising my daughter Jackie enough, and maybe that's true," he concedes. "But, on the other hand, she's a single mom with a special-needs kid. I've let her schedule her hours to accommodate child-care arrangements--something I wouldn't have done for anyone but a relative."

Despite the difficulties of being both parent and boss, Mary Dana Korman, family business consultant with McGladrey & Pullen LLP in Minneapolis, and Lane offer these guidelines to parents when they don their business-owner hats.

  • Be aware of the extra ingredients that factor into your relationship with your child. Do you have unrealistically high expectations for one child because the other has severe learning disabilities? Do you subconsciously consider one child lazy--maybe because he or she is more of a daydreamer than a doer? Are the memories of a child's early misdeeds so haunting that you no longer entirely trust him or her? Do you feel competitive with your child? Korman says that just becoming aware of your own feelings helps with balance.
  • Set business expectations from the beginning. Before an offspring enters the business, sit down and talk about the job's responsibilities, what formal and regular performance reviews you'll use, and how a developmental plan will be hooked into the reviews.
  • Run a business, not a family. Do your nurturing, supporting and protecting outside the confines of the business. If, for example, an adult child needs money for the down payment of a home, Korman advises parents to lend or give it as parents and not take the funds out of the business or give the offspring an undeserved bonus.
  • Periodically revisit the image you have of your children. "We always envision our children years younger than they really are," says Korman. So every once in a while, it's necessary to upgrade the picture you have and think of them as the adults they've become.
  • Talk about what will happen if the business relationship doesn't work out. Keep in mind that not all parents and children were meant to work together. If they can't, it doesn't have to mean their personal relationship will be irreparably fractured. Korman suggests exploring this question up front: "Are we really two people who can share tasks and work together?" If the answer is no, says Korman, "maybe it's best to go fishing [together] and nothing more."
  • Talk regularly with your offspring about the future of the business. Successful entrepreneurs have their businesses' missions firmly in their minds and often assume everyone knows what they're thinking. It isn't so, of course. When young adults come into the business, they, too, develop a vision of where the company should be heading. So you and your child don't take off on different or conflicting paths, it's important to talk regularly about business goals.
  • Allow for some failure. Young adults need an opportunity to test their abilities, so gradually increase the amount of responsibility they have. But it's a delicate balance, says Mike Martin, president of Martin Insurance in Lewiston, Idaho. "I don't want to step in too much or too soon because I'll stifle their creativity," he says of his two children. "But when I see them struggling, that's what I'm tempted to do."

When adult children make suggestions for change, Lane suggests setting some parameters so offspring don't sink the business, such as, "As long as you don't lose more than $25,000, you can test it out." Or "as long as the employees in your department are behind you, you can try it." Then step aside and give them the room to try . . . and sometimes fail.

  • When in doubt about how to handle a situation, ask yourself the question "If this were not my kid, would I be handling it this way?" That's not to say you have to treat your children the same way you would treat a stranger. You can't and probably won't. "I guess the only thing I've learned to do is be aware of when the parenting starts and stops," says Campbell. "As my children mature, I've begun to think of them more as partners and of myself less as a parent."

Contact Sources

J.T. Stinchfield & Assoc. Realtors Inc., (614) 889-1154,

LBF & Associates, 5608 Malvey, #211, Fort Worth, TX 76107, (817) 735-1898

McGladrey & Pullen LLP, 800 Marquette Ave., #1300, Minneapolis, MN 55402, (612) 376-9344

Rialto Furniture Co. Inc., (718) 599-0800,

Studdard Moving and Storage, 201 Commercial St., Leavenworth, KS 66048, (800) 899-8498

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