According to several thriving family art business owners, communication is the key to success

All in the family: a guide to keeping a family-run business flourishing: according to several thriving family art business owners, communication is the key to success

Maja Tarateta

Financial experts estimate that 90 to 95 percent of all businesses in the United States are family-run enterprises. Like most American companies, many of the nation’s art galleries and publishing enterprises are family businesses.

Said James Lea, author on family business issues and a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Family ownership and operation of businesses in America continues to be a mainstay of the country’s business economy.”

Why? For Tom Hubler, a family business consultant, the words “family business” call to mind advantages like loyalty, trust and a collaborative spirit. “When they are working successfully, there’s nothing that surpasses a family business,” he said.

As with most family businesses, the leadership team in a publishing company, gallery or frame shop might be comprised of a husband and a wife, mothers and daughters or fathers and sons. At times, extended family members figure into the mix. But any way you dice the family unit, art businesses are invariably owned and operated by people who share a common bloodline.

And they often share a last name. Despite many years of experience and success in her own right as a retail buyer for Macy’s, when Debi Gango started working 20 years ago in her mother, Jackie’s, art business, Gango Galleries, she didn’t want anyone to think she was riding on familial coat-tails. So she used her married name at work. Later that year, at the office Christmas party held at Jackie’s house, one of the gallery employees approached Debi and asked, “What does it take to get your picture on the wall of the boss’s living room?” Debi had apparently succeeded in her quest to keep everyone from knowing she was the owner’s daughter.

Today, Gango Editions is a wholesale art publishing company based in Portland, Ore., owned and operated by Jackie, Debi and Debi’s sister, Leeza. Nowadays, all three women proudly use the last name Gango at work, pleased not only to be working together but also to debunk family business myths and trends.

Successful Succession

Debi said that Jackie remains active in the business because she is having so much fun working with her daughters. Should she retire and pass the business on to Debi and Leeza, the Gangos will have beaten the odds of succession. According to Lea, only 15 percent of family businesses pass into the hands of owner’s children. Less than half of those will stay in the family to reach the founder’s grandchildren. “There are many reasons for the drop-offs, most of them having to do with planning for continued family ownership and management succession” said Lea.

This is where a consultant like Tom Hubler, who owns Hubler Family Business Consultants, enters the family business picture. Hubler works with family businesses to help them operate successfully by managing the boundary between business and family relationships, by being vision-driven rather than problem-focused, and by planning for the future of the business. The three items are entirely inter-related, according to Hubler, who advises his family business clients to initiate several plans in order to be successful. These include: A plan for managing the roles of ownership, management and leadership; a business plan that delineates designs for the continued success of the business; and a family plan, which discusses how you will be a family beyond the undue influences of the business. These plans, said Hubler, help family businesses overcome the challenges of succession.

Mitch Meisner, who owns Meisner Gallery and Meisner Acrylic Casting in Farmingdale, N.Y., with his wife, Hillary, bought the business from his mother and father with the help of an attorney who specialized in family businesses. Although Mitch had literally gown up in the family gallery and foundry and had worked there for much of his life, “There are still a lot of emotions and politics involved” in handing a business down from one generation to another, he said. “I wanted what my father had started to continue.”

Smashing Stereotypes

Successful family businesses not only plan for their continuation from generation to generation, they also debunk family business stereotypes by working well together. The Gangos said they never argue at work. “Employees don’t want to get in the middle of family squabbles” said Debi. One of the ways the Gangos avoid public battles is through distinctive areas of responsibility for each family member. If the women disagree about how to handle a particular situation, Debi said, they defer the decision to the family member under whose realm of responsibility the question falls. By the same token, if one of the women feels especially strong about something, the other two consciously back off and relinquish that decision to her.

“Many family businesses get bogged down in family clashes and personality conflicts because they’re unable to separate business issues from family issues” said Lea. “It’s vital to remember that roles and responsibilities in the business setting are different from those in the home setting. Behaviors and expectations have to be different if the family, on the one hand, and the business, on the other, are to function as they are supposed to function.”

When Mitch Meisner took over his family’s business, he said one of the first rules he instituted was not taking the office home. “One of the problems I had growing up was that it was always business all the time,” he said. “You’ve got to make time for family and time for business. If you mix it up too much, you’ll end up in trouble.”

For AB Makk, who works in Makk Studios with his parents and fellow artists, Eva and Americo Makk, and with his wife, Sylvia, in Honolulu, the inherent family hierarchy was easily carried into the business without conflict. “I experienced no challenges in working with my parents,” he said. “There are no power struggles. I always acquiesce to my parents unless I feel very strongly about it”

Husband and wife Joel and Joyce Cohen, who own Soho Arts South, a gallery and publishing company in Palm Beach, Fla., summed up their secret to successfully working together in one word: compromise. Like most families in business, the Cohens have also found success in what they call a “separation of duties” and relying on the person responsible for a particular area to make decisions that affect that realm.

They also cite the benefits expressed by others in family businesses. “I trust my partner” said Joel. He jokingly added, “Joyce never asks for a raise. There are a lot of issues, like salaries and insurance and doctor’s appointments and vacations, that we don’t have to deal with.”

“There’s no jealously, no office politics” continued Joel. However, he lamented, “There’s no relief. No `other life.’ This is it. On our Sunday morning walks, we’re reviewing the week and talking about the week to come in terms of the business.”

“Husbands and wives who work together have no place to hide from the people who know them best,” said Lea. “Just as working with people you know and love can be a benefit of a family business, spending almost 24 hours a day, at work and at home, with the same people can be wearing” he said. “It’s a big challenge and takes a lot of maturity and commitment by both parties as well as open and constructive communication to make that kind of relationship work.”

Another husband-and-wife business challenge, according to Hubler, stems from the fact that, unlike the multi-generational family business which is infused with an inherent hierarchy based on the family itself, the partners in a business owned by a couple are, essentially, equals. Said Hubler, “It’s important for [husband-and-wife businesses] to clarify at the very least a semi-formal sense of what their roles are going to be in the business. It’s also going to be important for them to take time out to define their expectations of their relationship and take time to continue to have fun and develop the intimacy of their relationship.”

At Wild Apple Graphics, based in Woodstock, Vt., wife-and-husband owners Laurie and John Chester said they are happy to work with each other in their art publishing enterprise. “Building something together is much more meaningful than doing it on one’s own” said John. “You really know what the other person is talking about when you discuss work–it’s not something you have to imagine.”

As with other family businesses, the Chesters fell easily into areas of primary responsibility. And they also believe in the power of compromise. “Figuring out a way to disagree and then come to a decision that works for both is the challenge,” said John. “It helps to value the other’s opinion, dissect the components of the issue at hand and stick with the discussion until it gets resolved–even if that takes weeks or months. It never pays to sweep a disagreement under the rug, even though we are sometimes guilty of that.”

John Chester offers advice to other family business owners. “Periodically, let your partner or partners know what you expect out of the business, financially, socially, now and in the future. Ask what they want. Things change over time” he said, “including our perception and desires.” Experts agree that regular meetings among family members to discuss each person’s vision of the business and each member’s expectations help the whole family to work together toward common goals.

Additionally, Cathy Folker, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., offers the following advice to family businesses. “Keep the lines of communication open. Hire based on talent and skill and not just family relationship. Get the children involved in the business early. Have the youth in the family work for a while outside the family firm to gain skills and legitimacy. Start planning for succession early.”

And, perhaps most importantly, Folker said, “Make sure you have a successful family first.”

COPYRIGHT 2001 Pfingsten Publishing, LLC

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group