Small business editor Caitlin Sykes this week interviews a handful of small business owners about how they manage family succession.

When business meets family, there are all kinds of lines that can potentially be crossed. So when James Fisher and his brother Andrew were taking on the family painting and surface maintenance business from their father Phillip, James says bringing in outside help to mediate the process - and between the two parties - was crucial.

"That was really good because they [external advisors] looked at it at arm's length and viewed it as a commercial transaction. That helped both parties realise that although we were family we were going to treat this like you would a commercial transaction with any other party," says James.

James joined the family business in 2012, with Andrew joining the team a few months later, and the pair took ownership a year ago. Another factor that helped the transition, says James, "was being really open and honest in our communication".

Businesses that transition successfully across family generations are those where family members communicate openly and honestly, says Dr Deb Shepherd, Auckland University.
Businesses that transition successfully across family generations are those where family members communicate openly and honestly, says Dr Deb Shepherd, Auckland University.

It's a point emphasised by Dr Deb Shepherd - a senior lecturer in management and international business at the University of Auckland. Shepherd's research interests include family businesses and SME leadership, and she's also involved with a number of family-run SMEs through her work with the Icehouse's Owner Manager Programme, and as a consultant and in governance roles.

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"Businesses that transition successfully across family generations are those where family members communicate openly and honestly, and where they start what can be potentially tricky conversations early before there's a burning platform from which decisions need to be made quickly," she says.

Also critical, she says, is keeping all family members informed about what's going on, even if the business is being transitioned to only one member of the next generation.

Common pitfalls in the transition process include not starting discussions on succession options early enough, failing to adequately prepare the next generation for success when they take over the operation, and failing to accept aspects of the business may change under new family ownership, she says.

Anita Turner-Williams says family members have to respect and be proud of the heritage built up by the previous generations. Photo / Katie Wilson
Anita Turner-Williams says family members have to respect and be proud of the heritage built up by the previous generations. Photo / Katie Wilson

Anita Turner-Williams grew up heavily involved in the family firm, Vinka Brides - owned by her mother Vinka Lucas - and it was a natural progression for her to work in the business. But there had been no succession plan underway when her mother suddenly suffered a stroke, and Anita found herself faced with the prospect of taking over the firm.

"It was a terrible shock, but I wanted to continue her legacy, and to keep the business focused on the clients and delivering for them. I just had to step up and get on with it."

Her advice to those taking over a family business is to respect and be proud of the heritage built up by previous generations, and also draw on the knowledge and input of staff, who also want to see the business succeed.

"You don't have to do everything your way and put your stamp on everything to feel like the business is yours," she says.

"Don't change just for the sake of it."

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