Running a business is difficult enough. Running a family business can sometimes be even more challenging.
Family firms have to balance the business operations and client load against family relationships, nuances and values in sometimes complex and delicate ways.
For more than 30 years, two public relations firms in the greater Milwaukee area have managed to balance the sometimes conflicting missions of business and family.
Pat Seroka has been in the advertising business since the early 1980s. He bought out his original partner 25 years ago and formed Waukesha-based Seroka, a firm that at the time focused primarily on marketing for the financial sector.
“We’ve expanded to serve other vertical markets over the years,” he said. “Along the way, my two sons John and Scott joined the company and I’m very happy they did. They’ve continued to add to the success and the growth of Seroka.”
Seroka now has additional offices in California and South Carolina and does business on a national level.
“It was never assumed that we’d join him,” said John Seroka, now a principal of the company. “My dad actually suggested I think about joining because of the expertise and experience I had already gained in my career as a mortgage originator.”
Within a year, John’s younger brother, Scott, who had a background in finance, also joined the company and now also serves as a principal.
“He (Pat) never rushed us in our decisions,” John said. “But he did tell me that I needed to consider the fact that he could and would let me go if I showed I didn’t have what it took to make it in the business. I respected that and have never looked back on the decision I made.”
Seroka has become a full-service strategic marketing firm and primarily focuses on serving the financial, health care and manufacturing industries, Pat said.
He is happy to have his two sons working with him.
“Sometimes, in a family business, people think the children just have success handed to them,” Scott said. “That isn’t the case here. In the business, it’s not a father and his sons. It’s three partners making decisions based on what’s best for the business and for our clients.”
“In a small agency like ours you can’t hide under your desk and try to float by just because you’re family,” John said. “If you aren’t pulling your weight in this place it’s pretty evident. It’s an incredible opportunity for us to do something we love. There’s no denying it’s an incredible opportunity. We have a really great relationship.”
Phil and Marilyn Vollrath and their daughter, Jessica, have a similar relationship. Phil and Marilyn were married in 1979 and started Vollrath & Associates approximately four months later.
Together, the two started out with one client and slowly grew the business from a small office in Cedarburg to where it is today.
“We moved to downtown Milwaukee about five years ago,” Marilyn said. “One of the things about our family business was that even though we always loved downtown and a lot of our clients are downtown, it was just easier for us to be near our home in Cedarburg when the children were younger.”
Jessica joined the firm about six years ago after attending college in Indiana and working in Chicago.
“I never actually planned on joining the company,” Jessica said. “I always kind of wanted to take my own path and had been working in media planning for a year before I came on board. I always admired the way they worked with their clients, and so I asked them what they thought about me coming on board.”
Marilyn said she and her husband have never interviewed anyone for a position more thoroughly than they interviewed Jessica.
“We’ve seen too many companies where issues in the business get in the way of them being family,” Marilyn said. “We wanted to make sure that family remained the most important thing in our lives. We had to make sure that no matter what happened in the company, it didn’t affect the personal family relationship we shared.”
The same is true for working with your spouse, Marilyn said.
“People ask me all the time what it’s like being married to your business partner. At least for us, we each have our own clients, so we aren’t working on the same things, nor are we working side by side all day,” she said.
It’s important to have good management skills in the home and the office, Phil said.
“We try to make sure that the business stays professional and that family issues aren’t brought into the workplace. That has really been important to us,” Marilyn added.
“Jessica has been great,” Phil said. “She’s really expanded our business and brought a lot to the firm. We’re very proud of her.”
Jessica is now a vice president in the company, but her younger sister, Lauren, is just graduating from school as a musician and does not have plans to join the firm.
Pat Seroka has no plans to retire, and neither do Phil and Marilyn Vollrath.
For the Serokas, the family in the business helps provide their clients with a sense of continuity, Pat said.
“We couldn’t have a better team in place,” he said. “The future really, really looks good. It’s a family-run agency, so there’s already a succession plan in place, and that makes a big difference in a small agency, and provides a sense of security for our clients. They always know who they are working with.”