So, what happens if you fall out?
With many Irish retail businesses passing through several generations of the same family, it is by no means uncommon for a new manager or key staff member to enter a tight-knit family team. With that in mind, Stephen Barry of City Life examines the challenges of working in a family business for core non-family team members and how to overcome concerns
15 January 2018
It was a question my wife put to me, and to be honest, it was my biggest concern. It was early 2012, in not-quite-post-recessionary Ireland, and I was faced with the prospect of moving from Cork back up to Dublin in order to further my chosen career. Moving back wasn’t particularly high on our agenda; we had escaped in 2006, we were very happy in Cork and we had two young boys at the time. Add in the fact we’d bought a house on our return in 2006 which was mired in negative equity and the prospect of moving really wasn’t overly appealing.
Viable opportunities were thin on the ground in Cork at the time, but my closest friend had thrown a potential lifeline – “sure why don’t you come and work with us” – and by us, he meant himself, Eamon Dwyer, and his father, Ted Dwyer, in their family business, City Life, a financial planning firm based in Blackrock, Cork. City Life needed someone to perform both an internal finance director role and an external, client facing, financial planning role. A “you-shaped hole”, as Eamon had put it at the time. For sure, it meant a bit of a sidestep and some retraining as the position wasn’t squaring precisely with what I had been doing heretofore – but that wasn’t what was niggling at me. “So, what happens if you fall out?”
Joining a team of 12
I had worked for a relatively large indigenous company in the financial sector which had, itself, started out as a family business, back around the time that Ireland gained its independence. However, that company had somewhat outgrown that ethos and was very much a professionally managed, multi-disciplinary enterprise at the forefront of the financial world in Ireland.
This was different. This was me joining a team of 12 people, three of whom were family members. While Ted had set up the business back in 1971, and Eamon has been running it since the mid-2000s, the Dwyer heritage of family business runs deep in Cork, back some six generations or more to the Dwyer’s of Cork merchanting days, and the emphasis on the “family” piece of family business is very strong in City Life as a result. It was a family business in the truest sense. And now my closest friend was going to be my boss! “So, what happens if you fall out?”
The culture I encountered at City Life was, quite simply, poles apart from the one I had left behind me. While the economic backdrop at the time was clearly recessionary, and the markets, though recovering, had left a permanent scar on some of the company’s clients, I encountered a tight knit team, that worked hard to support each other. They were genuinely warm, open and welcoming, a culture which had filtered down from the top and mirrored Ted’s attitude in many ways.
I suppose a real concern that someone may have when considering joining a family business in a senior management capacity is that the business is run exclusively or at least primarily to suit the family’s interests first and foremost, and that, try as you might, you may never get to sit at the top table in the truest sense. No matter how hard you work, the boss’ son or daughter or some other long lost family relative may be shoehorned in above you at a moment’s notice.
My opinion, and indeed my experience here in City Life, is that, in the modern era, for any business to survive, let alone excel, it needs to be competently and professionally managed. Doling out jobs to family members who have not yet demonstrated that they are up to the task is a dangerous step for the head of any family business to make. It’s a sure-fire way to dent or totally scupper morale and threatens the very viability of the business. To be fair, this was probably never a real concern for me, as there were at the time, and had always been, senior non-family members of the management team at City Life, going back as far as the mid-1980s. At the time of joining, the company had a seven member board, of which only two were family members, and it was headed by an independent non-executive chairman.
Without doubt, there can be the odd frustration here and there, but you will get that in any organisation, regardless of its ethos or whether it is a family business or not.
Freedom to perform role
So if you’re faced with a decision like mine and are concerned about the fact that it’s a family business, I would give you this advice: assuming the business is sound, base your judgement on the quality of the people you are going to be working with. Are they going to give you the freedom to perform your role and make a genuine contribution to the success of the organisation? That’s the only backing you need. If you can subsequently demonstrate that you add value to the business and can justify your employment, then there’s probably nothing to be concerned about!
At the end of the day, for a family business to be a success, everyone, family or not, needs to be on board and driving in the one direction as a team, and that’s certainly the experience I have had at City Life.
And, I’m glad to add, we haven’t even come close to falling out!
City Life is a family-owned financial advisory firm that provides financial planning solutions and advice to its clients, assisting them with their financial goals throughout life. City Life looks after clients throughout Ireland, and aims to offer an impartial, alternative approach to personal finance, be it retirement funding and succession, investing or personal protection against financial risk.