In the latest study of its kind released in May, PwC’s Global Family Business Survey reported that while 72% of the more than 2,000 owners from across the world want their businesses to remain “in the family,” only 34% had what was characterized as a “robust, documented and communicated” plan in place for such successions and transitions.
Many Midlands family-owned and family-operated businesses appear to be bucking those trends, strategically and actively embarking on those processes to pass the torch seamlessly from one generation to the next.
Husband-wife founders, Abby and Ryan McLeay, have brought their 17-year-old daughter into the Zen Coffee Company fold.
“I typically oversee our managers, baristas and frequently work and serve customers in the stores,” Abby McLeay said. “Ryan runs our warehouse, store orders and is at all three stores throughout the week.”
The duo also works offsite events, their daughter works in multiple store locations as a barista, and even the younger kids are usually present at the stores.
“All [aspire] to work here in some element,” McLeay stated. “We hope to see that in the future, but no pressure if they choose not to.”
She isolated their “balancing strengths” as a driver of their success.
“Our connection with our team really is like a family and all of our baristas really mean so much to us on a personal level and vice versa,” she added. “We really strive to give our children such a great example of work ethic and they get to partake in much of the process with us, which is really neat to see evolve as they grow.”
McLeay said one of the joys of running a family business is the “full control” they have over everything from schedules to decision-making to contributing to the community.
Conversely, she admitted it can be tough to separate work from home, especially when one or the other is “in overload.”
“Having a large family, we have many activities that are ongoing,” she explained. “Having three locations, there is always something happening in the stores. So, it’s hard to get breaks. The risk of loss is something we always have to consider.
“There will always be a positive and negative to us running our own small business. Our emotional and sentimental attachment to the business and our teams sometimes makes it hard to make decisions that are necessary.”
For Brenda Veasman, owner of Flowerama on Pacific, including family members with the time, skills and willingness to help makes a big difference when overcoming the hurdles of opening a business.
“Some of my greatest joys of family involvement include the satisfaction it gave my brother who specializes in HVAC to help me select and install coolers, and assist when I had mechanical issues,” Veasman said. “The help my mother provided, not just financial when needed, but also the gift of time, which was so much fun as she worked for me doing small things that made a big difference.”
For instance, Veasman recalled how they made hundreds of bows and prepped flowers for corsages during prom season.
“It also kept us close as adults,” she added. “Getting to know and love her even deeper was a great gift.”
Over the years, Veasman said her sons have also been a great help.
“This has been a good opportunity to get to know them better and to help shape their view of what it takes to lead and get the job done,” she said.
Veasman, too, isolated the challenges of drawing a line between family and work obligations.
“Because, for my business, the work they do is generally volunteer, family members can sometimes think they do not need to conform to the same business rules as regular employees,” she said. “It can also be difficult for me, receiving unsolicited advice and, if not followed, the feelings that sometimes follow.”
Generally, though, Veasman said family businesses have dynamics that simply cannot be duplicated with non-family employees.
“If something goes wrong, everyone jumps in and family is the strongest common denominator because you are operating from a base of love rather than obligation,” she explained. “At its best, you are closer and, as an owner, you can see who shares your passion and is most suited to continue your legacy if that is your goal.”
Dingman’s Collision Center has been a family-owned and -operated business serving the community since 1996. Its family leadership in the industry can be traced back to first-generation, Francis Dingman, the father of founder, Boyd. The second generation includes Boyd’s wife, Diana. Their children, Andy, Darcie and Travis Dingman, round out the third generation continuing a legacy in auto repair that dates back to the 1930s.
“The spirit of our business has been very consistent since the beginning – having solid values, integrity and the love and enjoyment of having the privilege to serve others in our community,” said Travis Dingman. “The cherry on top is having a full team that embraces and embodies the same values that we started from.”
When further asked about its ability to survive as a shop for 27 years, Dingman said they simply remember “where we came from and how we got there.”
Furthermore, he said they have made a point of staying on top of the “next thing” in the industry – a key attribute being leveraged to serve customers and the community for years to come.
Green Beans Coffee Omaha is rooted in the efforts of late retired United States Air Force Senior Master Sergeant, John C. Sievers, and his wife, Angela. A 26-year veteran, Sievers became acquainted with the company while deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Although there are several locations worldwide, they are on military bases or international airports,” said Amber Ford, operations manager. “John opened the first independent, veteran, family-owned locations in Nebraska so he could continue to give back to the military in his community. He truly created something so much more than a coffee shop. We are still the only locations like this in the United States.”
