Work and family are the dominant, often warring, features of many lives, and there’s an increasing overlap even for those of us who aren’t related to our colleaguesby Hephzibah Anderson / June 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
It’s tempting to associate the family business with gentlemen bankers and bygone generations of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. Tempting but inaccurate, not least because for every Kongo- Gumi, the Japanese construction company founded in the year 578 and now in its 40th generation, there’s a Nike or a Facebook—sleek, savvy outfits that position themselves as being all about change even as they respectively groom sons and daughters as successors and fill prominent positions with siblings.
The family firm is as varied as families themselves—and across the UK they account for over 88 per cent of private companies, among them household names such as JCB, Specsavers and Clarks. And yet it’s only lately that the family business has begun to shake off its fusty, risk-averse image. Since family firms are often driven by one person, innovation faces fewer obstacles. The business can grow quickly, grounded in an enviable stability, and there’s motivation to make long-term plays that might not pay off for years and perhaps not within a lifetime. At the same time, there is correspondingly less of a fixation on short-term profits. There’s also an inbuilt understanding of the company’s culture. Little surprise, then, that when Credit Suisse travelled the world last year to analyse the returns of 1,000 family-owned companies, they were found to grow faster and generate better margins than non-family owned companies.
Not that there aren’t potential pitfalls to mixing blood with business. Intergenerational tensions and sibling rivalries can become magnified, feelings of perceived favouritism can be exacerbated, and there’s nothing like good old-fashioned nepotism for sapping an enterprise of energy. In the case of German brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dassler, it can even split a town.
In 1919, the pair founded a shoe factory together. In 1948, they acrimoniously went their separate ways—nobody knows why—and each formed his own sports company: Adidas and Puma. Their factories remained in their hometown of Herzogenaurach, where for decades, local families were staunchly allied to either Puma or Adidas, depending on their place of work. The brothers’ animosity extended into death, and they are buried at opposite ends of the town’s cemetery.
Work and family are the dominant, often warring, features of many lives, and there’s an increasing overlap even for those of us who aren’t related to our colleagues. It’s partly that technology has made the boundary between home and office more porous, enabling us to read the kids a bedtime story from that far-flung conference, then demanding that we take our work on holiday with us. If you want to tap hoary old gender stereotypes, there’s also the fact that as more women have entered the boardroom, more men are staying at home, each taking with them lessons from their former realms.
This blurring is reflected in our language: we joke, albeit awkwardly, about office “wives” and “husbands,” then go on to refer to our significant others as partners. Brands have “families” and families—or so the likes of bestselling author Bruce Feiler would have us believe—have weekly meetings complete with agendas.
Of course, business has been rather more eager to embrace the B-school jargon of family life than its messier, -unpredictable reality. We see our employees as family, corporate literature will intone, emphasising a notional sense of belonging while conveniently overlooking the fact that no true family member can be fired.
As this borrowed lingo hints, businesses have much to gain from letting their workforce participate fully in family life. After all, simply getting everyone out of the house on time can require surgically precise advance planning, the negotiating nous of a top-tier diplomat, and the motivational oomph of an Olympic coach. And yet, paternity leave is still minimal, on-site crèches remain rare, and motherhood is seen primarily as an obstacle to streamlined career trajectories.
Perhaps that’s why so many of us have found that the easiest way to balance—albeit precariously—work with family is to become self-employed. All I need do now is teach my daughter to proof-read, and we’ll have our very own family business.