— From “Fiscal Thinking, Issue #01” in FLL#35
THE FAMILY BUSINESS: it is as much a part of American culture as apple pie, baseball, and fireworks. Idealized in classic television shows and nostalgic stories, what is it truly like to work for a family business? Can nepotism be a good thing? According to American Management Services, 62 percent of American employees work for a family business, yet only three percent of these family-owned establishments continue to operate by the time the fourth generation takes over ownership. Despite these odds, many local businesses are making it work—as a family—here in Lancaster.
Family business owners and employees seemingly love to expound the benefits of working with relatives, with many enthusiastically endorsing the familial business model. Proponents speak of a naturally family-friendly atmosphere, feelings of pride in (and love for) their work, and an increased knowledge of family history
Filling’s Clothing, established in 1929, is now in its fourth generation of employment, with owner Jay Filling’s daughter (Lindsay Filling) joining the team about a year ago. She has enjoyed the experience so far, though working for the clothing store was not always her plan. After earning a master’s degree in elementary education, Lindsay was not sure that teaching was right for her. Now, she has found a job she enjoys at the business she grew up with.
“I think working in a family business really gives people a sense of pride,” Lindsay says. “Even the employees that aren’t family—although there aren’t many—feel like family. It allows us all to be very open with each other.” She continues, “Since it is a small business, we all wear a lot of different hats. I have also been given the opportunity to work on projects I may not have had a chance to do in another company.”
Her father and boss, Jay Filling, expressed similar beliefs. “Family businesses can be wonderful if everyone understands their role and contributes to the overall cause,” he says. He counts “an understanding that succession planning is critical and a position in the company leadership is not a birthright,” among one of the most important elements of running a successful family business.
Harry Faulkner, general manager of Faulkner BMW, also believes that he has been successful in the family business because he never relied on nepotism. Starting out as a car lot attendant when he was 18 years old and dedicating college summers to the family company, Faulkner has worked every job in the business before settling in Lancaster as general manager. “I always went out of my way to work harder so that there was never any sense of entitlement,” he explains. “I never wanted somebody to look at me and say, ‘He is where he is because of who he is.’ No doubt about it, I am certainly fortunate and very lucky, but I would never let my work ethic indicate anything to the contrary [of earning my management role].”
Bill Baldwin is the executive vice president at Hall Communications, a company that operates 21 radio stations stretching the length of the east coast. The family-owned company began radio operations in 1964; previously, Robert Hall, the company’s founder, owned and operated a newspaper syndicate. Hall’s daughter, Bonnie Hall Rowbotham, is the current chairperson of the board and her husband, Art Rowbotham, is president of the company. Though he is not a part of the founding family, Baldwin, his father, son, brother, and his two daughters have all worked for Hall Communications at one point or another.
Baldwin has seen only good things come from his time working with his own relatives for a family-owned business. “The positive aspects of a family-run business are great,” he says. “I have worked for [Hall Communications] for 40 years and do not regret a year. Working for a family takes out investors that only run the business to make a hefty profit and not take care of the people.”
Faulkner agrees that a family business can create an especially caring ambience. “We really maintain a family atmosphere,” he says. “We are big enough that we can have the benefits of being corporate-sized, but still maintain a large focus on our employees. We really go out of our way to make sure our businesses are employee-focused.” Faulkner cites the almost 200 people who generally attend a special dinner for employees—those who have worked for a Faulkner branch for 20 plus years—as a source of pride for the organization.
However, certain downsides unique to this business model can arise. Sometimes it can be difficult to leave work at the office, creating frustrations for those you love. Other times, problems of autonomy in making work decisions can pop up for those in younger generations. Young adults might even feel a good deal of pressure to enter the family business as they reach the time in their lives to settle on a career path. Lindsay Filling counts leaving thoughts of work at the shop each night as, “probably the most difficult part of a family business,” she says. “It is rare that we go a night without discussing work. There’s never enough time in the day to get to everything, so it ends up coming up at dinner… Then there usually comes a point when one of us says, ‘Okay, no more business talk.’”
Jay Filling agrees with his daughter. “The business can easily become your life,” he says. “There is a need to leave business at work so it does not become 24/7. We all need a break, but company ownership never takes a break… If family vacations are important they are at best rare.” However, he does not consider striking the right work/family balance to be the most difficult challenge to overcome. Rather, “The most challenging aspect is when a family member is not cut from the right cloth. These decisions are not easy,” he says.
Yet the nurturing atmosphere of a family-run business can sometimes allow younger generations to learn how to rise above these challenges from those they not only call “boss,” but perhaps also “mom and dad.” “It is awesome to see two people who have worked in a business for over three decades still get excited to come to work and come up with new ideas,” Lindsay Filling says of learning from her parents.
Jay also found working for his father to be a great source of inspiration. “He […] understood that those around him had much to offer if given a chance,” he says. “This open mind was a hallmark of his leadership style. He didn’t teach by a set of rules. He taught by example and outworked everybody. All of us wanted to please a guy like that by doing a good job.”
All of our interviewees seem to truly love working for their family-owned business, thriving in the familial atmosphere that allows both employees and customers to feel at home. Despite any challenges, it still seems that those Americans working for a family establishment are on to something wonderful. Now let’s celebrate with some apple pie and fireworks.