Keeping it in the family – wisdom across the generations at our family business round table with Crowe

There was plenty of insight and experience to share at our recent breakfast round table with the business advisers Crowe. Held at Piccolino in Manchester, the attendees came from different backgrounds and sectors, but all recognised how tough trading has become over the last couple of years.

Nicola Hodkinson, a family board director and operational leader at Seddon Construction talked through the factors that have driven inflation – energy prices, war and Liz Truss.

“All of those things have a ripple effect to every single business regardless, nobody’s immune from it.”

In housebuilding and construction that’s tough because quoting for a job has to build in inflation and the costs have to be passed on, she said.

It’s also allowed the business to make important strategic decisions, which as a family owned business they’re able to do quickly.

“We pulled away from doing a lot of big shiny ego project work,” she said, mainly because of the tighter margins.

Mary Harding from Tangerine had some fascinating experiences to relay having been part of an Employee Ownership Trust which succeeded the sole ownership of founder Sandy Lindsay. Not a family business as such, but it feels like one in many ways, especially when it comes to decision making.

Like Nicola Hodkinson at Seddon, her big take in the last year has been the need to be agile.  “Every brand needs to continue to build their brand reputation. So we are a lot more agile, and react a lot quicker,” Harding said.

“The level of expectation from our employees have changed considerably as well and continuing to change,” she added.

William Lees-Jones, managing director of JW Lees brewery had his son Louis with him, the seventh generation member of the family to work in the business, and who is learning the trade working in the pub estate.

As a leader in a business he has to recognise the particular challenges. “For the last three years, everybody has been in crisis management mode. And that’s a problem because it’s burning everybody out,” he said.

For his son Louis, the difference from the other businesses he’s worked in is a sense of “very collective mindset” as he described it. “Someone who’s in the sales team isn’t going to try and stitch up a pub that’s down the road and part of a community.”

Jason McKnight from Recom agreed with Nicola Hodkinson that the pressure from customers not making a decision was a real test of character, while Declan McGoff, also from a family owned construction industry business, he’s been putting a greater onus on partnerships and risk spreading.

And as Nicola Hodkinson observed, a decision that a family owned business can make quickly.

Christy Foster of Online4Baby outlined how well her business selling baby products had done well coming out of Covid, but driving margins and keeping on top of the ambitions of her team and constantly offering something different has been a key factor for her.

“We all started off as two sisters, with our husbands. But I think as you grow, people want to learn at different levels. I still think there’s learning levels and we want to carry on that same journey. And the key to understanding how to go through that path is keeping that dynamic strong. And we’ve managed to do that, but it has been very difficult. We’ve also got to respect each other at different levels.”

Jonathan Kane of Kane International agreed and gave the impression the thrill of the fight was what keeps him going: “People always say can we have certainty? I think the whole point of our business is that you never know. What you might get is some common sense, or your ability to apply your own common sense to the picture. You just have to have a clear proposition that customers can relate to.“

David Clarkson from the Family Business Community organisation said he’s a great believer in keeping things simple, a piece of wisdom he recently took from a book called Obvious Adams: The Story of a Successful Business Man, originally published in 1916, and a classic story set against the field of advertising and the journey to business success.

One of the guests also had his own book to promote, Jonathan Guy from Aqueous has written Search Never Sleeps, as he operates in the ever changing world of digital marketing. The common theme: relentless change and a need to pivot.

Rebecca Durrant from Crowe deals with lots of family businesses and often walks in their shoes as their trusted adviser, she agreed with the sentiment about getting decisions made swiftly in a family environment. “It can be much easier in a family business where you can sit and make a decision at the kitchen table rather than having to go through layers of management,” she said.

The discussion also touched on the changes to inheritance tax from a possible future Labour government. Sue Howarth from the Family Business Community reported that a door that was once closed, now appears open.

Maybe one to expand upon in a future gathering?