FAMILY BUSINESSES ARE SPECIAL, and every one of them is as unique as the family who’s involved in it. They’re quite common in the green industry, which contains many very successful dynasties.
However, it takes more than shared DNA to make a business survive and thrive past the first generation. There’s no guarantee that the heirs will have the same drives, passions or talents that the founder had.
Sometimes, it takes spending time away from the family enterprise for a son or daughter to realize where he or she really belongs.
Take Dean DeSantis, for instance.
His father Tony, now 72, founded DeSantis Landscape, Inc., of Salem, Oregon, a full-service commercial and residential landscape company, back in 1974. Dean worked in the company while growing up, and through high school and college. “When I graduated, I had no plans to stay in the landscape industry. I went off and had a whole different career for about twelve years.”
That entailed working for a school district, and then, for the U.S. Department of Education. His next job, as a trainer for the AmeriCorps program (a kind of domestic Peace Corps), took him all over the country. Along the way, he earned a Master’s degree in Intercultural Relations from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
These experiences gave him distance and perspective. “One day, I looked back and thought, ‘You know, landscaping wasn’t such a bad business!’” And then came Father’s Day, 2001.
“I was just sitting around with Dad when he said, ‘I’ve got to figure out some kind of exit strategy.’ And the conversation began.”
Tony DeSantis began a slow winddown over the next four years or so, as he got a feel for Dean and his abilities, and in what areas he needed help. In 2006, Dean and his brother Jim formally bought the business.
Are family workers good workers? “They’re good, because they’re family,” says Todd Pegram, owner and founder of A Dad & Daughter Lawn Care in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “They work hard, and they take care of my equipment. Other people aren’t as careful, because it isn’t theirs.” Besides all aspects of maintenance, the company also does landscape design, builds retaining walls and installs ponds.
The business was originally named for daughter Destiny, who started working with her father at age 14. Now 23, she no longer works in the business, but stepdaughter Ashleigh Brill, 19, now in college, does.
“Ashleigh’s the best weeder I’ve ever had, maybe because ladies are more meticulous. Her brother Rick, 23, is a good worker, too; I tell him what to do, and he does it, but I don’t even have to tell Ashleigh. She sees something that needs doing, she just goes ahead.”
Pegram says Destiny was “more of a diva,” but Ashleigh is “a tomboy. She knows how to run the tractors, the blowers, the string trimmers, and even how to weld.”
“Meticulous” is also the word Rob Wolfe, owner and founder of Davenport, Iowa-based R.J. Wolfe and Sons, a business that’s focused on design/build projects, chooses to describe his son Rhesa, 18. “We’re very careful when it comes to details; you have to be when you’re doing stonework.”
“A lot of people out there think they can do it, but they can’t. My son’s been at it for about nine and a half years now, and he’s very meticulous about what he does.” Rhesa, whom his dad calls “a pretty amazing kid,” started laying brick patios when he was only ten years old. You might assume that he’s so good at it because Dad taught him well. Not so.
“Any kid is more likely to listen to the people around him rather than his parents,” says Wolfe. “It was a big thing for me, that it shouldn’t be Dad teaching him. I said, ‘I’ll throw you out there with the foremen who have worked with me for five, six, seven years, and let them teach you.’ “If he had questions, or problems, he’d come back to me. They were precise and detail-oriented, so they taught him to be, too.”
When Dean DeSantis came back to the family business, his brother Jim was already there, and had been for a while. They both realized that they needed help figuring out how the two of them could work together, so they worked with a number of consultants who specialize in family businesses.
Mark T. Green, Ph.D, was one of them. He says that sibling rivalry plays havoc in a lot of family enterprises. Even with grown-ups, old feelings of “Mom or Pop always liked you best” can crop up.
“Research shows that in 80 percent of cases, people would not pick a sibling to be a business partner. But in family businesses, siblings are made partners, often equal ones, with no mechanism in place to work through any issues that come up. They can slip into ingrained patterns dating back to when they all lived together in the same house.”
Often this is because a founder decides that he’s going to treat all the kids equally and fairly. However well-intentioned this may be, it can set up an inherent conflict; when there’s a pivotal decision to be made, who makes it? What if the “equal” partners don’t agree? Green says that a team leadership approach can work, but it takes a lot of effort.
As he explains it, you’ve got the system of the family meeting the system of the business. People and businesses change and develop over time, so there are a lot of moving parts. There are expectations, values, ideas, perceptions, power structures, birth order and hierarchies, all mixing together.
Working with Green made the De- Santis brothers realize that they had very different passions, as well as separate visions and goals for the business.
One of the disagreements was about expansion. Dean wanted to grow the business, eventually branching into the Portland market (which he later did), while Jim wanted to keep it small, more of a boutique-type enterprise.
Ultimately, they decided on an amicable parting, splitting the business and its assets. This left Jim free to start another successful business around his true love, building homes using heavy timber-frame construction.
One of the things the De- Santis’ learned from Green and other advisors is that for the business to continue to thrive, old baggage needs to be set aside. Family and work matters should be kept separate; so, no discussion of accounts receivable over the Thanksgiving turkey.
