Diana: [00:02] This is Diana Schad CEO of the Family Business Alliance of West Michigan. I am joined today by Ira Bryck, president of the Family Business Center in Pioneer Valley in Amerce Massachusetts. Today we will be discussing the unique nature of family owned businesses. Ira thank you for joining us.
Ira: [00:17] Nice to be here, and I’m glad to be in West Michigan. I live in Western Mass and us Westerners need to stick together.
Diana: [00:24] [Laughs] Good! Well let’s start off a little bit with your background because you have kind of an interesting history with family business. How did you become involved in family businesses?
Ira: [00:33] I was born into it. Both of my parents grew up in family businesses. My mother’s father had a wholesale bedding and bath business on the lower east side of Manhattan, which was a lot of Jewish wholesale. I just had a conversation with the people, the family, who own the location now, it’s been sort of engulfed by China town so now it’s a really nice fish store.
My father grew up above his family’s general store. They were the only store in town, Springfield Gardens Queens, it’s right by Kennedy airport, [they were] the only Jewish family. My grandfather didn’t speak any English. He spoke German, Austrian, and Yiddish and managed to run a business in a town with no other Jews, certainly no other Yiddish speakers. My father was one of the five children, I’ve heard it said that a family business is the last bastion of pure communism. My grandfather would say to his five children, “If you need anything there’s the cash register, and if I need you, get your ass downstairs!”.
Diana: [01:36] How old were you when you started working in the family business?
Ira: [01:39] My earliest memories were before my father went to work for my mother’s father, he was miserable there. He got in with a cousin in the store that I worked in for many years. I would do little tasks there like sweeping and straightening things out. Even before, when my father would just visit the cousin, I would like to work in the business. He bought it when I was 8, and I just started working Saturdays and holidays. My sisters would come in also; my sisters were both really intelligent people, but it was clear to my father that if one of the three kids were going to come in it would be me. My sister, my oldest, would start a coffee klatch with the salespeople encouraging shoplifting, and my youngest sister, who is an artist, would do little sketches of everybody in the store.
My father would say “Make some boxes”, and I would make hundreds of boxes and straighten the hangers. We had wire hangers, thousands of them in the basement that needed to be straightened out. I was so happy when in cub scouts they said, “We need metal to sell for charity” and I just took all the hangers from the basement and gave them to the cub scouts, so I got rid of that job! My father would always say to me growing up, “If all else fails there is always the family business.”, which I took to mean, if you’re a failure you can work here one day. So, even when I had got a taste for it I had mixed feelings about being there, what does this say about me that I chose to do this? I was very young, my earliest memories.
Diana: [03:09] Well, what about that background led you to make this your career? You’re not with your family’s business anymore but you’re actually consulting and education people on how to run a family business now.
Ira: [03:18] I got out of college and I was a school teacher, I ran a K-6 hippie, free school in Buffalo. After a year we closed that school because the city of Buffalo opened a publicly funded open classroom and there was a parent collective. We all decided to just put all the kids in there, and I went back to work in the family business for a summer while I figured out what I was going to do next. That lasted almost 20 years. I worked in that business and after a while I was sort of tired of living on Long Island, there’s a lot of stories there, I won’t eat up the podcast, but I always wanted to move to Western Massachusetts. I had friends there from high school.
When I got up there I was going to open a children’s clothing store, that was hipper, that didn’t have my parents, even though, looking back, I did pretty well working with my parents compared to many. When I decided to not open the store up north there was an ad in the paper that basically said that the University of Massachusetts was opening a family business center, this was just at the beginning of the movement of university-based family business centers. So I said, “Well I’ll work there for a year while I look for a job”, and that was 24 years ago.
Diana: [04:36] Sort of fell into it! [Laughs]
So, one of the things that I really liked about your website was some of your creative, innovative ways of educating people about family businesses. You’ve done plays, you’ve done an advice column, you have a radio show; could you please tell our audience a little bit about those and how you came up with the idea to do those?
Ira: [04:55] I did write a play in 6th grade; it was kind of an off color version of Gilligan’s Island that for some reason the principle thought should be performed for the entire school. I didn’t think it should be seen outside of my close circle of friends! [Laughs]
When I first got this job, I went to a conference at Family Firm Institute, it’s a global organization, and they put on a play that was so terrible. They hired actors to play parts where they really didn’t know what they were doing and who they were portraying. So I turned to the guy right next to me and said “We can do that much better”. And so, we created a play that was three Thanksgiving dinners over three generations. I hired a troop of people that did this thing called playback theater, which is like psychodrama, to play it. Part of that play was that the audience would actually get to pick the successor, again, many stories there. I wrote three plays that have been performed 100 times. The one that was about me and my father working together was actually just done in Catalan, right outside of Barcelona. That was a lot of fun to watch.
I just started doing cartoons. I don’t draw very well, but I hired my sister to illustrate my ideas, but she got tired of it, so I just found a guy online to do it. I like to mix it up, so I just had something for our members called PechaKucha night. I hired someone to train ten different people to give a presentation where the slide in the PowerPoint presentation advances every twenty seconds and they need to keep up with it. They did beautifully!
