Culture matters at every business. A good culture can take a company to unimaginable heights, adding something to the collective capabilities of a team. A bad culture can drag a company down, frustrating every new initiative or plan to turn things around.
Family businesses are no different and, if anything, culture matters more for them. A small or medium-sized family business may not be able to go toe-to-toe with big corporations on wages or benefits, but when the owner’s name is on the door and his or her office is right down the hall, a family-business culture can make the company a place where top talent wants to work.
The funny thing about company cultures, however, is that even though they are always present, they don’t really show up until a company is tested.
That’s what happened for Thiensville-based Shully’s Cuisine & Events over the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic hammered its catering business. Then an idea to open a beer garden came together in just a week and another idea to launch zero-contact catering came to fruition in just a weekend. Scott Shully, owner of the business with his wife, Beth, said the company motto is “adapt, adjust, move forward.”
“Those four little words have meant a lot to employee morale,” he said, adding that employees have been showing their enthusiasm and creativity and stepping into leadership roles.
Developing a culture with the agility to launch new products and offerings quickly doesn’t happen when the crisis strikes; it takes place over years. Shully pointed to placing an emphasis on hiring people with passion, whether it is in food service or another area like art or theater. He also highlighted open dialogue and conversation with employees about the challenges the business faces.
“What’s cool about the family business is all you have to do is knock on someone’s door and we can get an answer for you,” Shully said. “That’s all it takes.”
While being a family business can offer some advantages in hiring and developing a culture, David Borst says it can also be a double-edged sword as prospective employees worry about what kind of culture they could be stepping into.
“Some people are scared away because they think that they’re not going to be promoted because the family member is going to get the promotion,” said Borst, executive director and chief operating officer of Family Business Leadership Partners.
When family businesses do a good job of leveraging the family-side of the culture, employees feel they’re treated like family, that the owners care and they’re not in it only for profits. Borst said there are job candidates drawn to that environment who will seek it out.
“The ones that do it well, do it well,” Borst said. “As a result, it’s evident to prospective employees that this is a place that ultimately cares about me.”
Fears about entering a toxic culture at a family business also are not without merit.
“Just because it’s a family business doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s an automatic,” Borst said. “There are plenty of situations I’ve seen where the family is … everything in the organization and everybody else be damned and that plays out and people recognize that fairly quickly.”
Many family businesses struggle to reach the third, fourth or even later generations. Borst said the potential to drift away from what was once a strong culture is among the reasons why it is challenging to sustain a family legacy.
“Sadly, there are some businesses that when it gets to the later generations, they milk the business as opposed to respecting it and taking it for what it was intended to be,” he said.
Where does that leave the current family business leader? Family businesses have an opportunity to attract and retain employees with their ability to offer more care and compassion than a large corporation, but also challenges to overcome in sustaining that potential cultural advantage.
Like Shully, Brian Coakley of Milwaukee-based CH Coakley said culture starts in the interviewing process.
“A lot of people don’t roll out of bed and want to become a mover or a modular furniture installer,” said Coakley, vice president of commercial moving at CH Coakley.
For Coakley, the nature of the job means he is looking to communicate the potential for a career path with the company and make sure a prospective hire understands what the job entails. He also will meet with a candidate’s significant other to start to get to know them.
“I want to make sure they’re comfortable too,” Coakley said.
Getting to know an employee’s family doesn’t stop with the interview process, it extends throughout their tenure and includes knowing when major life events are coming up or if employees are facing challenges at home.
“I don’t need to get into the weeds, don’t get me wrong, but there have been times where it’s been easy for us to help and keep them and work with them,” he said, citing instances of adjusting schedules to help an employee care for a sick relative.
Developing a relationship with employees is also important for Rick Russell, president of Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Legal Blank, a provider of legal forms and custom and pre-made signage.
“You get to really know them on a more intimate level, so to speak, because we can,” he said, describing the relationship with employees as almost like siblings. “It’s all in how they’re treated. … That respect goes a long way.”
Any new addition to Russell’s team of 10 people can have a big impact on the company culture, so he works to account for everybody’s comfort level in hiring.
“It’s not just somebody at the top (making the decision),” he said.
Shully said it is important for employees to understand the company’s family-first attitude extends to them, which means they shouldn’t feel guilty about taking time to attend to a sick relative or to attend a family gathering.
The idea is that employees should have confidence that the rest of their team has their back and they can take the time, adding there is an understanding and trust amongst employees of when the company truly needs them.
Even as companies seek to treat employees like family, Borst said it is important to still have protections in place.
“You have to have proper checks and balances, especially if the person is handling money, even if the person is internal and is a family member,” he said.
Shully said he reminds his three children in the business that more eyes are directed at them and how they do their jobs.
“That’s critical for you to understand that that’s just the way it is and that’s what you’re going to have to live with,” Shully said he tells them. “By understanding that people watch what other people do and respond to that action, it’s critical that you continually move forward with a positive attitude and positive approach and express yourself.”
Borst said part of making employees comfortable is demonstrating that the owner won’t always side with their children or other family members.
“I think it’s always important to have a 360-degree feedback system so that the owner is getting the true sense of what is going on and you respect the opinions of anyone, whether they’re blood or not,” he said.
Coakley pointed out that the benefits of a family business don’t just come from the owners.
“The family culture isn’t run by the family that owns the company,” he said. “It’s by many family of the entire staff that pull together that make it successful.”