The small business is often described as the backbone of the American economy, but the term is even more applicable to family owned and operated companies. According to the University of Southern Maine’s Institute for Family-Owned Business, family businesses account for half of the United States’ gross domestic product and generate nearly two-thirds of the country’s employment.
In Gainesville, family run ventures are known for their longevity and their commitment to quality products and services. More specifically, two of these local establishments know firsthand the benefits and challenges of blending work and family.
“Working together as a team is key”
Sonia Fox was raised in the world of property management and construction. Her mother, Debbie Berdy, founded Contemporary Management Concepts, LLLP, in 1979, with just two properties housing about 150 apartments. As the company grew in size, Fox worked for her mother in various roles through her high school and college years before joining fulltime after graduation in 1993.
Today she serves as president and partner in the company, which now manages more than 4,000 apartments. She credits CMC’s success, at least in part, to the positive relationship she has with her mother.
“Debbie is my best friend, so as a mother and daughter we work together and we can share our thoughts,” Fox said. “We have similar interests, our values are the same and our work ethics are the same. It’s nice to be able to work together as a family.
Such an arrangement, however, is not without its pitfalls. The tendency to blur the line between work and personal lives is greater in a family owned business. Fox said she and her mother sometimes find themselves discussing the day’s events during dinner, despite their efforts to concentrate on non-work topics.
The stress of running a business can also be magnified when the family is involved. “When you’re putting all of your eggs in one basket and the economy is difficult, you carry the stress throughout,” Fox said. “It’s not just one family member; the entire family feels it.”
But family is also one of her biggest motivators when it comes to her company’s longevity. Berdy started CMC on her own, and Fox wants to ensure that the business continues to be successful as her mother begins to plan her retirement. Fox also has two daughters and she hopes that one, if not both, of them might show an interest in working for CMC someday.
A family enterprise, Fox said, can be a rewarding experience – if a few simple guidelines are followed. She advises owners to try and maintain a separation between work and personal conversations. She and Berdy reserve detailed meetings for the office; outside the office, nothing more than casual discussion about work is allowed. They also avoid using other family members as a sounding board for the business, so concerns do not become major family issues.
But the most important aspect, Fox said, is cooperation.
“Working together as a team is key,” she said, “having similar interests is a key, and balancing is a key. A big part of it is making sure that it’s not all work 24/7, and that you balance your family life along with work.
“Our success is based on relationships”
People often rely on the working relationships they have with their financial planner. But when the company itself is built upon family ties, as is the case with Lowry Financial Advisors, Inc., there is an added dimension of security for customers.
“Our success is based on relationships,” said Joe Lowry Jr., managing partner of the firm and son of its founder, Joe Lowry Sr. “During the last 10 years that we have worked together, our clients have come to know that we share the same core values, which include a commitment to independent thinking and integrity in our relationships. We don’t answer to distant management or shareholders. We are the management and shareholders, so everything we do is meant to create lasting relationships with our clients.”
The firm was started as The Lowry Group in 1978; Lowry Jr. joined in 2002 with the goal of offering fee-based financial planning and advice, and the firm became known as Lowry Financial Advisors in 2004. The initial move, he explained, was not without difficulty
“Entering into joint ownership is a learning process. After many years of running the business as a sole owner, it was an adjustment for Joe Sr. to share financial decisions with a partner,” he said. Challenges also arose from the fact that the men had different business strengths, but over the years they worked together to make the firm even more successful.
“We are much better at what we do because of those differences,” he said. “I think the founding family members have to recognize that their children will have a different approach, based on their unique abilities.”
When asked what advice he would give family businesses, Lowry Jr. emphasized the importance of formalizing procedures and agreements. Even with good familial relationships, he said, agreements should be in place to define responsibilities and agree upon any transfers of control if members retire or leave the business for other reasons. This helps ensure that the business remains in good hands now and in the future.
“We act so that almost 35 years of hard work will continue to another generation, my kids and Joe Sr.’s grandkids, if they decide to follow that path.”