2004 Fall/Winter Volume No. 4
It’s All About Family
The Cooper Family
On cover, pictured L to R: Ken, Ed & Mike
Ed Cooper, CEO
This edition of JohnTalk is devoted to those of you who run family businesses big and small. Much of the subject matter gathered here reflects my own experience in building this family enterprise we call PolyJohn and from many of the people who have helped me build it.
I have always been involved in family businesses. As a kid, I worked with my parents and siblings on a family farm. After I got out of the Army, I started a waste hauling business with my brother-in-law. That business led us into the portable sanitation business and we hired a cousin to drive our first restroom service truck. Later we started PolyJohn, and my sons Mike and Ken joined me here after college. My brother-in-law still has the waste hauling business and now his two sons are managing it. We sold the restroom service business to our cousin who successfully grew it to thousands of units with the help of his wife and her brother. Now, I have grandchildren that are in high school and entering college, and of course I am hoping that someday they will be joining the family business as well.
The portable restroom industry was started by and built by family businesses. Most of the companies in operation today started with a few portable toilets and a used (very used in my case) pump truck. These family enterprises worked hard with Dad driving the truck, the kids cleaning units, and Mom doing the books at night on the kitchen table. From such beginnings grew successful companies and an entire industry.
In turn, the industry has given a lot back to these families. Many of us have earned a good living and put our kids through college servicing toilets. Now, many of those same children are being faced with the challenge of taking your business and this industry to the next level. I hope some of the information in this special issue is helpful even in a small way.
Tips I’ve Learned
Over the last 20 years here at PolyJohn, I have watched many customers’ and competitors’ family ventures grow and prosper. And I have seen some fail. Here are a few tips that I have picked up along the way from observing the ones that have been most successful:
Give challenges not orders.
You may be used to giving orders at home, but at work you have to treat family members the way you treat any of your other professional staff by challenging them to succeed. If the trucks are dirty, don’t hand out buckets and yell, “Go clean ‘em!” Instead, challenge your employee/family members to help the company project a more professional image. Say, “Let’s start by keeping the trucks clean.” Then you hand out the buckets.
Don’t force the business on family members.
If your kids want to come into the business and work their way to the top, that’s great. But make sure that’s what they really want to do. If your son or daughter really wants to be an astronaut, doctor, or whatever, give them all the support you can.
Don’t make excuses for family members.
At home family comes first, at work business does. If a family member is a bad employee, he or she needs to be treated like you would any problem employee. Set rules and goals and make everyone abide by them. If the family member breaks the rules and doesn’t achieve the goals, then the business must consider punitive action, including termination. As they say, one bad apple can ruin the whole bushel. And one employee who doesn’t follow rules, especially a family member, can bring down a business.
Maintain a clear chain of command.
At home kids often use the old mom versus dad trick. At work, the chain of command must be clearer. If a child of yours reports to a manager who is not in the family, the child must understand that the manager has the clear authority. If you trust your managers and want to keep them on the job, don’t overrule them when a family member is involved.
Follow written compensation guidelines.
Pay family members the same as other employees in the same position.
Let talent find its own path.
Don’t set up positions for family members based on birth order, sex, or other arbitrary measures. Some people are natural leaders and like to manage; others prefer to follow. Some are good at accounting and organization; others are good at marketing and sales. Let your relatives find their own strengths and promote them accordingly.
Make room for others.
Often key employees have been with you so long they are like family. It is important to remember if you only involve yourself and other family members, you isolate yourself from the talents, wisdom and insight that outsiders can bring to the business. Just because a child of yours may one day own the business, doesn’t mean they are the best suited to run it. A healthy well-run business is the best thing for your family’s future. If it takes an outsider to run the business best, then consider it. A well-run business can always be sold for cash or passed through generations of family members through shares.
Running and growing a family business is filled with challenges and joy. I hope this issue of JohnTalk helps you with the challenges to give you even more of the joy that I’ve experienced over the years.
It’s all about Family
Running and growing a family business is filled with challenges and joy.
www.polyjohn.com – Fall/Winter 2004 – JohnTalk • 3
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