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Pitfalls and Profits of Working with Family, Friends

Like any other industry, commercial integration has its share of spouse-, family- and friend-run businesses. So what’s the secret to this marriage of work and personal life?

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“A family business combines the most rational human institution — a business — with the most irrational human institution — the family.”

This anonymous quote hangs framed in the hallway outside the offices of integrator Sport View Technologies (SVT) in Brighton, Mich., where company president Josh Shanahan works alongside his father, Michael, and uncle, Tim.

The Shanahans are far from the only family business in the industry. Many integration firms are small and family run. It’s not uncommon to see spouses, parents, or siblings together in a meeting, on an installation site, or at a conference.

At the NSCA Business and Leadership Conference in February, four pairs of business partners found themselves seated together at a table. Coincidentally, each duo also happened to be married. They talked for a while about the experience of working with family, the delicacy and intricacy of their lives, and how it’s not for everyone.

But there are certainly those that make it work, and do it well (just look at last month’s CI cover profile of IMS Technology Services, run by husband and wife team John and Jill Renninger). We spoke to five unique family companies that, after years in the business of working as both colleagues and family, have some great advice to give.

No Car Has Two Drivers

Michael Hester is managing partner of Beacon Communications. His wife, Kiffie, describes her position as partner and catalyst, meaning that she introduces her sales team to potential costumers and starts the sales process, enabling her team and beginning the interaction.

Kiffie joined the Denver-based systems integration firm, which her husband started, 13 years ago, only three years after its foundation in 1998. The timing happened to be a mere months before the shootings at Columbine High School. Suddenly, campus security and integration business went through the roof, and Beacon was at the forefront of the industry growth.

Today, Michael and Kiffie Hester, along with more than 50 Beacon Beacon employees bring integrated systems to schools and healthcare environments. But the two have very different jobs.

“There are days we don’t see each other at work at all, days we see each other a little bit; sometimes we are in the same meetings,” Kiffie explains. Her day consists of assisting salespeople, arranging meet-and-greets, creating sales proposals, and doing internal and external “report cards” for the company. Michael spends his day working with managers and making the rounds to keep employees involved and engaged.

“He runs the company,” Kiffie says, explaining what she calls the first rule in family business. “He has vision and guides the business. I have my team, and I offer advice and input. No car has two drivers.”

Aaron and Jay McArdle also appreciate the benefits of having two very different jobs in the same company. Brothers and colleagues at Normal, Ill.-based Zdi, the two work together to bring video conferencing and audio visual integration to education facilities, houses of worship, and financial, medical and government institutions. Aaron started a business installing cabling and security systems, hiring his AV-savvy brother right out of college. Jay’s vision and aptitude took the business to new heights, and today Zdi’s revenue is 85 percent AV.

Aaron is CEO and owner; Jay is vice president and CIO. Jay is often on the road, and the two might have days or weeks when they don’t see one another in the office. But they talk business a lot — they even picked company vehicles based on how the phones worked inside. While Aaron is focusing on strategic development and business planning, Jay maintains the technical integrity and vision of the business. Aaron knows wiring construction, and Jay knows AV and IT engineering. They collaborate, but they assume two very different roles.

“Even our personalities are polar opposites,” Jay admits. “A sales coach once told us that if we weren’t brothers we would kill each other.” Good thing the McArdles figured this golden rule of family business out now, because their younger brother Philip recently joined the team as well.