7.12.2015

'The emotional stakes are high': lessons for taking on the family business

father and daughter in business
Smruti Sriram with her father, Dr Sri Ram.
Act like a sponge, not the heir-apparent, and show some respect if you want to smooth the path of succession
Succession, which is difficult in all organisations, is especially so in family ones. It could be argued that the emotional stakes are higher in family businesses. The tasks of divvying up control of the company or appointing senior roles could become entangled between the notions of competence
and favouritism. This is dangerous and something that I have been lucky not to encounter.
My father was very clear about the role I was not going to assume when I asked him for work-experience at Supreme Creations nearly eight years ago. Under no circumstances was I to muscle in as the boss’s daughter and demand that my voice be heard any louder than others.
First-hand business experience
After reading PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) at the University of Oxford, I’d originally thought about becoming a management consultant and applied for the McKinsey graduate scheme. But I realised that I wanted to get first-hand experience in business. My father is an entrepreneur of nearly 40 years, so I thought I could learn from him for a few months.
I answered the phone, helped pack samples, and did my own market research for the company. I tried in earnest to translate the skills that I had learned from launching charity social enterprise The Wings of Hope, and from university, to the business.
Supreme Creations supplies eco-packaging and reusable bags to more than 50,000 clients across the world. I had to navigate through the alphabet soup of international logistics: FOB, DDP, HS codes and BOLs.
Be proactive
I hustled to win clients and would spend hours doing innovation on prints and techniques that would become “the next big thing”. I sold to farm shops and schools that wanted reusable bags for their local communities. I also plucked up the courage to phone the switchboards of Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Topshop, to try and win meetings with elusive buyers.
I was trained by our marketing and sales teams, who all treated me like any other team member. I could not be more grateful to them, or to my father, for fostering an environment of “no ego”.
Keep work and home separate
I never address my father as “my father” or “dad” in the office, in meetings or in emails – he is Dr Sri Ram, or chairman. My clients do not know this is a family business. For me work and family are very separate. My father has been an incredible mentor to me and hundreds of others. His vision, generosity and optimism are infectious, and are hopefully rubbing off.
For offspring working for their family’s firm there is an additional pressure to do a good job. Nearly two years ago I was given an opportunity to take the operational helm as chief executive.
I started to embed values into the business that were true to me. My life motto is “don’t be boring”, and I hire talent who believe in that same purpose. We have pushed our clients to break the boundaries of creative communication through our eco-bags – or what we like to call “walking billboards”.
There are big upsides to family businesses. Crucially, the sense of ownership stands tall against short-termism, which can often stymie promising enterprises. Some of the world’s best enterprises can be categorised as family businesses, including Ferrero Rocher, Toyota, ArcelorMittal and L’Oréal.
Show respect and be ready to learn
My advice to offspring thinking of entering their family enterprises is three-fold. First, you are not the heir. If you believe that you are, any high IQ that you may have could be quickly overshadowed by your very low EQ (emotional intelligence); remember that both are crucial in business. 
Second, be like a sponge: listen and learn from everyone around you. The business existed before you entered it, so learn about its history; this can only help you sail across the choppy waters of commerce.
Third, respect the owners, whether they are your elder brothers or sisters, your mother, your uncle or indeed, your father. They are the ones who have kick-started the business or have been guardians of the dynasty. It is a great gift to be part of your family business.



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