It's All Relative

By Hannah Wallace July 31, 2006

As the old saying goes, the family that plays together stays together. But what about the family that works together?

According to the Family Business Review, there are more than 24 million family businesses in the United States, accounting for 89 percent of business tax returns and employing 62 percent of the U.S. workforce.

When a family pours its heart and soul into a business, the stakes are high. Perhaps that helps explain why so many family businesses succeed. "Non-family-owned businesses rarely have the degree of commitment that family owners/managers bring to their enterprise," says Craig Aronoff, co-founder and principal of the Family Business Consulting Group based in Marietta, Ga. "You're spending your family's money, and people who know you and love you are counting on you to run your business well."

Family businesses enjoy other advantages as well. While public companies are pressured to produce positive results for their stockholders each quarter, "Family businesses will look out a generation and make investments and develop strategies that are unavailable to publicly traded companies because they can't take that long-term perspective," says Aronoff.

Family members who are business partners don't usually have issues with trust. Family businesses tend to take fewer financial risks, because most are unwilling to leverage themselves to the extent that non-family businesses are.

And the next generation of business owners gets on-the-job training. "I like to say that when a family business member is chosen to be chief executive, there's an executive development program that probably goes back to when they were in diapers," says Aronoff.

But the transition from one generation to the next can present significant challenges. When several children take over a business from a parent, says Wayne Rivers, co-founder and president of the Family Business Institute, the question is, "Whose vision is primary? When a second generation takes over, now there are more masters to be served, and there's no guarantee that they have anything even resembling a common vision for the business."

It can also be hard for the family member who started the business to let go. "At some point in the life cycle of most family businesses, the entrepreneur whose energy and vision created the company actually becomes a barrier to future success and growth," says Rivers. And workplace conflicts can be more complicated, especially if the business owners bring family baggage into them.

But despite these challenges, many family businesses find a way to make it work. "The data we've gathered in the United States and around the world says that, contrary to popular opinion, family businesses last longer than non-family businesses and outperform non-family businesses with less risk," says Aronoff.

Here's how four local families are overcoming the challenges-and reaping the rewards-of mixing business with family.

Halfacre Construction Company

Started in 1970 by William D. Halfacre, Sarasota-based Halfacre Construction Company was purchased by current CEO John Cox in 1984. A few years after finishing college, Cox's son, Jack, also joined the business. "He proved himself, and I gave him some stock in the company, and the rest is history," says Cox.

With his son on board, Cox and his wife can take vacations or indulge in his hobby of showing horses and know that the business is in good hands. Cox says that a lot of his competitors don't have this kind of management succession plan in place, and he thinks that's a big advantage for Halfacre Construction. "The biggest problem I've got is that [Jack] keeps on saying I'm retired to everybody, and I don't want to be retired," Cox says with a laugh.

When they're both in the office, the two enjoy working together. "We get along very well," says Cox. "We have our own offices, but there's literally a door between our offices that we keep open."

That doesn't mean that they don't have the occasional disagreement, but they're careful never to let anything go too far. "We respect each other," says Cox. "That's the only way it works. I give him the reins, like a good thoroughbred, to run."

Jack now has a son of his own, and the proud grandfather wouldn't mind if he, too, became part of the Halfacre team. "My dream is that John J. Cox IV [Jack's son] comes into the company, but that's a little early to plan," he says. "He's only a year old."

Mixon Fruit Farms

A Bradenton fixture for almost 70 years, Mixon Fruit Farms was started by Willie and Rosa Mixon in 1939. The couple's six children all worked in the business, and over the years it grew to include 350 acres of citrus groves, a mail-order service, processing plant, and retail store.

Today, the Mixons' grandson Dean and his wife, Janet, own the business, having recently bought out Dean's father and brother (who once co-owned it with them). Dean and Janet plan to bring their three children, Rick, Julie and Lori, and nephew Stephen into the business.

Right now, the offspring are learning the ropes, working in all of the areas of the company. On any given day, they might be serving ice cream in the store, tending to the groves or helping with the new tram tours of the property.

Janet thinks the customers have enjoyed seeing all the Mixon generations over the years, and seeing the family hard at work. "It's like going to Disney World and bumping into the Disneys," she says.

Though Dean has spent almost his whole life in the business, he looks forward to handing everything over to the next generation. His vision for the future: "The kids are in full control, and we're out fishing, dancing and traveling."

Purmort & Martin

Sarasota insurance agency Purmort & Martin is in transition. Wells Purmort founded the company with his father and brother in 1958. Part-owner Rick Martin came on board a year later. Since then, Purmort's father has passed away, and his brother started his own agency. Purmort recently sold his share of the company to his son, Jamie, and two other younger insurance agents at the company, Matt Stepulla and Russ Bobbitt.

When Jamie became part of the business at age 27, he started in entry-level positions for the first six months. "I think the employees appreciate that, and it gives Jamie a better experience of how things are and what's going on," says Wells Purmort, who remains manager of the agency.

Purmort says one of the biggest benefits of being family-owned is the flexibility that comes from independence. "If we want to bend a rule to help somebody, we don't have to call New York," he says. "If we want to close the office to go to a spring training game or shut down for half a day, we can do that.

"We have had many opportunities to sell, but we're really not interested," Purmort says. "We like the fact that we're a family-owned business that can make our own decisions and run our own ship."

Richardson Kleiber Walter

Commercial and industrial real estate firm Richardson Kleiber Walter was formed in the 1980s, when Bill Kleiber and Jim Walter joined forces with Bob Richardson, who had started Richardson Realty in 1972. Today, the original partners and their children and sons- and daughters-in-law continue to carry the torch, manning each family's branch of the Sarasota County firm.

"[Our father is] established with the customers already, so that fortunately reflects on us," says Jennifer Button, daughter of Bill Kleiber, who works alongside her brother, Jon, and husband, Jeff. "It would be a lot more difficult to start on our own."

"The greatest benefit to me has been my boss's vested interest in my success, having a mentor with the amount of expertise and willingness to impart all the knowledge and experience he's gained over four decades in the real estate business," says Christine Walter, daughter of Jim Walter. "I don't think any agent has that amount of training with their broker."

"No matter what, somebody's usually there to get your back and will go a little bit beyond what somebody else would do," says Renee Richardson Kling, daughter of Bob Richardson. She works with her sister, Jennifer Shafer, her brother-in-law, David Shafer, and her brother, James Frederick. "You have history together and know each other's strengths and weaknesses."

But that history can also prove problematic when conflicts arise. "Because there's a lot of history, you tend to react to things according to past history," says Kling. She says she's learned "to put that aside and realize that when you're working and in business, the business comes first."

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