Article Thumbnail

What It’s Like to Be a Son Who Takes Over the Family Business

‘Succession’ showed us the dysfunctional family dynamics of wealthy corporate types, but what about the small, blue-collar business passed down from father to son?

There’s something undeniably evocative about a family-owned business. In a world increasingly dominated by modern tech giants, most of which have been founded in the last 20 years, there’s something reassuring about a company that’s been passed down from generation to generation like a family heirloom.

Obviously, such sentimentality can be a tad misguided when you consider that dynastic affluence is largely responsible for the gross wealth disparity throughout the world. But that’s not really applicable to the small, family-owned businesses that are often passed down from father to son — the sort of mom-and-pop institutions we can’t help but feel inexplicably fuzzy about when we find out that family is hardwired into the company’s DNA.

We’re so nostalgic for the family-owned operation, in fact, that some newer businesses with absolutely no generational history are using it as a marketing ploy, as MEL staff writer Hussein Kesvani noted last year: “Newer businesses, though  —  including streetwear brands like ONLY & SONS (est. 2014) or coffee shops like Parker & Sons (est. 2015)  —  have also used the suffix as part of their branding, despite being new, and most importantly, not being set up as family-owned businesses.”

But of course, behind the twinkle of “legacy” and “history” — words so often used to explain the romanticism we ascribe to those who follow in a parent’s footsteps — is the actual reality of succession, and the special sort of tension that comes along with running and operating a business with members of your own family. 

To better understand these professional-familial dynamics, I spoke to three different business owners who have either already taken over, or are in the process of being groomed to take over, their family business. 

* * * * *

Name: Joe Julian
Age: 44
Business: Julian and Sons Fine Woodworking, Heber Springs, Arkansas (est. 1985)
Legacy: Second generation

Getting Into the Family Business

My father moved from California in the early 1970s to Arkansas after he got married and started a family. Eventually, he found himself building homes in Heber Springs. He liked the idea of being a builder, so he started building custom furniture in the garage of our home, building solid wood desks, gun cabinetry, buffet tables, those kinds of things. He had a bunch of young boys running around, four of us, so he had some cheap labor and he taught us to craft. We all worked in the garage with him. Then in the early 1980s, he started to really figure out that this is what he wanted to do for his vocation and his craft.

Julian and Sons became incorporated in 1985, and of course, we were all still young — four of us boys, ages four to 12. We’d work after school; we’d work on the weekends; we’d work on vacations, holidays, those kind of things. We really hated it when our friends were out playing and we weren’t. Still, my brothers and I got older and we started working at the company more regularly. My [older] brother [Jacob] stopped going to public high school in 1990 and started doing correspondence work at night, working for my dad full-time. Two years later, I did the same thing. 

The Hardships of Working with Family 

Being from Italian descent, my father had served in the military and his father did, too, so it wasn’t the easiest upbringing. It wasn’t the easiest to be trained and taught by my father: He was a very fair man but very hardworking. I was a rebellious teenager who wanted to find myself in less strenuous circumstances. I had that innate desire my entire life of not wanting to be under his thumb, in the confines of working with him and my brother. I really felt strongly about doing my own thing. I’ve always had a desire to live somewhere else, but the craft is in my blood. I can’t get it out now.

I swore that I was going to leave town the day I turned 18 and was never going to be a woodworker. Of course, that didn’t happen — I followed in my father’s footsteps and continued to work. My two younger brothers decided to take different paths, and my older brother and myself became partners with our father in our 20s. From there, we built the company to what it is now.

Sticking Around

As for what kept me here, I don’t know if this is the answer you’re looking for, but fear. I’m sure it was fear of leaving security, leaving family, leaving something that I probably wouldn’t have admitted that I loved at the time. Then also in my mind, the promise of success — the standing and doing finish work in the garage of our shop when I was eight, nine, ten years old. So I’m invested in this — it’s not something that I can just wash my hands and walk away.

Changing Dynamics

My father passed on January 5th of this year. My brother has decided to opt out of the partnership, and now I’ll be carrying on the family legacy. It’s something that I view differently than I did a year ago. With my dad being alive and my brother and me being a partner, the daily grind was a lot harder — there were power struggles, there were disagreements. There were different views of the road to continued success, three strong-willed personalities. 

Now, it feels like a fog has been kind of lifted, so to speak, because although I’m going to take on all the pressures and the strains and the not so fun things about the company, now I have the opportunity to take the vision where I’d like to. But I want to hold true to a lot of what my father taught me, his legacy. We were incorporated in 1985 — that’s 35 years that we’ve been in business and that’s a legacy within itself in this modern world and the way things work, especially in a family business.

Keeping the Family Business in the Family

My daughter has shown interest and she’s actually worked here several times, a couple times between high school and college. She loves to craft things with her hands, and she loves to work hard. I tried to push her toward business school, but she wasn’t having any of that. She’s also told me that she doesn’t know if she wants it this deep in her blood.

She talked about it being an obsession of mine and that it didn’t scare her, but it made her concerned. I’m sure she wants to eventually have a family, she enjoys time with her friends, and there are times when being an owner of a company absolutely consumes you, and that concerned her. Plus, she’s only 19 right now. So she’s going to occupational therapy school and maybe she’ll be back. Maybe she’ll decide to switch to business, that kind of thing. 

My dad always said that I worked harder getting out of work than I did doing work. My son, he’s starting that same tendency. He eventually would be an amazing designer, so he has that artistic part. My daughter has the hardworking drive and absolute determination to accomplish anything she starts. There’s a chance they both get involved but as of right now, it doesn’t look that way. My wife may come in and be involved in the company to a degree where none of our wives had before, which may turn the tables or sway the pendulum a little bit if the kids do have a desire. 

