Family-owned businesses often struggle because sometimes personal conflict spills over into the family business. The result is a work culture with unresolved family issues that impacts how the company runs, its overall productivity, and ultimately its bottom-line results. It’s been no different for married couple, Angelo and Lauren, who are third-generation family business owners and have employed several family relatives.
Today’s blog highlights how one couple strengthened their marriage and the family business by addressing family (and employee) behaviors even when it meant firing members of the family.
About Lauren and Angelo’s Family Upbringings
The middle of five children, Lauren grew up in the family-owned business, which was initially started by her maternal grandfather. Her father bought the company from her grandfather when she was five years old, and her father was the sole owner. Her mother never had any ownership in the business and worked in the business for less than a year because she and Lauren’s dad didn’t work well together.
Lauren remembers as she was growing up her dad’s work was always a part of their personal lives, as he frequently went back and forth between home and the business. She idolized her father and was known to be his favorite, whereas her mom favored her youngest brother. You’ll soon see how this structure of favoritism contributed to an underlying dynamic in the family’s business operations.
Another underlying dynamic was that her father and grandfather never got along. One of their differences was her grandfather had an affair with one of the business employees and insisted that Lauren’s father lie to keep the secret going. Lauren’s father refused to be his cover-up, and once the affair was disclosed, her grandparents divorced. These series of events left Lauren’s father and her grandfather at odds with each other even more.
Angelo was the oldest of three siblings. At age 13, when his parents divorced, and his mom left, he focused on being a responsible kid and helper to his father. Growing up, he had no idea what his father did for a living. His father’s workplace was a 90-minute trip from home, and he never brought his work home with him literally or figuratively. After years of watching his parents argue before the divorce, Angelo made two vows to himself for when he married. One, to never go to bed angry, and two, divorce wasn’t going to be an option. As a teenager, because of what he observed and how he was impacted, Angelo decided he was going to break the family cycle of anger and divorce.
Lauren & Angelo’s Relationship
The couple married in their mid-20’s and have two children. They openly admit they are vastly different in their personality styles. Angelo tends to be an “eternal optimistic” in nature, and Lauren tends to be more cautious by considering reasons why something won’t work. Angelo said, “We’ve learned to value our different points of view. I recognize that without her, I’d fly by the seat of my pants, impulsively make decisions without considering all the options! Because Lauren questions my sometimes crazy ideas, we’ve avoided some big mistakes!
Lauren said, “I appreciate his ability to see possibilities that in my way of thinking I can’t see.”
Angelo summarized their relationship this way “I’ve known since we dated, Lauren always has my back. I fell in love with her sense of loyalty. While we certainly have had our challenges and different perspectives, there’s an unbreakable trust between us.”
Third Generation Family Business Owners
Angelo began working in the family’s small business with Lauren’s father before he and Lauren started dating. After a two and a half year courtship, they married, and nine years later the couple bought the business from her father. Unlike her father had sole ownership, Lauren and Angelo purchased the business together. Also, unlike her parents, Lauren and Angelo have worked well together as business partners.
While Angelo was still working for his father-in-law, he discovered unfair compensation between him and other family members. Angelo provided proof that the compensation structure wasn’t based on merit. When he discussed this with Lauren, she defended her father instead of supporting Angelo.
Remember when we mentioned that Lauren idolized her dad and was his favorite? Angelo found himself often saying to her, “You need to cut the umbilical cord.” Up to that point, the couple spent most weekends with Lauren’s family, lived in the same town, and went on family vacations together. The couple did little with Angelo’s family.
Again through counseling, the couple worked through emotionally separating from Lauren’s parents and solidifying themselves as their own family unit. Lauren learned it was okay to love her father and not agree with how he was treating her husband. Today Lauren regrets not spending more time with Angelo’s side of the family.
Later, in the early years of the couple owning the business, the couple faced another challenge that could have destroyed their marriage and the family business. Due to multiple stressors at the time from caring for his aging parents, business responsibilities, and raising a young family, Angelo tended to become belligerent when he drank hard liquor. Lauren set a firm boundary, indicating that she wouldn’t tolerate Angelo’s behavior. However, she offered to do whatever it would take to help fix the situation, including going to counseling with Angelo. Once she drew that firm line, and with the help of counseling, Angelo took complete ownership of his behavior. He said he recognized that he “had an inner rage that hard liquor would bring out.” Due to his commitment to having a healthy marriage since age 13, he told himself, “It was an easy choice to pick my wife and kids over booze.” His use of alcohol has never been an issue since.
Over the years, a few of Lauren’s siblings and their spouses have also been part of the family business. Sadly the couple has faced a couple relatives who have stolen from the business, one of whom was caught by Angelo through piecing together a series of events and paper trail. What’s worse, Lauren’s sister tried to get Angelo fired before her husband’s theft could be discovered. After the theft was revealed, the brother-in-law paid back some of the money and was fired. The family didn’t press charges so that Lauren’s brother-in-law could continue to provide for his family. The brother-in-law was an addict, and eventually, the couple divorced.
