Last month, I offered tips for family members who work together. I also highlighted a terrific father/son contracting team: Tony and Nick Favorito. Thanks, men, for sharing your story! You’re a great example of how positive and powerful family business can be.
Not everyone figures it out like the Favoritos. Sometimes, working together can cause tremendous damage to the relationship. Here’s a not-so-happy cautionary tale. The names have been changed to protect their anonymity.
What not to do
James Jr. overpaid for the family business when he bought out his dad James Sr. The company had been operating at a loss for years, and James Sr. put every last personal dollar into the business to keep it going. His “Paid-In Capital” totaled almost a $1,000,000. So, when he negotiated the sale with Jr., he felt entitled to getting that money back out. I understand, and I imagine you do too, that this represents an unfortunate situation. However, is it Jr.’s responsibility to make Sr. “whole” again?
The final sale price included the $1,000,000 plus another $1,000,000 for James Sr.’s retirement. Given the size of the business, and the lack of profitability, this company wasn’t really sale-able for a small fraction of that. But here is the real kicker: James Sr. refused to step aside. Even after the sale, Sr. micro-managed everything, undermining Jr.’s authority. The worst part was that he thwarted every attempt to raise prices. That meant that the additional payout requirement would become a ball-and-chain. It soon did, and the company went under.
From my perspective, the worst part was that James Jr. never wanted to be in the family business. He felt obligated. He loves his dad. But they haven’t spoken in years. Sigh.
I’ve got lots more. It seems that family members will do things to one another that they would never do to an employee or total stranger. The emotions and the expectations can get in the way and make an uncomfortable situation downright toxic.
What not to do?
Don’t enslave your children. Don’t get pulled under water by a drowning man, even if he is your father. Don’t abandon your dreams for the sake of someone else’s.
What to do
My husband, “Hot Rod,” and I used to work together in his plumbing business. But we had different temperaments and ideas for the company. We decided to sell the business to our team and pursue separate careers. This was a great decision for us and probably one of the reasons why we are still married — 34 years this month.
But that’s not the story I want to share on this topic.
Instead, let me tell you about Hot Rod and our son, Max. Max is 32 years old. When he was little, I wondered if he and Hot Rod would go into business together. Hot Rod took Max with him everywhere. Hot Rod started bringing him to jobs when Max was a baby, in a Snugli. He took him motorcycle riding when he was 18 months old. (No, I did NOT agree to that, but when the cat’s away…) In many ways, they are different. Hot Rod liked to work on cars, and Max liked to read Car and Driver. Still, they built a dune buggy from the bolts up just for the fun of doing a project like that together.
It’s extraordinary how well they get along. I don’t think they have ever had a cross word. I asked Hot Rod about his relationship with Max. Hot Rod said, “Well, we don’t work at it. We like and respect each other.” Hot Rod never pushed Max, and he was always happy to spend time with him, introduce him to people, and involve him in all conversations. He never talked down to him, always treating him like the fine person he is.
Max experienced family business firsthand. He saw the benefits of being self-employed, but wasn’t turned on by the emergency nature of the PHC service world. He understood all too well the Christmas “no heat” calls.
Hot Rod and Max devised a couple of inventions, new products that they manufactured and sold. They went to a lot of trade shows, in North America and Europe. More introductions and conversations. Max was drawn to the industry careers that offered consistent work and leadership opportunities.
In addition to the occasional service call or install project, Max worked through school as a lifeguard, call center operator and Blockbuster manager. His college years at the University of Utah provided a degree, subject knowledge and leadership opportunities as a resident advisor and president of the Mighty Utah Student Section (MUSS). Each step added to his education and skill set. We’ve always traveled, and Max became a thoughtful world citizen. He pursued relationships that began with his dad’s introductions and discovered opportunities to work in our fine industry … in Italy, Illinois, Colorado and Virginia.
Now, Hot Rod works with Caleffi NA, an Italian manufacturing company. Max works with REHAU, a German company. Max calls his dad regularly, practically daily, to discuss a technical issue, or fill him in on an interesting job. Or to report on the dogs. Or the latest art project.
Hot Rod is funny and smart and intensely loyal. He is the best dad I know. He has always, completely loved our son. There has been only pride, never one heartbeat of disappointment. So often I hear parents say things about their kids that belie the qualifications they have imposed on their love. “He hasn’t found his way yet.” “I guess it’s because we spoiled her.” Hot Rod has always seen Max as just right, exactly Max.
Hot Rod is a mostly quiet guy (unless you get him started on solar or hydronics). He is not one to boil over with emotion. There have only been a few times when I’ve seen him rattled.
Once was the day Max crashed his motorcycle and broke his collarbone. Another was this fall, when Max married the woman of his dreams. Hot Rod built a beautiful wedding arch, out of copper, of course. At the rehearsal dinner, Hot Rod toasted the happy couple. He shared a well-crafted musical metaphor about love and life, something you wouldn’t expect unless you knew him like we do.
What to do? Love each other and pursue your own passions.
In another man’s home, Max may have felt pressure to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead, Max and Hot Rod are just fine walking side by side. Max didn’t carry on the family business, yet he carries the family business everywhere he goes.
BTW, it’s an honor to be the first family of writers for this fine magazine. Thanks, PHC News, for letting the Rohrs share our experiences and good ideas with our plumbing and hydronics community.