When David Grossman decided the family surgical practice needed a website, his father resisted. “He just thinks differently and couldn’t see the benefits.” But David pressed on. He showed his dad how the website could help patients access forms, learn about possible complications and share experiences. “Now, he sees that it’s an important component of our medical practice.”
Such generational differences are happening in workplaces across the country, but in father-son businesses, the stakes are high. Despite a turbulent few years, family businesses remain a substantial force in the national and global economies. But keeping the business in the family takes the ability to work through assumptions, expectations and differences. The fact is, only one-third of family-owned businesses survive to the second generation.
For fathers and sons, the dynamics are complex. “The level of emotion that exists in a father and son business can be profound,” says Drew Mendoza, managing principal of The Family Business Consulting Group in Chicago.
Today’s Gen X sons think differently than their boomer dads. They bring technology skills and innovation to most workplaces, along with a desire for work-life balance. While dads still bring experience and passion, many struggle to understand a mindset where productivity doesn’t necessarily mean facetime. Even more, the relationship between fathers and sons who work together today tends to differ from the past: many consider themselves partners rather than mentor-mentee.
As the country gets ready to celebrate Father’s Day, many fathers and sons still dream of working side by side. Those who do it successfully offer insight and inspiration.
The younger Grossman, 38, says it was always his dream to work with his father, longtime Aventura surgeon, Martin Grossman, 67. The two operate as a team: together, they remove gallbladders and hernias and portions of the colons. “I learn a lot from him every day, by how he talks to patients, gives bad news and good news.” But the mentor relationship goes both ways. While becoming a doctor, David learned new minimally invasive techniques for traditional surgical procedures. He taught his dad how to remove a gallbladder laparoscopicly with smaller incisions and less recovery time for patients. David also convinced his dad to move to new, larger offices, hire more employees and update the firm logo. Change hasn’t been easy for Martin: “I’m still old fashioned,” he says.
David has had his challenges, too. He discovered getting patients to recognize and accept a younger generation can be difficult when dad has the relationships and reputation. “At first, patients only wanted to see my dad but we told them and showed them we work together and eventually they accepted me.”
Both say working together has strengthened their relationship turning it into a mature friendship. “If we disagree, we talk about it. If we want to do something different, we come to a compromise,” Martin says.
While the advantages can outweigh the challenges, experts say it is often the personal relationships that can get father-son teams in trouble — the son who only enters the business out of sense of duty or the dad who has unrealistic expectations.
“It can cause tremendous heartache when expectations and assumptions are not made clear,” says Mendoza, whose company has counseled more than 3,000 family businesses in 17 countries.
For Matthew and Sanford Siegal, the solution has been a clearly delineated division of duties. Matthew runs the retail side of Dr. Siegal’s Cookie Diet, a Miami company started by his dad, physician Sanford Siegal, and now expanding internationally. Sanford runs the product/manufacturing side. “We use our skill sets to complement our business’ needs.”
One of the big areas of conflict has been growth strategy. “He has much bigger plans than I would have,” explains Sanford. “I’m 83 years old and don’t have grandiose plans. He wants to expand all over the world. I don’t object, but I don’t want to increase my role.”
Mendoza points out the young generation, as is the case with Matthew, often are risk takers. The concern is whether they realize the business may be the sole financial security for older parents. The Siegals say they temper each other in this area. “I will say this can’t fail,” Matthew says, “My dad will say it can and it probably will. We meet somewhere in the middle. I could get into trouble if I didn’t have him to put brakes on my exuberance. And, if not for my exuberance, he would put the brakes on everything.”
Martin Luytjes, who teaches a family business class at Florida International University, says father-son businesses work best when each recognizes and appreciates what talent the other brings. “There has to be a mutual sensitivity and trust.” There’s another dynamic at play, too: “There’s a need for a pat on the back from dad a son never outgrows at any age.”
Patrick Range Jr. has been working alongside his father for the past five years. He gave up a prestigious position as a lawyer at Greenberg Traurig after his grandmother passed away in 2006 — “too much for my dad to run the business alone. I felt a responsibility to take an active role.” The company, started by his grandfather, runs three funeral homes serving the black communities of Miami-Dade County.
Patrick Jr., 35, says he has a different perspective than his 72-year-old dad: “I understand the younger generation and what their needs are.” Just last week, he helped a young woman plan a memorial service for her father. “She was not interested in having a traditional service with the deceased present.”
Initially, Patrick says his dad pushed back when he brought a different perspective to the decades old funeral business. “It’s taken some adjustment on both of our parts but we’ve learned when to back off and when to push. I think it’s benefitted the business.”
Patrick says a huge challenge has been the struggle for work-life balance. This is an area where he has pushed hard to change his father’s mindset: “I’ve encourage him to realize you do not have to be at your desk to function in an efficient manner. I’ve even forced him to take off one day a week.”
A challenge that most dads face is the role reversal. Learning when to pipe up, when to stay quiet and when to keep fighting. Alberto Argudin, 59, says he never expected his son, Albert, 35, to join the company, A.D.A. Engineering in Doral. He now heads the construction management division. And although Alberto says he doesn’t always agree with his son’s style, he acknowledges it works. “He is more into delegating. It has worked. He gets his work done and put in less hours.”
In an economy where job demands are all-consuming for most workers, fathers and sons say they value their time together. “I think it has changed our relationship” says Albert, adding that working a 50- to 60-hour a week job and juggling his young children would have left him little time with dad.
Now, regardless of what’s going on at their engineering firm, he and his dad eat lunch together at least four days a week. “Talk about the business takes a back seat unless there’s something pressing.” Albert says over his 12 years at the engineering firm, the two make an extra effort keep work and personal differences from affecting their relationship: “We might butt heads in our personal lives but Monday it’s business as usual.”