Bob’s your uncle... and also finance director on weekdays

By Richard Stuart-Turner, Monday 25 September 2017

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While the idea of working with relatives might not appeal to everyone, family-run firms continue to thrive in the print landscape, with many among the industry’s most successful names.


This situation is by no means unique to print – family firms are big business in the UK according to the recently published report The State of the Nation: the UK Family Business Sector 2016/17, compiled by the Institute for Family Business (IFB).

The publication found that in 2015 the UK’s 4.7 million family-run businesses employed more than 12 million people, earned £1.4tr – up 6% from 2014, and contributed £460bn to the UK’s GDP. Such firms make up 87% of all private sector businesses in the UK, with small family firms contributing 97% of the total.

The majority (80%) of ‘family businesses’ are in fact run by the owner and have no other employees. This figure is likely to be considerably lower in print, however, as one-man operations are arguably trickier to maintain here than in many other industries due to the multiple skill sets and various quick-turnaround pressures involved in running a modern print company.

Of the remainder, 16.9% of family firms employed between one and nine people while 2.6% employed between 10 and 49 people. Many printers are family businesses falling within one of these two brackets.

Label Apeel managing director Stuart Kellock has worked at the company with numerous family members – including his wife, mother, father and sister – on and off over the years. He believes the nature of print lends itself well to the family business model.

“Print has predominantly been about smaller units. Often you will see a husband or father taking care of the printing side of a business and his wife or daughter running the administrative or sales side – it’s the synergy there that makes it work so well and which allows the business to grow and support itself.”

Energy comparison website Love Energy Savings has just published its own separate research on working with family. Head of people at the firm, Mike Edwards, says doing so can bring a raft of benefits.

“Working alongside members of your family can make you feel more relaxed and supported and can increase your productivity.”

Glossop Cartons director Jacky Sidebottom, who works at the firm with husband, managing director Brian, and two sisters, Jill and Vicky, agrees with this sentiment.

“Blood is definitely thicker than water. Having a family business gives it a very strong foundation and it gives the ethos of a family business through all the staff as well. I think it also comes across to clients that it’s more than just a job and it means an awful lot to you – it’s very personal as the company is your baby.”

She adds: “The good thing about working with family is that you’ve all got different strengths and weaknesses – I think you play with those and make up the whole picture through different strengths, which compensate for the weaknesses of others. You can be very blunt with your family too, and after any disagreement you make up better.”

Turning off

It’s not all plain sailing though, she acknowledges. “I don’t turn off so I do take my work home, which can be a bit of an issue sometimes, as I think you should turn off once you go home. But it’s easier said than done.”

Kellock agrees that this can be a downside. “My wife worked here with me for three years. We didn’t completely stop talking about work at home, but we laid down some ground rules about it,” he says.

“We worked out where the negatives were and then tried to only talk about the positive stuff outside work and would leave the niggly, awkward bits for when we were at work.”

He adds: “Another significant drawback to working with family is that you know each other too well so there’s a temptation to be a little bit too cautious. Where you would normally have no issue asking other people to do something, you might not ask family members to do it if you know they would be uncomfortable with it – because you know them you almost let them off.”

But the positives outweigh any negatives, he says. “You know your family inside out – you know what their capabilities, strengths and weaknesses are so you get all of that benefit, you don’t need to work with them for five years to find out that sort of stuff.”

Work mates

Ronset managing director Peter Farnworth, who worked with his late father Ron, former managing director of the business, for 28 years, says: “Dad was my best mate, we were very close and spent a lot of time together. In business it was like having an ally with me.”

Family firms can also benefit from having less red tape to cut through than more corporate organisations. With less pressure from external stakeholders, major business decisions such as kit investments or acquisitions can be easier and quicker to make. “It was our company so we’d make the decisions,” says Farnworth.

Marsh Labels managing director Gary Burnley works alongside sister, fellow director Alison, while dad Barrie, who co-founded the business in 1983, is now semi-retired. Burnley says family firms can also be more approachable than corporate businesses.

“Because we started our business from scratch, we try and maintain a very approachable, friendly, family type feel. We’ve had staff that have been here nearly 30 years – we’ve lived their lives with them.”

With all of the aforementioned advantages as well as the opportunity to sustain a family legacy and pass it on and create jobs for future generations down the line, it is perhaps of little surprise that so many people choose to work with their nearest and dearest.

“A family member is the ultimate employee that you can wholeheartedly trust,” Burnley concludes.


Family firms enjoy benefits but face unique challenges

jarroldCharles Jarrold, chief executive, BPIF

Two thirds of UK businesses are family-owned, employing 12.2 million people. In the print sector owner-managed and multi-generational family businesses are particularly common, and their prevalence suggests real competitive advantages. However, they also face unique risks and challenges.

Business success arises from balancing short- and long-term objectives. Achieving sufficient focus on longer-term goals frequently means accepting lower returns in the short term. Family businesses typically have a longer-term focus, and are less likely to fall victim to short-term benefits at the expense of longer-term success. 

But the challenges can be acute. The interests of the business must come first; things start to go wrong when this doesn’t happen. Non-family staff will usually welcome family members into the business, as they’ll be seen as embodying the values of the business, representing commitment and continuity. Family members must take this responsibility seriously – they should only be offered (and accept) roles that they’re committed to and are capable of fulfilling. 

The benefits of continuity help family businesses thrive, but may make for challenging boundary management. Differences of opinion are inevitable, and an important element of making good decisions. In a family enterprise, these differences can deepen, affecting relationships and creating frictions that are especially challenging to resolve. Succession planning is critical; transparency, communication and fairness, building trust key to ensuring longer-term family support. Outside impartial help and advice can be very useful.

With family firms forming such an important part of the economy, it’s heartening that so many companies find ways to ensure family support, and continue to thrive over many generations.


What are your experiences of working with family?

linneyMiles Linney, managing director, Linney Group, works with his father, chairman Nick, and brother, director Charles

“I think family businesses work because you have the ability to plan and think longer-term – we think generations down the line, 20 to 30 years out, and look at what foundations we’re laying for the next generation. I don’t have a problem with seeing my brother or father at the weekend and maybe talking about work because I suppose you never really switch off from work now, but you’re always switching onto play as well and the two tend to mix more – the world is a lot more fluid.”

stokesBen Stokes, sales and marketing manager, Bristol Labels, works with his father, managing director Paul

“Trust is one of the big benefits, which is a massive thing in a customer-oriented business. You’ve got to be able to trust the person who’s speaking to your customers to say the right thing, act in the right way and represent the company in a certain way. And we act as a family – everyone is a shareholder here, from the press operators to the finishers to the people in the office. This makes a major difference because everybody owns part of the business and cares about what they’re doing.”

smithRupert Smith, co-owner, GH Smith & Son, works with brother, co-owner Alex and father, former owner David

“I think sometimes you need an outsider to look at things, just to give another perspective on something because you can sometimes be a bit too close to it. Even though you’re different, you’re also quite similar when you’re related and you might have the same outlook so you’ve got to get a third-party opinion. But the hardest bit is legacy planning and thinking about what to do with the next generation – I’m in my late-40s and can only go on for so long.” 

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