A few years later, another family member was caught in what looked like a move to hurt the company by sabotaging the business. Lauren’s parents wanted to sweep this betrayal under the rug, claiming that she was “not as bad” as the first family member who was an addict. Lauren’s parents wanted to avoid any conflict to keep the family together. Despite the pushback from dad, Lauren and Angelo stood as a united front and fired the family member from the business.
Additional challenges they’ve faced together include other family members’ jealousy over Lauren and Angelo’s success. A non-family employee was discovered soliciting Angelo and Lauren’s clients for his own side business, which led to another employee termination. In recent years, Angelo had surgery due to a cancer diagnosis. Gratefully he didn’t require chemo or radiation and is now cancer-free.
Along with family and employee challenges, the most recent challenge in the past two years was one of their biggest accounts sold their business that resulted in a significant decline in revenue. Despite this setback, they persevered and worked hard and the result was they earned record sales just one year after that setback and they are continuing with financial momentum.
Overcoming Challenges Through the 3-R’s
Despite all the challenges both in their marriage and the family-owned business, Angelo and Lauren made their marriage their most important priority. From that foundation, they have navigated through marital conflict, messy family dynamics, and employee embezzlement – issues that commonly destroy many marriages and family-owned businesses. The following “3 R’s” – Reflect, Reframe, and Resolve outline how they worked through these challenges and came out stronger in their marriage and business.
1. Reflect … To Correct and Remember the Good
Angelo was acutely aware of his family pattern of anger and divorce as a primary conflict coping pattern that he wanted to break. By Lauren’s admission, it took her longer to reflect and correct the impact of her over-involvement with her extended family and her role as her father’s favorite. Once she realized it, she was able to establish boundaries with her parents and siblings, which included terminating two family members despite pushback from her parents.
Both Angelo and Lauren have great respect and regard for their parents. As a couple, they were actively involved in caring for Angelo’s father in his later years. They continue to see Lauren’s family at gatherings in an attempt to maintain relationships. Even when it’s been uncomfortable due to terminating relatives from the business, they appreciate the importance of family relationships.
2. Reframe to Stop Blame
“There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”
- J. K. Rowling
From the beginning of taking over the family business, Angelo and Lauren defined their legacy for the company, as “We’ll leave it better than we found it.” Despite the multiple challenges they faced, they went back to this motto time and again. When it would have been easy to focus on blaming others, they intentionally focused on this motto of how they’d make decisions that would leave the business better and stronger than they found it.
Like all couples, Angelo & Lauren have times of conflict. Throughout their marriage, they’ve been intentional in learning how to handle conflict, so it brought them closer instead of a part. “We’ve learned how to complement our differences and admit when we’re wrong,” said Angelo. Lauren readily admitted, “Apologizing was something I learned how to do through Angelo. In my family upbringing, admitting wrongdoing was rarely done.”
Both came from families where directly addressing conflict was avoided. “We argue in front of our kids, but it’s short-lived and not mean-spirited. They have seen us fix disagreements and bring in levity and a sense of humor to keep disagreements in perspective. Based on events in both of our upbringings, we both determined not to allow what was modeled to us in marriage by our parents early on turn into our marriage” said Angelo.
They both deserve credit for resolving a specific conflict management example which was Angelo’s use of alcohol. Lauren established a clear boundary, and Angelo took full responsibility for his behavior. Being able to hear a strong “no” from someone and respect the person’s wishes – rather than continuing to do what I want, when I want it – is a sign of maturity.
3. Resolve … To Change the Generational Pattern
In the previous generation, Lauren’s mother never had ownership in the family business. When Angelo and Lauren bought the business from her father, they agreed to purchase it together. Initially, Angelo didn’t involve Lauren in decision-making – despite his intention of viewing the business and marriage as a partnership. Angelo said, “It’s been a learning process of how to stay out of each other’s way and trust each other’s abilities. Part of the difficulty was due to Lauren working part-time so she could be home more with our kids. It has again been a learning process of how to work well together, so that we have both a happy marriage and a successful business.
Both Angelo and Lauren agree the foundation to their marital and business success is their commitment to the vows they made on their wedding day. They both believe there is “no choice” to end their marriage. Angelo said “We’ve always had faith and trust in one another and are committed to honesty with one another, even when the truth is hard to hear. She makes me a better person by helping me not repeat the mistakes of my parents.” Angelo’s vow to break the ugly fighting cycle from his family of origin plus the boundaries that Lauren implemented with her family have guided them in fulfilling their marriage vows and sustain their third-generation family business.
Ready to Address Family Conflict Impacting Your Family Business?
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About Bonnie Artman Fox
Workplace Conflict Expert Bonnie Artman Fox, MS, LMFT, works with executive leaders and team managers who want to stop divisive behaviors, resolve conflict, and build the team trust needed to create a healthy work culture. Contact Bonnie to help your employees get along and bring teams together.