Taking Over Dad's Business
Do women who take over ownership of businesses previously owned and run by their fathers face unique issues? "I was in leadership positions long before becoming CEO, so the employees weren't affected adversely by the change," says Dana Chryst, 46, CEO and owner of The Jay Group, a Ronks, Pennsylvania-based marketing and fulfillment services company with revenue exceeding $30 million. "When I became CEO, it simply sent a message that we are growing and will continue to create career opportunities for our employees."
After graduating from college, Chryst officially joined the company as an employee in 1981, first as an account executive and later in other capacities, including client services, before moving into management. She became president in 1991 and CEO in 2002, when she also purchased controlling interest of the company.
Taking over her father's job wasn't difficult. "We had distinctly different management styles but exactly the same principles," says Chryst. "The business was fortunate to have my dad at a time when it needed the entrepreneurial spirit and intensity he brought. The company now needs my collaborative, team-building style at a time of tremendous growth and complexity."
For Julie Smolyansky, 30, president and CEO of Lifeway Foods Inc., a publicly traded manufacturer of cultured dairy, natural and organic probiotic foods such as kefir, the transition wasn't as easy. In 2002, she took over the Morton Grove, Illinois-based company founded by her father after he died suddenly of a heart attack at age 55.
"I stood at [my father's] funeral and heard people say, 'There's no way this company will survive with a 27-year-old girl in charge,'" recalls Smolyansky. "But I had an intense passion to succeed." Working 18-hour days became the norm for her, but they had an impact on her personal life.
Admits Smolyansky, "When I turned 29, I said to myself, 'There's more to life than the company. If I'm not working 18 hours a day, we'll survive and succeed.'" She adds, "It's a sign of a good leader not to do everything herself."
During Smolyansky's first weeks of taking over the company, one of her father's close advisors told her he didn't feel she was up to the challenge. He said it was OK that she was the interim CEO, but in the long run, she would need a little "gray hair" on the board. "I told him I didn't agree and I'd handle things a little differently," says Smolyansky, who stopped consulting with the individual. "We were under the gun, and I didn't have time to monkey around with people who didn't believe in me. I wasn't going to spend my energy being diplomatic and political."
Under Smolyansky's leadership, Lifeway Foods' revenue has grown to nearly $20 million, and she hasn't had to take any more drastic measures. "A business is almost like a family, sometimes a dysfunctional family," says Smolyansky. "Males tend to react more intensely and are quick to take action in these situations, where I've been more focused on problem-solving and improving communications."
Chryst believes personality type and leadership style, not gender, determine how business owners operate. "Leaders must recognize [that] their businesses will call for a different mix of talents," says Chryst. "They should play to their strengths and surround themselves with those who are strong in other areas."
Aliza Pilar Sherman is an author, freelance writer and speaker specializing in women's issues.