“You have to run it like a professional business, that’s key,” said Dean DeSantis. “And that’s really hard to do, because these are loaded relationships. There’s history and emotions around who got what, or who got more or less attention growing up.”
There should be formalized roles, clear job descriptions and accountability. That last item is the hard part.
It’s stressful enough getting a performance review from a supervisor; imagine getting it from your father, sister or some other relative!
The ideal situation is to avoid having family oversee family. In Dean DeSantis’ case, however, there are two other family members who are key managers, his uncle and his cousin, and he supervises them both.
How do they navigate those choppy waters? “We’ve understood over the years that, while we’re going to be frank and direct with each other, we’re still going to love each other in the end, because we’re family. That’s not always easy, but it’s what we strive for.”
With people living longer, it’s not unusual to find three generations working together in the same space. But different generations have different ideas and expectations. This can lead to tension.
Maybe Dad believed he had to be the first one at work and the last one to leave, while his son resented the fact that Dad never came to his baseball games. The son has other ideas about work and fatherhood that are more common to his peer group.
“He’ll say, ‘Dad, you didn’t go to my games, so I’m going to make darned sure that I attend all of my kids’ events,’” says Green.
Spouses present another challenge. Not having grown up in the family, or the business, they don’t understand the established patterns, and come in with their own ideas.
Green has seen situations where even kids who grew up next door to each other, attended the same churches and schools, and whose families had similar businesses, suddenly had conflicts when they got married.
“Say in the wife’s family, no one worked on Sunday, but in the husband’s family, they did,” said Green. “Sounds simple, but it can create a huge problem that nobody can talk about.”
Is working in the family business good for kids? Brill thinks so, saying it’s made her much more responsible and mature, compared to her peers. “I like doing things on my own, earning my own money. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to ask my Mom for any.”
Tony DeSantis said that working with Dean, who started on the job when he was only eight or nine, was fun for both of them. “My brother, his Uncle Ted, was my right-hand man at the time. He constantly challenged Dean to step up and work as hard as he did. And Dean was intelligent enough to quickly pick up whatever he gave him to do.”
Working with family has enough built-in stresses; imagine adding a stepparent/stepchild relationship to that mix. But Brill says that she and her stepdad, whom she alternately calls either “Todd” or “Dad,” get along great, most of the time.
“I get a little agitated some mornings, when I haven’t been told the night before that I’ll have to get up bright and early the next day to mow a bunch of yards,” she admits. “But I get over it in about an hour.”
Wolfe believes that a lot of problems can be averted with good communication. “I’m a big believer in keeping my ears open. When my foremen say they have a better way of doing something, I listen, even if I don’t always agree.”
“It’s the same with my son. Sometimes he comes up with better ideas, just because he’s young and thriving. I’m 50, and I’ve been doing this for so long—27 years—that my ideas are old-school. It’s good to get some new blood in here.”
Green says that a lot of family business owners don’t want to think about what’s going to happen over the next 15 to 20 years, but they should be planning a path for their heirs.
You need to start having these conversations while the kids are still in high school, even if they’re saying they don’t want to be involved in the business. As in Dean DeSantis’ case, that can change. The kids should be encouraged to complete their educations and go work somewhere else before coming back, should they choose to do so.
Tony DeSantis agrees. “I always told them, ‘You don’t have to stay here; just go off and do whatever, and get a broader experience. Learn who you are and what you’re really like.’” He does find it gratifying, however, that Dean has taken the ball and run with it. Since he took over, the company’s volume has tripled from a $2 million-a-year business to a $6 million-a-year business with 100 employees.
He’s also made it a green company that offers rainwater harvesting and its own blend of compost tea. The offices run on solar power, and the trucks are fueled by reused potatochip factory oil.
Brill doesn’t currently see herself taking over the family business, but would like to maintain some kind of continuing role in it, even if she’s working in another career.
She had been studying criminal justice, but recently changed her major to business administration. That education will stand her in good stead should she decide to become more involved one day.
Wolfe isn’t sure about the future plans of Rhesa, who just graduated from high school. “I’ve never pushed anybody to go where I want them to, so we’ll see what he does. He might want to change directions, do something entirely different with his life.”
Tony DeSantis thinks it’s self-defeating to force succession on kids who don’t want it. He thinks that’s why many family businesses fail once the second or third generation takes over.
Wolfe says that he’s seen a lot of family landscape and irrigation businesses getting sold off because the kids think the work’s too hard. “They’ve seen how tough it was on their dads or granddads, and they don’t want to go there,” he said. “But they’re not going to have to work as hard as we did. The equipment today is much better. We didn’t have utility vehicles back then. We didn’t use skid steers, because we couldn’t afford them.”
“I always say, you should get up in the morning every day and do what you love,” said Wolfe. “If your kids don’t love this business, don’t have a passion for it like you did when you were first growing your company, then they should go do something else.”
A family business in the green industry can grow, blossom and continue on for generations. Like the landscape, it takes care and attention in order to thrive.