From Pizza to Finance, Students Talk about Joining the Family Business

by Diana Drake

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.”

Conversation Starters

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?

6 comments on “From Pizza to Finance, Students Talk about Joining the Family Business

  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. What a compelling story, Yusuf! I admire your hard work and determination to join your father’s pizza shop. As a teen joining the family business, your experiences strongly relate to me. I also think that trust and unity is the most crucial element in the family business as well as the aspect of problem-solving. A family business contains hard-working, tied values and vision, which maximizes the unity of business operation. So, how can we achieve such unity?

    “Authorized person only.” Despite the huge word written in front of the door, I opened the big door. As soon as the door is opened, I see one man wearing a fancy suit surrounded by many professors. The man is my father, who is the owner of Hosan University in Daegu, South Korea. My father welcomed me a lot, and I could observe every moment of my father’s work.

    This was my first experience of visiting my father’s job, and it was very different from the university that I dreamed of. I was surprised that only 10 to 20 people managed the university, and I expected that my dad’s work would be arduous.

    Soon after, my father sat at his desk and translated faxed documents from China. Perhaps because the document’s font was really small, my father was looking at the document using a magnifying glass and again translated it into Korean through the translating website. I couldn’t understand why my father used a complicated method and asked. “Yo, why are you doing this work? Is there no translator here?” My dad replied, “Dude because nobody will work here. There are only trees around here.” After hearing my father’s answer, my question began to be answered: there weren’t many people working because there were no people to hire.

    Even before my father’s translating work was over, one professor came and said he had an important meeting scheduled. After my father left, I felt a great honor to my father and thought it was really pitiful to take charge of everything and work without a break from 9 am to 6 pm. So, to help my father a little, I helped with the translation he could not finish before he returned. After a while, as soon as my father came back, he saw the translation work filled with Korean and hugged me with a big smile. And I told my dad, “I wanna be a translator in your school.” My dad initially refused, but I kept bothering him until he hired me as a professional translator at his school. Then my dad inevitably nodded his head and smiled as if he were flying in the sky. I started working in my dad’s college, translating documents from various countries like China, Indonesia, and Uzbekistan. In addition, not only being a translator but also began to discuss various problems at the university with my father. When I began to help him, I saw a bright smile on his face that I had never seen before.

    While working, my father and I faced a problem that neither my father nor I could solve. A month before the school opening, my dad was in the process of finishing a partnership agreement, and the school management budget would suffer greatly if he couldn’t access it. However, as I heard glass shattering in my dad’s office, I heard him screaming, “OOOOOHHH SHOOOOT!” He dropped his hot coffee on his laptop, and his laptop froze right away. Since my dad’s school didn’t contain a repair shop, my father and I went to the repair center around the school, but it was not open. We began to take every available action. We called the repair centers all over Daegu, but the only answer was, “We cannot help you.” Since we tried everything possible, but it didn’t work, my father and I were frantic. I had a great idea as soon as we gave up everything and sat on the couch. It was calling my mother. My mom was an engineering major who worked as a computer engineer before quitting to raise my sister and me. Then, my dad gave my mom a call. My mom majored in engineering, but she quit her job because of raising me and my younger sister. Then, my dad called my mom. She was initially annoyed, but she introduced us to her acquaintance. Fortunately, my father’s computer, which had been repaired after a long day, was able to receive our school’s budget.

    “Dad, can’t my mom work at this school, too? If there was no mom, we couldn’t solve this problem, and also, I wouldn’t be in this world, right? I said it with Aegyo. My dad just laughed it off, so I kept encouraging him, “If three people do what two people used to do, it will reduce the workload and make it easier to solve the problem.” My dad was worried that my mom and I were struggling because of him, but because my mom was desperate for his help, my mom eventually joined my dad’s school work.

    My father’s university eventually turned into a family business. While working together, my mother, father, and I could swiftly and readily find solutions to the issues we encountered. My family spent a lot of time every week creating family assembly meetings for a bunch of problems: new policies for students, planning budgets for students, faculty management, organizing school events, the crackdown on illegal parking, dormitory facility inspection, setting the appropriate temperature in school, and employee welfare.

