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Secrets to running a successful family business

By Linda Segall    

You know the saying: “Stuff happens.” And “stuff” does happen, especially when you own and operate a family-runlegrandphoto--8062 business. That “stuff” can range from the death of a family partner to an irreconcilable relationship problem between managing owners. When these things happen—whose cause is generally a lack of planning and poor communications— too often the fatal consequence is the business itself.

Despite the possibility of “stuff” happening, family businesses comprise the backbone of American businesses, with an estimated 80% to 90% of all small businesses falling into that classification. And many of them are highly successful.

Advantage: The Resource for Small Business talked with the owners of three successful family businesses operating in Jacksonville:

• Selby Kaiser and Linda McMorrow, owners of The Legends of Real Estate (, 8777 San Jose Blvd., Suite 903.

• Rebecca and Carlton Walden, First Coast Signs (, 3728 Philips Highway, Suite 37. First

Rebecca and Carlton Walden

Rebecca and Carlton Walden

 Coast Signs designs, manufactures, installs, and supports custom signs including large format digital prints, interior and exterior signs, vehicle  graphics (wraps and lettering) , and LED signs.

AlphaGraphics.small• Tracey and Mark Hebert, AlphaGraphics (, 7999 Philips Highway, Suite 309. AlphaGraphics provides design and printing services to businesses and individuals.

We explored with these owners their secrets to running a family-owned business.

How did you decide to go into business together?

Selby: Because we are identical twins, Linda and I have always been close, and we have always shared common interests. As children in a military family, we moved around the country frequently, and although we both swore we wouldn’t marry a military man, each of us ended up marrying a West Point graduate and later settling in Jacksonville.

Our careers were also somewhat parallel. I was into branch office management, while Linda had developed a brand of her own as an sales agent for a large real estate company in Jacksonville. When our parents’ health demanded more of our time, Linda invited me to join her in sales, which I did for eight years, and in 2006 we decided to open our own real estate office, The Legends of Real Estate.

Our vision initially was to operate a small company, with only us and an administrative assistant. I didn’t go out and recruit associates, but our friends and colleagues wnted to join our way of doing business, and today we have two offices and 35 agents working for us.

Rebecca: We looked for an opportunity to go into business for ourselves. In my past life, I was president and CEO of two community banks in Michigan. I relocated to Jacksonville to be an SBA lender with CIT Small Business Lending. Unfortunately, the economy fell apart, and I had to make decisions about what to do with my life.

Carlton was working in the golf industry and is a PGA  professional. He and I had been together for a couple of years. We decided to get married and to make a lifestyle adjustment that would also allow a flexible schedule to accommodate family situations. We investigated the opportunity of opening our sign company  and got married at the same time.

Tracey: Mark and I were married in June 2008. His job at the time kept him on the road virtually full time, something that we did not want. Working with an entrepreneur coach, we started to do due diligence on several different franchise opportunities, including AlphaGraphics. Mark was familiar with the AlphaGraphics name, since he lived in Utah, where the company is headquartered. We decided to go out to Utah for the company’s “Discovery Day,” which is actually a mutual screening process: We met the AlphaGraphics people, and they met us. Six potential owners participated in Discovery Day class with us.” To our knowledge we are the only ones that completed the process to become owners. We took over our store in December 2008.

How do you divide up your responsibilities?

Rebecca: We intuitively do things we are strong in. Carlton is in charge of inventory—ordering it, making sure it comes in, making sure we get credit for it. He also does purchasing, which is good, because I hate to shop! He does all the banking and facilities. We both are responsible for business development. I do a lot of marketing and take care of the administrative work and working with customers.

Linda: We do essentially what Rebecca and Carlton do—cater to our strengths. Selby was in management for 10 years; she is very skilled at doing the brokerage side of the business. I can do it when she’s not available, but my strength is in sales and working with our clients and customers. Selby is one minute older than me, and I think it shows in her personality! She’s always been the stronger personality. She’s very good with public speaking. She can talk in front of 5,000 people without blinking an eye, whereas I would be quaking in my boots and reading off note cards.

Selby: And if something needs more attention than the other person who usually does it can give, we just jump in and do it together.

Mark: After we decided to purchase the AlphaGraphics franchise, we went through three weeks of training in Utah. One of the things they put us through was to look at our strengths and to divide our duties accordingly. They helped us identify who should do what. We’ve had to trade some of those around, but it has worked out well for us.  

Tracey: My role is to bring sales in and develop relationships with outside customers. Because we are a business-to-business company, our goal is to become a business partner. I also have an accounting background, so I do the bookkeeping, payroll, and marketing.

Mark: My role is in production management. Tracey may get the initial business, but I do the actual quotes. At first she did ordering; it seemed to fall into the realm of accounting. But then we realized that ordering supplies was part of production, so I took on that role.

What kind of business agreement do you have?

Tracey: We have a mutual respect and trust for each other. That said, Mark came up with the idea to make me 51% owner, in order to have a woman-owned business. He owns the other 49% in the company.

Rebecca: Carlton and I got married at the same time we opened our business. We went into this 100%. We do have a pre-nuptial agreement, but we would have had that even if we hadn’t gone into business.

