In 2021, Yusuf A. began a new phase in his life: working for the family business.
The high school student from New Jersey, U.S., started spending time on the weekends at his dad’s pizza place, taking food orders by phone and preparing pizzas for delivery. While Yusuf’s dad had long worked as a chemist, he had recently decided it was time to leave the office and get into small business ownership.
Yusuf wanted – and continues – to do his part.
“I’m always there to assist if they need help,” says Yusuf, who plans to pursue a different career after college. “Sometimes I get to work with my dad, which is pretty cool. And there’s an element of trust and unity when I’m working there. It’s more comfortable working at the family business rather than working somewhere else. I also feel like I put in full effort because it feels like my business.”
Yusuf is just beginning to experience – and appreciate — the family business culture: hard-working and tied to the values and vision of the head family member. And as the next generation, he is also bringing a unique perspective to how the business operates, like knowing the technology used for advertising their products, understanding the customers who are often his age, and even problem-solving around the struggle to keep consistent workers in the shop.
A Cohesive Mindset
Family business can range from a small retailer like Yusuf’s pizza restaurant, to large multi-business-unit international corporations. The challenges, while different in scale, can be similar in theme. “When family business makes decisions, yes, business issues are a factor, but so are family issues; they are entangled,” says Raffi Amit, academic director of the Wharton Global Family Alliance, a research center at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Amit helped demystify family succession in a recent Global Youth article.
The more perspective someone can gain outside the family fold, the stronger their capacity to help navigate the distinctive family-business terrain. Genna Zimmer, a Wharton executive MBA who helped lead REED Jewelers (founded by her grandfather after World War II) through the COVID-19 pandemic, told Wharton Stories, “My goal was to eventually become a senior leader at REEDS, but I wanted to work in all areas of the business first, and our external board of directors had always recommended that I either get an MBA or gain more experience at another company.”
Wharton Global Youth called on a few current Wharton graduate students who are aspiring to be the next generation working in their family businesses. They are at a turning point in their careers, having developed skills from other jobs, as they now consider joining the family enterprise. What will they bring to the role and what issues will they focus on?
Perrin “Tyler” Bulakul is part of the fifth generation of his family business, The Brooker Group, a Thailand-based financial advisory, real estate consultancy and capital management company founded in 1888. “My background prior to Wharton has been in finance — investment banking and private equity — so I plan to leverage those skills to help make investments on behalf of the family,” says Tyler, who is co-founder of the Wharton Family Business Club, a platform for students preparing to work in their family businesses. Tyler will return full-time to the financial-services arm of Brooker after he graduates with his Wharton MBA in spring 2022.
“The landscape is constantly changing and it is important to be up to date on best practices.”-Mackenzie Lucas, Wharton MBA Student
Tyler places a special emphasis on maintaining unity at Brooker. “As the family business and members grow, things become more dispersed and the family business does not become as tightly-knit,” he notes. “Maintaining this cohesiveness can be hard and is a challenge we continually try to address. In addition, as the family business grows, there will be non-family-member involvement. Integrating non-family members is just as important, if not more.”
‘Always Be a Problem-Solver’
Mackenzie Lucas has been thinking a lot lately about her family business legacy. Her grandfather Ray Westphal founded Vertex, Inc., a corporate tax software company based in Pennsylvania in the U.S., in 1978. The company is public but family-controlled, meaning a majority of the shares are owned by family members and there is preferred stock granting all voting rights to family members. Someone outside the family now leads the 2,000-employee enterprise.
“I’m planning to one day sit on the board of the company. I am also considering having a full-time job there at the executive level, although I’m not certain that is the path I want,” says Kenzie, who worked in consulting prior to her Wharton MBA program as a way of intentionally building her business skills. She also helps lead the Wharton Family Business Club.
As she looks toward her position on the board of directors, Kenzie is especially concerned with corporate governance, or the rules, practices and processes used to direct and manage a company that also guide decisions about all the ways it operates. “I think governance is critical,” she notes. “My family has spent a lot of time to develop family assembly meetings and have a structure in place to be able to address possible issues. With an initial focus on governance, a family can be empowered to tackle upcoming challenges in a stronger, more effective manner.”
Both Kenzie and Tyler urge youth who might be considering a stint in the family business someday to express interest early. This will ensure that you can be mentored regularly by the appropriate people inside the business. “Growing with the business is a great way to integrate seamlessly when the time comes,” says Tyler, who adds that both family trust, as well as executives who are constantly thinking about the longevity of the business for future generations, rather than just maximizing short-term profits, help to make the family-business sector especially strong.
And, much like Yusuf is brainstorming solutions to the labor shortage at his dad’s pizza shop, the next generation should embrace innovative thinking. How might we do this differently – and better? “The landscape is constantly changing and it is important to be up to date on best practices,” says Kenzie. “Likewise, it’s important to keep in mind that family businesses may operate differently than another company, so the ability to be flexible and adapt certain strategies is useful. Always be a problem solver.”
Do you work for the family business or are you planning to one day? Share your story in the comment section of this article.
What does Kenzie Lucas mean when she says, “With an initial focus on governance, a family can be empowered to tackle upcoming challenges in a stronger, more effective manner.”?
Dr. Amit says, “When family business makes decisions, yes, business issues are a factor, but so are family issues; they are entangled.” Why do you think maintaining cohesiveness in a family business can be challenging?
