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Retaining a Family’s Shared Goals

“Retaining a Family’s Shared Goals”

Father/daughter team prepares for a changing of the guard; secures employee, customer loyalty.

Many entrepreneurs dream of passing their successful business through the family, but it often becomes a nightmare of conflicting expectations and employee reactions. Through trial and error, love and persistence, Frank Burgess installed his daughter, Nancy Chabot, into a leadership position at Yankee Systems, the print-technologies firm he founded in 1974.Burgess never thought much about either of his daughters joining the business when they were growing up. And though Nancy worked part-time answering phones during high school, it wasn’t until she was working on a master’s degree in business that she seriously considered Yankee Systems.

Instead of employing her straight out of school, Burgess required that she work elsewhere for a few years. “I wanted her to experience something else before she came straight into a family business, to make sure it was what she really wanted to do,” Burgess explains. “Plus, I figured she might get an outside perspective at another company that we could apply at Yankee Systems.”

After four years of human-resources work at a hospital and a bank, Chabot still wanted to work at Yankee, and Burgess hired her in 1992. She began by fielding phone orders and supporting outside salespeople, and within two years she was in charge of the company’s largest account. In 1998 she was made vice president in charge of Yankee’s day-to-day operations.

The road was not without bumps. Many employees, especially those with high aspirations, resented the newcomer in what they considered “Frank’s business.” Some suppliers wanted to continue dealing with Frank out of habit. “You have to realize that you’re changing a lot of people’s futures by bringing a family member on board,” observes Burgess, “and you need to deal with their feelings.” He made no bones that Chabot was being groomed to run the company and discussed with other employees opportunities they may have in the new regime.

After Chabot became vice president, her father backed off as far as he could. He even physically avoided the office, so stubborn employees and outsiders would have to solve problems with his daughter. Chabot, in turn, worked to earn her position by taking trade-association printing courses to learn the business more quickly. Even so, some longtime employees quit, which ultimately turned into an advantage because Chabot was able to replace them with unbiased workers.

Communications between father and daughter were easy. Yet Burgess admits there were some adjustments, such as speaking informally to his top assistant. “There’s usually a certain deference toward the person who signs the paycheck, but Nancy and I talk at work like we always have,” Burgess explains. “I’ve never had an employee disagree with me by saying, ‘Dad, you’re out of your mind!’”

Today, their division of responsibility leaves Burgess in charge of new business development, while Chabot runs ongoing operations. Though Burgess has the final word on all company policies, Chabot makes most of the operational calls now.

A major benefit of a family business is the sharing of goals and the dedication to grow — a rare quality among outside employees, agree father and daughter. As Chabot’s younger sister, Samantha, considers joining the business, Burgess and Chabot ponder whether another sibling might be too much of a good thing.

“Having two daughters involved would totally change the dynamics. They’re both very independent. They’ll work together fantastically when they agree; when they don’t, they may kill each other,” Burgess chuckles.

Writer: John Duggleby