Working, not feuding, with family

GREELEY – Bill Allnutt knows he won’t be at the reins of Allnutt Funeral Service in Greeley forever. He is a member of the fourth generation to run the business, and the family’s legacy continues with his son, Rick.

Operating a family-owned business can be a rewarding experience and strengthen family bonds or it can rip apart bloodlines and create conflict for generations if not handled properly.

In the case of the Allnutt family, they take pride in being Colorado’s oldest family-owned business. The company was founded in 1886 by Thomas G. Macy, Bill Allnutt’s great-grandfather. As a child, Bill Allnutt worked with his father and brother, Jack, at the funeral home but had other plans for his future.

“I didn’t apply for this job, I was just helping out my brother,” he said. “But then it became a very different decision, and you realize there is a sense of pride when you work with your family and are able to pass the business on to future generations.”

Working with his father and now his son has strengthened Allnutt’s view of family and its importance in his life.

“Working together side-by-side has formed a bond, and now I can truly say they are my best friends,” he said. “Working with my brother and my dad and now my son after all these years has created a strong family tie. We get together regularly outside of work … this business has really cemented the bond of our family.”

This family pride and an ability to “groom” future generations is key to maintaining family ownership, said Kim Schneider-Malek, vice president of Schneider Consulting Group Inc.

“According to the Family Firm Institute, only 30 percent of companies transfer from the first generation to the second and only 3 percent transfer to the third, so the successful transfer of companies is not great,” she said. “I think people have the misconception that things will just happen so they don’t come together to define their respective roles and to communicate goals for the business.”

Communication key

Communication is key to keeping any business operating smoothly, especially when family or spouses are concerned. Roles during the workweek differ from the weekend, and family members who work together need to understand and set boundaries.

“Spouses especially need to ensure they have ground rules in place when working together,” Schneider-Mack said. “Instead of thinking because they have a good marriage they can run a good business, they need to clarify roles and openly identify responsibilities to establish expectations.”

Christina Dawkins, general manager of Co’s BMW in Loveland, has many years of experience working with family members. She and her sister, Rosalie VanHerwaarden, grew up working at their parents’ car dealership. They took over the reins when father Jacobus “Co” VanHerwaarden retired in 2004.

Not only does Dawkins work with her sister, but her husband, Kenton Dawkins, is also the sales manager for the dealership. The couple maintains a sense of stability with the rule of “work stays at work” and the decision to not talk about work when the kids are home.

“I think we are so busy when we are at the dealership, I’ve got my things, and he has his,” she said. “We view our working relationship as a partnership to bring the company forward… At home, we are focused on the kids, but we still make it a priority to enjoy each other’s company.”

Dawkins said she and Rosalie work well together because they understand each other’s strengths. The differences in personality allow them to know the business is being taken care of without stepping on each other’s toes.

Michael Henning, president of the Henning Family Business Center in Effingham, Ill., believes that great communication leads to great companies and can overcome two major obstacles to any family-owned business.

“Most of the common conflicts are caused by miscommunication or a lack of communication,” he said. “Recognition and compensation are two of the biggest problems with these businesses.”

Henning suggests developing a communication plan to help resolve future conflicts. He recommends the use of an unbiased third party and one-on-one discussions to ease tensions in the workplace.