10 years ago, my dad took a huge risk by quitting his 9-5 job and creating a consultant company for influencer marketing. From a young age, I watched from his side as he grew his company and helped many companies grow and thank him for all he has done for them. As I became a high school student and grew my interest in business, I asked him how I can help his business and was promoted to be an intern in his company.
Though I started small, I grew a lot in my knowledge of the business. I helped send emails and coordinate marketing agency clients. I helped source visuals for blog posts to increase SEO. I helped translate blog posts from English to Japanese. Little by little, I was able to understand what my passions were by being a part of the family business. I realized I was interested in marketing and management. I began searching for ways for me to grow that passion through other interns, nonprofit help, and classes.
Even though I don’t know if I will continue my dad’s business, I was able to grow my passion into business and now want to do business in college and as a job. I hope I can use what I have learned so far and utilize them in my other extracurriculars and in school.
It was the beginning of the summer after fifth grade and I was just tall enough to stand right under the sparkly granite countertop of my dad’s flooring material store.
I was never really taught how things around the store were run but being there everyday rubbed off on me. Whether it was listening to conversations my parents had with customers and translating when they needed, typing documents they needed, or translating emails they received, I slowly grew to understand how their flooring business worked. Day by day, I grew more comfortable talking to the customers.
I remember at the end of the summer, this young couple walking in, her arm wrapped around his, and giggling when I asked “Hello! What are you guys looking for today?” They had looked over the counter at my parents but entertained me as I guided them around the store. They told me they had just bought a house together close by and were looking for some flooring that would match the modern aesthetic. When I asked about what material they were thinking of purchasing, they raised their eyebrows and exchanged a surprised glance at each other. She slowly asked me what the benefits of each kind were and I asked if they had or were thinking about having pets with long nails or kids, who will probably spill things frequently. They nodded apprehensively before I continued, telling them they might be more inclined to purchase laminate or vinyl flooring, as hardwood flooring might get damaged quickly. Or maybe, if they definitely wanted the feel of hardwood, engineered wood flooring would be the way to go, as it would be more water-resistant.
After half an hour, we had decided on a beautiful ash grey engineered wood flooring for them. To close up the sale, they had to talk with one of my parents to negotiate a price. As I ate lunch behind the counter, I watched my mother talk with them, the best she could in her second language.
Since that summer, I have been helping my parents as much as I can with their store and reading this article was an interesting way to see how other students also become involved with their family business. The most interesting thing I found was Kenzie and Tyler urging young people who are interested in perhaps running their family business to get involved as soon as possible so that they have field experience.
But my story is a little different. Having a choice seems to be an overlooked privilege. Helping my parents in their business wasn’t a choice I made in my adolescence; it was a part of my childhood and my upbringing. Being there as a translator for the family was a means of survival, not an extracurricular activity I picked up in hopes of getting work experience. The business grew alongside me and I am who I am because of the summers I helped out there. My family and I have learned to work together through the business and while I truly would not have it any other way, it’s still important to understand how being a first generation American can change the options that even young children have.
However, one of the things that remains true for the stories in the article, my story, and every story of a family business. The business is a shared pride for everyone involved. We’ve all put in so much work to get it to where it is and I cannot wait to see how the story continues.
I have always considered occupation choice a turning point in the life of a student. There are hundreds of cases when students regret making a wrong choice due to the wrong idea of a job they intend to pursue. Having the opportunity of being involved in a family business is a unique chance to submerge oneself in a work atmosphere, get a better understanding of business, and thus figure out whether one truly desires to dedicate himself/herself to this field in future.
Actually, work in a family business isn’t designed specifically for people willing to study or practice in this industry. Business running requires a combination of various skills, which means that, while being a member of a family business, one can perform tasks that, in his/her opinion, will be required in the job one wants to see himself/herself in a few years. I assume Yusuf’s case is a relevant example of a variety of duties one can have in a family business, including advertising, communication with customers, and etc. Therefore, even those, who are sure that they will have nothing in common with business field, can try their hand at other specialties, while helping their families to run their business. Moreover, what makes a family business stand out among others is the fact that a novice member is not really intimidated by the thought of failing his/her job, being criticized for doing something wrong, simply because, subconsciously, they perceive a family-run initiative as a hobby, not as a full-time job where they will face the problem of working under pressure.
The statement that Dr. Amit made, namely a thin connection between business and family issues, had a huge impression on me. Family issues are indeed entangled, however, unravelling them elevates us on a new level by making us more experienced and conscious. This is exactly what frequently occurs in a family business. Making blunders, taking risks, using false and ineffective strategies, distributing obligations disproportionally- all of these are mistakes and dangers that each business enterprise undoubtedly confronted at the beginning.
I recall listening to a podcast in German, where a professor mentioned that an efficient learning process is the one, where after making a certain mistake, one analyses this mistake and draws a conclusion on how to avoid making it again. I am assured that once a family business meets with failure, the best way out is to make a thorough analysis of a feasible reason for the failure and pool resources to solve the problem. As Kenzie states, one has to always be a problem-solver. Young generations should work hard on turning over a new leaf and developing new methods, interesting and creative strategies for maintaining (and even promoting!) their family businesses.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a chance of trying myself in a family business. Nevertheless, I am determined to be a pioneer by opening my own business and motivating my family to get involved in it, because each family needs to start an initiative in order to become financially independent, permanent employees and just get more strongly unified with other family members!