There’s the way that you teach children then there’s adult learning. What I discovered, this is just my experience, is they’re exactly the same. Busy adults are up from 4:30/5:00 in the morning, work a long day, and then they come to my dinner forum. If it’s not fun, if they can’t touch it (they’re what is called “kinesthetic learners”, they need to walk around and touch it), they’re not going to get anything out of it. Plus, I encourage a lot of peer to peer learning. Somebody in construction talks to somebody in distribution, talks to somebody in hospitality, and its sort of thinking outside the box. I always say to them, and I think it’s true, “Everybody brags that they think outside the box, but the best you can really do is talk to somebody outside of your box.” And so, I just try to make it fun. Edu-tainment.
Diana: [07:30] Great, great! I enjoyed reading your advice column, and some of the issues that came up. Are there issues that you think are unique to family businesses that you deal with that kind of take a special knowledge in order to be able to understand?
Ira: [07:46] Definitely! What one person said to me, who used to be a family business advisor, was “No two snowflakes are alike”. Though, actually now they can make identical snowflakes in a laboratory. But you can still talk about snowflakes, and no two family businesses are alike, but you can still have themes. I have never seen two family businesses with exactly the same problem.
“All happy families are alike, and every unhappy family is unhappy in their own way.” It’s important for me as a consultant to go and say “Okay, well here is the sister of the guy who runs the company who doesn’t do anything, but she benefits from the stock ownership. She reminds me of that other one”. Well that bad, I need to get that out of my head. Every single company is different.
In the advice column, the theme that keeps coming up, is “My husband works for his father and the father made promises that he is not keeping. How do we hold the father to his promises?”. That seems to be over half of the questions in these hundreds of questions and answers! It’s a really big one. The other one is feeling that ‘we are a family, but we really need to professionalize. We really need to create a system that we can follow, we need to kind of treat this like a business much more than we do and take advantage of the family-ness, the trust that we have for each other’. Actually, the term family-ness, which is a real term in family business, high family-ness is a good thing. This means a family is able to treat their business like a business and keep their family stuff out of it. It’s a little opposite of the definition you would think.
Diana: [09:38] How can a family do that? Because sometimes you’ve got the patriarch, you’ve got the kids… how do you treat a family business like a business and how do you set it up for success?
Ira: [09:51] One good way to convince yourself that that is worth doing is by looking at the research. There’s a major study last year that came out from Ernst & Young that said that the more a family business is family first, in other words, “this child needs a job so we’ll hire them”, “this person needs a house, so we will pay them enough that they can afford a house”, those people that put family above business fail at a much greater rate than the ones that just say “this is the salary for your responsibilities and what you bring to the bottom line. This is not a safety net, this is a meritocracy”. Those families have much less conflict, they have much less quitting because they want to avoid difficult topics. If you want to be like the best, act like the best.
Diana: [10:39] What are some tools that families can use to make themselves more business-like and more organized in their running of the company?
Ira: [10:49] It’s good to get outside eyes on it. There are family business centers all over the world, there’s 50 around the country, there’s one right here, we are sitting in the office of it. Something like that is really good. You can look around the room and say, “that person that’s doing that seems to be thriving a lot more than that person that’s doing that”, that’s a really good one. But the other one is, if you’re near a major university, talk to some MBA professors and see if they could send an intern team in. I’m responsible for introducing [this program], even though my program is no longer at the university, it’s a nonprofit now, I matched up the MBA students with the company’s that they are going to go and have internships for. It’s great for the company, to bring in young people that may or not be heading back to their family business, to go look at the problems in that company and make suggestions. Even my advice column is called “Fresh Air and Cold Water for the Perplexed Family Business”, you need fresh air and cold water.
Diana: [11:46] Are there any books or online resources that you recommend that people go to if they are struggling and trying to figure things out?
Ira: [11:52] There’s a ton of books. One that you can still buy on Google used, I think it’s out of print, it’s called “Working with the Ones You Love” by Dennis Jaffe, I think it’s very good. On the family front, anything by Ivan Lansberg from the Harvard University Press, he used to teach at Yale, now he is retired. If you call me at the Family Business Center at Pioneer Valley I can talk to you and recommend a book that is good for you. There’s Family Business Magazine, which is very nice.
Diana: [12:25] Wonderful! Well, before we close, are there any other things that you would like the listeners to know about you or about your business?
Ira: [12:33] I would like to say something about family businesses as a closer. I just think it is so fascinating, I have been doing this for 24 years, plus 20 years in my business, plus a lifetime of watching TV shows about family business, from Dallas to Six Feet Under. I just saw this new one coming up called Successor, which I think is about a certain famous family. It’s Shakespeare in the making! Every family business is the height of drama, it really is the best you can do if your family functions well. I would just recommend seeing if you have the talent, passion, and ability to make money, your family business may be the most comfortable situation that you can get into. By comfortable, I don’t mean easy street. I mean satisfying and meaningful, the things that people are really looking for from their work.
Diana: [13:30] Wonderful, well thank you so much for joining us, it has been a pleasure talking with you!
Ira: [13:33] Nice to be here.