Over its pioneering, nine-year history, Ford said they have created a community and family.
“Most coffee shops today are in and out drive-thrus, you don’t necessarily feel like you are a part of something going to bigger chains,” she noted. “John never wanted this to be about making money, it was about the experience and giving back. That is the easy part for family-owned businesses, but it absolutely comes with its difficulties.”
Similarly, Ford said marketing can be challenging for small, family businesses.
“You aren’t working with a PR or marketing group, because you don’t have the financial means to always do so,” she said. “You have to be creative, working with local schools, military organizations and using social media on a regular basis.”
Notably, she said the company strives to treat each customer as if “they have been with us since day one.”
“We have had to overcome so much after the loss of John in 2022, and we try to keep his legacy and dream going by doing what he taught us,” Ford noted. “Focus on what’s important and everything else will fall into place.”
If ever there was a business that is bucking dire business survivorship and succession trends, it would be All Makes, the furniture and machine solutions firm started by Russian immigrant, Harry Ferer, in 1918.
“All Makes is fortunate to represent four generations of the same family over the last 105 years,” said EVP and Chief Financial Officer Amee Zetzman. “By the time the great-grandchildren take over, 97% of family-owned businesses are gone.”
Zetzman is referring to findings from a National Bureau of Economic Research study, which was widely publicized in outlets ranging from Businessweek.com to Harvard Business Review. So, just how have they been able to be among the select 3%?
“We strive to create a culture where we embrace our team as a trusted part of our family,” she explained. “In doing so, this can generate challenges as well. We celebrate our wins and struggle over the losses, but we try to always be there for everyone.”
Accordingly, Zetzman emphasized nurturing relationships – starting with the internal team, as well as clients and vendors.
“We rely heavily upon these relationships to continuously fuel the successes we’ve had for more than a century,” she said.
Zetzman said she is thrilled they have still managed to remain family and friends through all of the challenges, and she is also proud of the entrepreneurial spirit that “runs deep within our family.”
That “spirit” prioritizes not only serving one’s own team, clients and vendors, but also being strong stewards in their communities, she said.
“We continue to grow as a team and our business portfolio expands beyond furniture and into technology,” Zetzman concluded when rounding out sources of pride for the venerable family establishment.
Guidance From Those in the Know
Zen’s McLeay encourages business owners to trust, be aware and make decisions based on knowing that everything being done today is for the future.
“Know when to put work down,” she added. “These days of young children won’t last forever – and neither will you. So, take the trip, make the memories and have trust in your teams who want to be there so you can take a day off. And do the same for them.”
Flowerama’s Veasman emphasized that guidance really depends on the level of family members’ involvement.
“If you are bringing family into the business to ensure business continuity after you retire or pass away, be sure to communicate fully and clearly what you are doing in that regard and why, not only to the people who will be next in line but also to those who won’t,” she said. “That will help avoid hurt feelings after the fact.”
If they are in business while working with you, Veasman continued, it is recommended to have significant upfront communication regarding clarity of roles and decision-making.
“Make sure income is spelled out and, above all, make sure to agree that no matter what happens with the business, your love for your family does not change,” she summed up.
Travis Dingman indicated that business owners should always be aware of the advantages and challenges unique to family businesses.
“Communication is important,” he said. “Enjoying family time together outside of the business environment is important, even if there is a lot of business time together.”
For those just launching a new family operation, Ford of Green Beans urged taking a deep breath.
“It’s not that serious,” she said. “Remember that you and your family come first above all, this is a rollercoaster of a journey with many highs, many lows and everything in between. Focus on what’s important.
“Life is short, as we were unfortunate to find out with the loss of John. No amount of money or success can bring him back. Enjoy what you are doing. So, it never becomes a job but a passion. John taught us all that.”
Zetzman of All Makes, too, emphasized communication; specifically, how it’s important for everyone to understand there are separate roles within the organization.
“Clearly defining what those roles include and consist of is paramount,” she explained. “Assign responsibilities based on individual personalities and the ability to accomplish what’s required. Then, do all you can to try to flourish and succeed in those roles. Don’t be afraid to reassess and adjust when changes may be needed.”