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STRATEGY: Family Business

I thought it would be interesting to start a blog on the process of engaging my two sons in the business I created 25 years ago and how this process of starting a “family-owned” business is developing. When New Directions began in 1984, Michael was just three years old. In January 2009 he joined the business as Director of New Training and Strategic Initiatives. Matt didn’t come along until the business was a year and a half old; today he works part-time for the business helping with marketing and social networking. This blog is about bringing Michael on board.

For the past five years or so, I’ve been wondering what I would do with the business once I decided to stop traveling, training and consulting. I imagined a day when I would rent a big dumpster, pull it up to our second story window in North Bennington and heave-ho the materials out the window into the dumpster. While it wasn’t a particularly graceful ending, in my mind, it did the trick. With one exception:  I wanted to find some way to give the intellectual property (our workbooks, products, etc.) away to a “good home.”

When Michael and I started discussing six months ago about him coming into the business, we both had lots of questions. Most importantly, would we be able to differentiate between the mother/son and employer/employee relationships?  Would he enjoy working for lots of different organizations rather than in an upwardly mobile position in one organization?  How would our generational differences affect our approaches?  Would my sensor-producer style conflict with his feeler/intuitor?

I had started working with Townsend Leather, another family-owned business in Johnstown, New York, and was very impressed with how Terry Kucel, the owner, had brought his two daughters into the business. Inspired by their success story, Michael and I decided to give it a try. He also had an opportunity to continue with his former employer, Paul Smith’s College, in a consulting capacity – which made the financial transition much easier.

Well, it’s been two months and we’re doing very well. Michael needs me to teach him the business, so whenever possible he comes along with me to observe the training and, in some cases, co-train with me. This is new for me because in the past I would rarely go to the office, preferring instead to work out of my home office. I realize now how important it is to work with him. He’s done several trainings with me and his delivery is excellent. My coaching has mostly focused on little things like using people’s names and giving lots of positive feedback. These are things I do automatically and only realize they are important when I see them missing with someone else.

I’m actually more excited by what he’s bringing to the business. He has lots of ideas for how to improve things, like buying dual monitors for the computer we do virtual workshops on. It had never dawned on me to have dual monitors, instead of trying to cram the PowerPoint and the webinar tool bar all on one monitor. He added a dimension on GenX/Y into our leadership workshop and downloaded clips from Clint Eastwood’s latest movie to illustrate how the “veteran” generation feels about the “Gen Ys.”  In fact, he’s figured out a way to download YouTube videos that are appropriate for all our trainings. He’s editing video for an upcoming presentation for ASTD and has worked with Sue to completely redo our home page. He hooked us up with Hoovers, a database system that lets us identify appropriate businesses for marketing and has no problem going to various Chamber mixers to meet and greet new people.

I recently had my 60th birthday and I’m getting “rejuiced” about keeping the business going, helping a new generation put down roots in something that is both demanding and fulfilling.

If you’ve been through this process of expanding into a “family-owned” business or just want to offer advice or support, send us a note ( We’ll be blogging our experiences on a regular basis, giving you an inside look at the ups and downs.

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An innovative training and employee development firm located in southern Vermont since 1984, we specialize in helping organizations get the most out of their people by raising the bar, inspiring potential and partnering with organizations to build a people-centered, high-engagement culture.

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