Selby: We have written agreements with all of our agents, but Linda and I have never seen a need to formalize our business arrangement with an agreement. If we were to dissolve the business, we would figure it out. If someone wanted to buy us out, we would split it down the middle. That’s the way we’ve always done it, including buying our building.

How do you handle conflicts?

Carlton: My mother always said, ‘”Think before you speak.” If I have a conflict with Rebecca, I try to sit on it for a while, because I know she is busy and I don’t want to interrupt her strong thought processes. I let her stay in the moment.

Rebecca: I tell Carlton, “Tell me before I go onto the next thing.”

Selby: Because we’ve been together so long, we really don’t have a lot of conflicts.

Linda: A few years ago, though, we were approached by a developer and asked to handle a high-rise condo downtown. Selby knew the players better than I did, and she was excited about it. I had some reservations. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it didn’t feel right. It took me a few weeks to work through my feelings, and during that time, I didn’t share them with Selby. Then it finally hit me: This was not the time to do this project because we would be abandoning relationships we had built over many years.. That evening, we got our husbands together and we talked it over. We finally agreed it was not the time.

It was a good decision. Within a month or two, we finalized opening our own business. And interestingly, that other project has been put on the shelf. So, the short-answer is this: When we have a difference of opinion, we just talk about it. We trust each other and love each other enough that we want to hear what each has to say, even if it is different.

Mark: We’ve had a couple of conflicts and differences of opinion. Generally, what we end up doing is going back to what we want to accomplish in 10 years. We ask, “What resolution will get us closer to that goal in the long run?” That approach has worked very well for us. It’s not always easy, because sometimes conflicts are emotional. But we try to separate the emotion from the conflict, focus on where we want to be and which solution will get us there. It seem to work pretty well.

What are the secrets to your family-business success?

Tracey: I think mutual respect and appreciation of our employees’ strengths  is our secret.

Mark: Knowing your limitations and trusting the strengths of your spouse. That’s important.

Selby: I don’t think running a successful family business is different from running any other business. We treat associates and employees like family. We buy locally to support other small businesses. And we show that we value our customers. We don’t even use voice mail; we answer all calls ourselves, no matter what time it is.

Rebecca: I think the real secret is this: Remember everything you hated about big business and don’t do it.

Linda Segall is editor of Advantage: The Resource for Small Business. She can be reached at


How to avoid common family-business failures

Experts agree: The most common causes of failure in family-owned businesses can be boiled down to two: a failure to plan and inadequate or inappropriate communication.

Planning—or more precisely, a failure to plan—affects cash flow, your estate, management succession, transfer of ownership, and business practices.

Communication problems course throughout all of the planning areas, but also include managing the business, resolving conflicts, and maintaining a positive workforce.Both planning and communication issues can be addressed in a well crafted business agreement.


Paul Arrington

Paul Arrington

Paul Arrington

, certified business analyst and director of micro enterprise development at the University of North Florida’s Small Business Development Center, identified several other problem areas inherent to family businesses:

• What’s really in charge? “In some family owned businesses, a parent may be the president, while other family members actually manage the business,” he said. In others, one family member may have the title of president, but ultimate decision making is deferred to the “elder stateman.” To avoid confusion in decision making, Arrington suggests clearly establishing the lines of authoring. Also, consider establishing an advisory status for founders who have transferred management to others.

• Equity or loan? Money creates problems, especially if transactions are informal, said Arrington. Anyone who makes a transaction should know—in writing—if it is a loan or an investment in the business.

• Tunnel vision. If you only involve family members in the business, you can get tunnel vision concerning where the business should go and how to get there. Get business counseling or coaching  and join a peer-to-peer roundtable, said Arrington. And, as your business grows, hire out talent to bring in new ideas.

• Hiring cousin Joe. “An underqualified or unmotivated relative employed in the business creates morale problems with other employees and reduces productivity,” said Arrington. If you hire relatives, put them in positions where their talents can best be cultivated, and pay them commensurate with similar positions in the area. And, be prepared for the difficult task of discipline if the relative does not work out.

• Death, divorce, and disease. “These three D’s can impact the ownership or operation of the business significantly,” said Arrington. Periodically conduct retreats so the family can discuss the business, contingency planning, and problems. Consider asking an impartial facilitator to lead these retreats.


Know your strengths and weaknesses

To plan for success, the Family Business Institute ( recommends doing a complete assessment to identify your business and family strengths and weaknesses, establish priorities, and work on your business, rather than in your business.

Here are some of the questions the Institute recommends every family business owner should consider:

• Are family members compensation fairly and adequately?

• Do you use a proven method to resolve conflicts?

• Is the future ownership of your family company clearly defined? If not, why not?

• What do you want to get out of the business?

• What provisions have you made to exit your business with financial security?

• Have your wills and associated trust documents been updated in the past three years?

• If there is more than one shareholder in your family business, do you have a binding buy-sell agreement?

• Do you have and use a formal or informal board of advisors or board of directors? If not, why not?

• Do you meet regularly to discuss your strategic plans as well as operational plans?

• Do you have written job descriptions for everyone, including family members?

The Family Business Institute recommends taking action on the one or two items you consider are most important to the success of your business. A complete assessment of 80 questions is available at

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