Special Events

It's All Relatives

Family business is big business. According to the Family Firm Institute, 85 percent of businesses in the United States are family-owned and -operated; they account for half of the Gross National Product.

The special event business has its share of family businesses, but the industry's pressure-cooker atmosphere brings special strains. How to keep peace in the family?

IT JUST HAPPENS It's easy for relatives to fall into the family special event business by accident, says Ed Cox, Ph.D., partner in Glendale, Calif.-based Doud/Hausner & Associates, which works with family businesses. "In industries such as special events that are still evolving, it's common for Mom to start the business, get some big jobs and grab a competent child for emergency help. The work relationship arises out of need instead of planning."

First of all, acknowledge the pressures of the business and work around them, Cox advises.

"Speak in complete sentences," he says. "Many family members speak in code, assuming the others will get the full meaning. But under pressure, this can cause misunderstandings."

Besides careful speaking, try careful listening. This is vital with relatives because we sometimes stop listening to those we know well, Cox says. "Listen fully to the other person," he advises. "Don't finish their sentences for them."

It's also important to consider how the family's working relationship affects nonfamily employees.

"In the intense special event business, some people use their family's communication style in front of everyone," Cox notes. "But don't lose control in front of nonfamily employees."

Further, "Give nonfamily members of the team something important to do, not just trivial stuff," he says. "Tell them you appreciate them when they do it well. That gets lost in the shuffle too many times."

By the same token, "Don't give special privileges to family-the fancy car, the huge salary," he says. "If the family member flaunts it, you will lose the others. With the labor market so tight, family companies are having to learn this now."

The issue of privilege is particularly sensitive when a child comes to work for the parent. "Children doing this should ask themselves: 'Ten years from now, how do I want the other employees to describe how I started in the family business? With a fancy car and perks? Or bussing tables, doing what everyone else had to do?'" Cox suggests. "Starting with grunt work gives you credibility forever."

With a dynamic parent in charge, it can be easy for children in the business to defer to the parent's decisions. To help the child take a stronger role, Cox urges exercising "what-if" skills. "In a noncrisis setting-for example, when planning an event-the child can ask, 'What if we tried this or tweaked it that way?'"

Perhaps the greatest confidence-builder a parent can give is to let the child work elsewhere for a time.

"There is a qualitative difference in the employee who knows he can make it outside," Cox says. "Children who never have do not know their full value. They may not be as effective in asserting their opinions or taking the initiative."

Special balancing acts are required when couples find themselves working in the same business.

Cox explodes one myth: "It sounds good to keep home and work separate, but it's rarely realistic," he says. Recognizing that, couples working together should draw whatever boundaries they can. "You may need to set up an office in your home, but try to restrict it to one room so that you can close the door on it," Cox says.

TAKE TIME TO PLAY Couples need emotional boundaries, too. "Make sure that you do something together that has nothing to do with business," Cox suggests. "Be careful not to make your whole relationship about business."

Couples should also spend time apart doing something each enjoys. "Everyone needs a breath of fresh air," Cox says. "This is being proactive, not reactive."

No matter how young the business, it's never too early to start thinking about succession.

In special events, "it's too easy to work from job to job, from crisis to crisis," Cox warns. "But find a downtime, perhaps at the end of a business cycle or a good year, and ask family members, 'What does each of us want to be doing five to 10 years from now?' You have to think beyond the horizon or these issues won't be handled properly."

Tarzana, Calif.-based caterer Joann Roth sums up the joys of her family business: "After having paid your dues for 20 years, it's a wonderful feeling to have something tangible and viable to pass on to someone you care about. It gives me the buoyancy to go on."

Resources: Doud/Hausner & Associates, 818/539-2267; Extraordinary Events (Orlando), 407/352-5254; Patti Coons & Associates International, 407/290-9499; Someone's in the Kitchen, 818/343-5151

Joann Roth, founder of Tarzana, Calif.-based catering company Someone's in the Kitchen, values the people skills that her son, Jason Perel, brings as vice president. "Jason is able to relate to the young people on our staff," she says. "He keeps propelling things forward."

In turn, Perel values the learning opportunities that the family business offers him. "This is street smarts, running a business for real," he says. "I've been through real challenges, talking to the bank in good and bad times. Some people getting their MBAs are just going through case studies."

In the beginning, Perel had no interest in joining his mother's business: "My earliest recollection is peeling and deveining shrimp at the kitchen table at age 12-and not getting paid for it!"

Even after joining his mother's firm, he took two years off to work elsewhere. "I got a new perspective on Someone's in the Kitchen and came back totally reinvigorated," he says.

Kevin Coons, vice president of business development for Orlando, Fla.-based PCA Events Caribe, has a more complicated family business: He works for a company headed by his mother-Patti Coons, CSEP, founder of Patti Coons & Associates International-while his wife, Rebecca, serves as vice president of sales in the Orlando office of competitor Extraordinary Events.

Kevin Coons respects his mother's talent and drive. "We usually meet on her side of the middle," he jokes. But his respect for her is obvious: "I have used her as my benchmark for design quality my entire life."

As for his home life, "Rebecca and I keep work discussions on a philosophical level," he says. "We keep client details out of it."

Rebecca Coons agrees: "People always say, 'How can you do that-you're competitors!' But we each appreciate the differences that the other company and other person bring to the table."

Their greatest challenge is coordinating the demanding travel schedules that both their jobs require. But, "if you can balance your work and personal life, there is nothing better," Kevin Coons says. "We've seen more of each other in the two years since taking these jobs than we did in the 10 years before."

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