    As a consequence, if I face an issue, I often turn to my family for assistance. The capacity to be adaptable and change certain ideas is crucial since, as Kenzie points out in the article, family businesses may work differently than other organizations. Always be a problem solver.

  4. From pizza to finance, Yusuf’s story is one of much admiration. From his humble beginnings father’s pizza restaurant to bringing a unique perspective upon the family-owned business, this is a story too well resonated for first-generation immigrants. As an Asian-born American, I was never foreign to the term family-owned business. Rather than a pizza shop, I grew up being embraced by the comforting smell of a pho restaurant.

    From the moment my father left Vietnam in search of refuge, his story became one of resilience and determination as he faced the challenge of starting anew in America.

    Coming to this foreign country without a single cent in his pocket, my father escaped the Vietnam War in search of a better opportunity in life for him and his family back home. Instead of going to college and pursuing an education like most people would, he gave up his dreams and ambitions to open up a small business. A small business that would later provide me with a roof over my head and food in my stomach.
    As a 13-year-old boy, my father worked diligently picking strawberries in exploitative fruit farms, ones that targeted vulnerable immigrants who have a hard time seeking employment due to lack of citizenship. Nevertheless, he remained unhindered. Working 14-hour shifts and a mere $1.25 a day, his commitment to a stable future led to adequate savings and the purchase of a small pho restaurant.

    As a child, I would often spend long hours in the store observing my father as he interacted with customers, problem-solved, and explored new ways to improve the business. It was within the heart of our family business that I witnessed the seeds of innovation take root and flourish with vibrant new ideas and possibilities. I recall as a young child, I would always retype and modify the restaurant menu. “Ba, why does our menu keep changing? Isn’t hard to keep up with all of these recipes?” I would. “Son, throughout the years, the customers change. The vibes change. The trends change but most importantly, the taste changes. Isn’t it important to adapt to what our guests like? When the customers change, we must change with them” he would respond. My parents didn’t settle for running a business; they constantly sought ways to innovate and adapt. Being born in a generation full of technology, I once asked my parents if they ever considered advertising the business on social media. They would raise an eyebrow and question why in the world I would make a Facebook for a restaurant. They weren’t exposed to the digital world yet, so I got onto my iPad and started making social media accounts for our business. We took some photos and sometimes hassled over which photos looked appealing. Not only we were finding ways to keep our business fresh, but it also gave us opportunities to bond and grow as a family.

    From assisting with small tasks to gradually taking on more responsibilities, I became an integral part of the business. Although the business was a place full of innovation and growth, it also served as a platform for me to develop my skills and pursue my passions. As I became more involved, our family business was not just a source of income, but a source of upholding our shared visions and values for the future. Working alongside my parents, I realized that we shared a common vision — a long-term dream or goal that was meant to leave a legacy for future generations. We didn’t want to focus on short-term gains and immediate success, but rather to build something that would have a lasting impact. A business that would endure over time and leave a legacy for future generations to benefit from. A successful family business entails a fine line between professional relations and family ties while sharing the same values and vision. It is a legacy that is cultivated and nurtured through shared experiences.

  5. From a young age, I’ve seen my parents work long hours together, side by side, to achieve their goals. Using their example, they taught me to make daily sacrifices for love.

    I have had the incredible opportunity of doing minor tasks at my dad’s company, including completing databases and organizing papers. And although I don’t consider those tasks my dream jobs, as Yusuf puts it, “I put in full effort because it feels like my business.”

    Diana Drake makes a fascinating remark about Yusuf’s experience at his dad’s pizza place. She writes, “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.”

    This quote inspires me to develop my professional career in the business industry, seeking to become a qualified player for the family business team. Why? I picture myself striving to follow my parents’ business culture of hard work and unity– a legacy I love and I’ve set my mind not to throw aside. I believe it will help me through my career development in the family business industry.

    Thank you, Diane Drake, Yusuf, Perrin “Tyler” Bulakul, and Mackenzie Lucas.

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