Family and owner managed businesses – the unique challenges discussed at our round table with Crowe

Guests at our family business round table at Piccolino, with Crowe

There’s something special and different about family owned businesses.

But in bringing together business leaders from notable family firms in the region there’s also a paradox.

How they deal with challenges, conflicts and thorny succession issues is often conducted in the safe confines of the family.

In partnership with leading business advisory group Crowe, we sought to create a safe space in which we could allow family leaders to share their thoughts on a wide range of topics common to many family businesses, including embracing generational dynamics, succession, and leadership challenges.

What transpired was fascinating, lively, but also conducted in an atmosphere of psychological safety.

It brought together leaders of businesses from a variety of family-owned construction, manufacturing, retailing and engineering businesses to discuss business growth, challenges, and strategies.

Charmaine O’Connor, CEO of PP O’Connor, shared her story of joining the family business 21 years ago, after completing a part-time degree in quantity surveying. PP O’Connor does demolition, earthworks, remediation, civil engineering and infrastructure projects and under Charmaine’s leadership, the business has grown from a £2 million turnover to an expected £78-£80 million this year. Charmaine credits the success to the unique strengths each family member brings, emphasising the importance of playing to those strengths within a family business.

Next, Jason McKnight from RECOM Solutions discussed the growth of the construction consultancy, contracting and project management business he co-founded with his university friend in 2015. RECOM solutions works with public sector clients such as universities and the NHS on master planning, long term maintenance strategies and distressed construction projects. Jason noted that COVID has helped their business focus on recession-proof public sector clients.

Declan McGoff then provided an overview of the McGoff group, which includes construction, elderly care, children’s nurseries and off-site construction divisions. Declan sits on the board with his two brothers, as the care business has now surpassed construction in size at 60% of the group’s £20-30 million turnover. Declan described how he gained experience in infrastructure management before joining the family construction business and discussed how his father encouraged gaining experience elsewhere first.

Nick Bianci, brand director at the iconic Macclesfield headquartered furniture retailer Arigi Bianci, then shared how the story of how his family business is celebrating its 170th anniversary this year.

Currently run by the fourth generation, multilingual Nick described how he too pursued other interests before joining the business, including working as an interpreter in various countries and for international footballers.

He emphasised the importance of bringing in strategic non-family partnerships to collaborate with family members.

Rebecca Durrant, described how she helps directors and shareholders of family businesses to concentrate on what is important to the business in order to ensure “the value and income extraction is working well for the owners.”

She highlighted that in advising family businesses, it’s important to remember that they are unique and that “understand that dynamic kind of board level family level that helps that business run.”

She said her role is “predominantly to look after the directors and shareholders of the business, make sure the business is working well for the owners.”

Drawing from her experience advising family enterprises, Rebecca Durrant also spoke about balancing financial comfort for family members with effective business ownership. She noted tensions can arise regarding “how do we do that more efficiently as we can and then planning for the next generation.”

The discussion then shifted to examining family business dynamics and how speakers pursued careers outside their family enterprises before joining the businesses. Charmaine O’Connor discussed the importance of talent through apprenticeships and her different industry roles before joining the business she now leads alongside her brothers and her mother – or Mrs O as she is known in the business.

Jane Stuart, director of strategic partnerships at Stuart Energy, discussed her recent move into the family-run power generation business after 17 years in a business role in higher education. She said she is excited to work with her brothers to scale the business further and bring her experience of working with academic research partners to develop new products and services.

Similarly, Jen Fenner, managing director of Danny Pop Engineering, provided insight into starting an innovation business with her husband Patrick. Jen transitioned from her textile design background, co-founding the small business which now has six staff. Through government-funded projects, the business helps clients develop new technologies and experiences.

Declan McGoff and Jen Fenner described how they both gained external experience in infrastructure and engineering respectively, which they were able to bring into their current businesses.

They all said they were well aware of the challenges of nepotism, attracting talent, and managing family-employee relationships.

Charmaine and Declan advocated open communication and playing to everyone’s strengths in the business.

Jen Fenner highlighted the clear boundaries between personal and professional roles running a business with her husband. Nick Bianci credited a non-family board member with essential professionalism. Succession planning and next generations’ roles also emerged as important future considerations.

Typically, too, with how family businesses operate, much of the soul searching had to remain within the room.

Thanks to Piccolino for providing the space and the breakfast.