If they so choose [to join the family business], I’d love it, but I’d never force them. I’d never try to force them to do it — I know what that did to me.

* * * * *

Name: Jeff Fuller
Age: 42
Name of Business: Fuller and Son Hardware, Little Rock, Arkansas (est. 1921)
Legacy: Fourth generation

Getting Into the Family Business

My dad came on full-time around 1986, and took over the business from my grandfather, who took over from his father. I don’t think he ever really thought either one of us [his sons] would come into the family business. I was in the middle of college, changing majors, and just being like, “This isn’t for me.” So I told my dad, “Look, I’m ready to come on full-time.” Then my brother, when he graduated, it was the same thing. All his friends are putting out these resumes and everything, and he has this family business available to him, so he came on four years later. 

We never came in and started with these job titles as co-owner or anything like that. We just got to work and did whatever we needed to do, whether that was floor sales, working in the warehouse or running the books. It was just wherever we were needed, because we needed to be able to do everything. 

Making Decisions

For the most part, it’s a three-person equal pact. Usually, the decision goes to the person who cares a lot more about something than the other — it’s very rare that it’s come to where we have to be two versus one. It does happen, but usually those are on issues where there’s not one person who feels super strong about something. 

I’ll say, at the end of the day, I still feel like my dad is my dad — he’s still the eldest in the company; not to mention, it’s Fuller and son. I still think of him as Fuller and us as son. To me, at least the spirit of it, I still think of him as in charge.

Keeping the Business in the Family

Both of us 100 percent want this opportunity to be available for our kids, if they want it. But I couldn’t imagine ever imposing anything on my kids that would limit their dreams. Like, right now, both of my kids — say what you want about the reality of it — want to be professional athletes. I’m not going to tell them, “No, you need to not think about that. You need to think about something more realistic, like coming and working here.” They’re seven and ten years old, you know?

That said, you still want this opportunity to be there for them.

* * * * *

Name: Sam Siam
Age: 32
Name of Business: Waterdrops Express Car Wash, Los Angeles, California (est. 2011)
Legacy: Second generation

Getting Into the Family Business

I was always looking for [dad’s] approval and showing him that I was capable. He was always busting his ass for me, so my intention was always to help him and give him an extra hand because he did so much for me and my brother growing up. That’s kind of where my initial thinking came in. That’s when I went to business school — I was trying to make things more efficient so I could do things differently that he wasn’t really aware of, apply different techniques and stuff. That was where things started getting hesitant, because obviously, if a guy has been doing it for 30 years, he’s not just going to pass the reigns off to some little schmuck coming in. 

The Initial Struggles

Most of the tension was just that I didn’t know what I was doing at first. I was completely in the dark about what was actually going on behind-the-scenes. But I had the know-how of where the roles were lacking, where people were actually failing in their roles and the way that [my dad] was doing it. He has a very machismo way of handling things, very red-personality type. He’s just very alpha.

I had to be very, very hesitant on how I’d approach him. I was the one person in the world that everyone knew could change his mentality — being the son, I had a little bit more leeway. I don’t fear him because I understand who he is. In that regard, it helped, because everyone would try to come to me to try to get to him. But that led me to question whether they were trying to use me to get things their way.

That’s also where, obviously, things between me and my dad started to get a little shaky — it would become a more serious argument because we had the father-son relationship. At one point, the dynamic started changing and I started to not see him as much on the weekends, and I’d avoid family gatherings.

Proving Himself

It was a lot of showing him that my capabilities were there. I started off with all different kinds of charts on regression analysis and telling him, “This is where our weak parts are,” just trying to prove myself to him. I was working in the tunnels, trying to understand everything about the business. One thing that I was doing a little too much, from what he was telling me, was that I was trying to do everything, but that’s what I felt I needed to do in order to prove myself. I was very eager to take over because I knew there were certain things that they weren’t doing correctly that I really could update.

Sticking Around

I was petrified, honestly, to take these roles on and try to be there for so many different people. [Dad] has a natural fervor and his personality is really suited the work. For me, it was like, “Okay, I need to make some more adjustments.” I had an anxiety disorder growing up and all these things were making it seem like it was so far away and out of reach. But the more I bent down to it and tried to focus on improving myself and understand how the industry worked, I started becoming more comfortable. That eventually led me to being like, “Okay, this isn’t the worst move in the world.” 

Still, there were multiple times where I was like, “You know what? This isn’t working out. I probably could do 10,000 things better for the world somewhere else.” But I saw the employees, I saw the work effort, I saw the teamwork. That gave me the drive to wake up every morning and show up to the office and build somewhat of a healthy work environment.

The Moment of Change

We had a lot of internal issues because people were leaving, and it was very, very hectic and stressful. It put a lot of mileage on me, a lot of weight on my shoulders. But I took it because that’s what my family needed at the time.

Around the same time, my dad started getting a little sick and that indirectly forced me to go in that direction of taking over the company, even though I’d never really signed up for any of it yet. It was the direction I wanted to go in, but not in the way that it happened. So it was kind of like I inherited all of the good and some of the bad juju — things I wasn’t necessarily on board for, but had to take on just because of the sanctity of my family and keeping everyone afloat. And of course, supporting 200 employees who needed jobs.

Following in Your Father’s Footsteps

I’m following in his footsteps in certain ways. It’s weird stepping back and talking about it now, but definitely, I’d say I’m doing my best to live up to his hype, trying to do what he did best with a little bit of my own spin on it. He’s told me multiple times that he’s proud of me — he’s given me that, at least. It makes me feel a little bit better inside. 

Hopefully I don’t fail him.