It's a family affair: The ups and downs of being part of the family business

While the influence of Donald Trump’s children in the White House has garnered mixed reactions, following in the footsteps of the family business can reap its own rewards, says Rita de Brún.

Once a family business head, always a family business head. Or so it seems from a cursory glance at Donald Trump.

While he swapped his throne at Trump Tower for the presidential perch in the White House, he’s continued to keep his family entourage in tow.

His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner are widely perceived as being positive influencers Ivanka ignites a glimmer of hope in those recoiling from the sometimes dogmatic rants and peace destabilizing texts that issue in the name of her father.

Trump’s initial weak response to a recent white supremacy controversy caused outrage.

Ivanka condemned the sickening movement in appropriate terms. In that way, she did herself proud and went some way towards wiping shame from the Trump family name.

Along with her formal adviser role she also fills an American royalty style role in Washington.

She has soothed Chinese tensions and allegedly used her daughterly influence to persuade her father of the importance of protecting LGBT rights.

For many family businesses inner power struggles are an issue.

“It’s often stated that the first generation does all the work, the second has an air of entitlement and the third loses the business,” says clinical psychologist Elaine Fitzgerald.

“To try to ensure that that doesn’t happen, sound values have to be given to the generations coming up. It should be made clear to them that nobody is entitled to anything; that we all have to work for everything we get.” 

As for the usual consequences of joining a family businesses out of a sense of duty and loyalty she says: “If it’s done for sentimental or nostalgic reasons, or so as to avoid disappointing the expectations of parents, that’s usually a bad thing.

“Fear of change is another bad reason. That can set in when a family business is handed to someone on a plate, and they get to thinking that it’s all they know; that it would be frightening to try something else. The best reason to get involved is because your heart is fully in it.” 

She’s right, not least because of the sticky situations that sometimes ensue: “The roles offered or rejected can cause sibling upset, as can one family member getting more benefits for doing less work in the business than others.

“It can take a lot of courage for the children of dominant personalities who want them in the business they founded, to choose a different path.” While none of these are issues with which Tom Murphy of Tom Murphy Menswear on Cork’s Patrick Street had to battle, his reply when asked whether there was a presumption when he was growing up that he’d work in the business his grandfather established in 1938, will strike a chord with many: “As a child, hints were dropped and I felt a subtle pressure to continue on the line.

“Back then, if I felt my parents thought I wasn’t sufficiently keen, I’d feel slightly guilty.” 

After clocking up 21 years in the business, he need feel no guilt on that score today and while he works happily while shoulder-to-shoulder with his brother and father, he says that on the occasion when their visions differ, feelings can run strong: “That can happen as we all feel so passionately about the business.”

His innate wisdom when it comes to operating as part of a team clearly pays dividends: “There was a time when I’d have voiced my opinions at work in a stronger way than I do today.

“As I got older (he’s 42) I mellowed and learned that approach wasn’t worth the struggle. These days I soften my position by saying my piece, leaving it at that and letting things work themselves out.” Keeping a family business afloat is not an easy task. Typically just 30 per cent survive into the second generation, 10-15 per cent into third and 3-5 per cent into the fourth.

Nevertheless, JJ O’Connell, national director of Family Business Ireland sees those statistics in a positive light: “Publicly traded companies tend to last for 15 years, which is less than one generation. In that context, the family business model seems pretty enduring,” he says.

Facts published in a PwC’s Irish Family Business Survey support his viewpoint, with 71 per cent of those polled experiencing growth and 91 per cent expecting sales increases over the next five years.

Succession planning was an area with room for improvement, with just 51 per cent of those polled having such a plan in place. Two who have addressed this issue in their family businesses full-on are mother and daughter Victoria and Johnna Murphy.

For years, the Victoria Murphy & Daughter wording etched outside the Kinsale based auctioneering company sent out a message of pride that not one generation of this family but two have served that community well.

Describing their working relationship, Victoria says: “My daughter Johanna and I worked together for a time, only to find that with us, there were too many chiefs and no Indians at all, so I handed over the Cobh office to her and run the Kinsale office myself.” Is it true she once fired then rehired Johanna?

“She was twenty-something and telling me, her mother, what to do,” recalls Victoria, laughing. 

“She wanted overtime for working Saturdays.” 

She’s full of praise for Johanna and for the daughter she delightfully refers to as the Rachel Sarah Murphy.

Did Rachel, who’s probably best known for her role as Jo Fahey in Fair City, ever work for her? “Never. Being into the arts, I think she’d give property away for nothing if she could, so it would have been a disaster.” 

As for Johanna she says: “I always knew she’d be a very good sales woman and businesswoman and that she’d take to this business like a duck to water and she has. Her business is flying, as is Rachel’s.” Johanna is equally exuberant in her praise of her mother: “There was a time when she had an antiques business. She’d drive a van while wearing a mink coat. She was never afraid to get her hands dirty. She’s fantastic and wise. We talk business every day.”

Although her youngsters are just 16, 12 and 9, the sign above Johanna’s business has read Johanna Murphy & Sons for three or four years now.

Does she think any of them will follow her into the business?

 “Some of them might. When my eldest was a baby, he came to every viewing with me.”

This revelation echoes remembrances of her own childhood: “When I was a child, it seemed to me that my mother was always doing up properties. I remember crawling around the floors of rambling old houses while accompanying her at her work.”

The circle is complete. It sounds like history might be repeating itself.


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