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  • Family Matters - Grown by Generations

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    When it comes to running a successful small business, are family ties a bond or a burden?
    Blood is thicker than water, but do the crimson ties of family make it easier or harder to bring in the green? We asked some long-standing, local family owned businesses how working with relations works.
    At Capitol’s Rosemont Gardens and CCC Associates, two separate but complementary companies owned by the same family, it works well. J. Lamar Thompson, president of Capitol’s Rosemont Gardens, highlighted the many advantages. “Working with family is really fun if you all get along, and we are blessed in that way,” he said. “We have all always worked well together.”
    Another plus is the ability to spread the emotional load: Shouldering setbacks and celebrating success together makes hard things easier and good times even sweeter. “We share difficulties and rewards, and this sharing concept is the greatest strength of our family owned businesses,” Thompson said.
    Warner Mathis at Southern Sash has seen multiple benefits come from working side-by-side with his brother, Peyton, the current president of the company, and also when the two worked under their father. “When you work with family, you know everyone has everyone’s back, and we have a shared vision,” he said. He also pointed to a shared mind-set. “We know that any decision any one of us is making is based on what we think is best for the company,” he said. And while that doesn’t always guarantee it’s the right decision, knowing the motivations were honorable softens any conflict. “Even if we end up being wrong, we know we had the right intention.”
    At Ross-Clayton Funeral Home, Montgomery’s oldest minority owned small business, four generations of family leadership over a century have allowed the business to build on a strong, stable foundation. “As we celebrate 100 years, we also celebrate our founders and family that came before us for providing leadership that fosters cohesive-ness,” said Sarah Ann Ross, a licensed funeral director and the company’s administrative liaison, who came to work with her husband, president David Ross, in 1998.
    She backed up Mathis on the “common goal” concept, touting that at Ross-Clayton, the family members are on the same page and each have a vested interest in working to promote the business. “We all know we share the same goal of providing exceptional service to our clients, and that’s a good feeling,” she said. “The fact that family is present to help carry the work, participate in problem solving and be a part of the team to serve the community is a great feeling.”
    But as Thompson points out, as a company adds more and more family members to the mix, keeping everyone on the same page can be a challenge; in his mind, it’s one of the biggest. “As you grow, and you have a large number of family involved, that brings on its own complexity,” he said. “You can face difficulty in determining what is best for each family member and in balancing personal interests with what is best for the business.” It’s a tightrope, but in the end, according to Thompson, you have to do what is best for the business. “In the long run, that usually ends up being what is best for all the family as well.”
    Mathis outlined another possible down-side to working with family: handling the transition between generations. “When my brother and I bought my dad out when it was time for him to retire, that was tough,” he said. “He did not want to relinquish his control.” Had it been a stranger the brothers had bought the company from, they’d have quickly told the previous owner to butt out. “You can’t do that to your dad,” Mathis said.
    Ross agreed with Mathis on the need to set clear boundaries, particularly between the old guard and the new. “Working every day with family, you have to keep in mind who is actually the boss,” she said. “With our adult children who work with us (who are licensed funeral directors themselves), there is the tendency to think that the old ways of doing business need change. They are often eager to try new or different ways of doing things.” Sometimes that’s good, but Ross stressed that sometimes tried and true is best.
    While these three local companies have faced an impressive few conflicts among their family members, other family owned businesses are not so fortunate. Mathis mentioned an instance where a brother and sister got along so badly, one finally had to sell out of the company. He offered some straightforward advice. “My brother and I work closely together,” he said. “So if you can’t stand your sibling, don’t try to work with them.”
    For him and his brother, constant com­munication has been key, and he echoed Thompson on an important point. “Ev­eryone involved has to pay attention to what’s best for the company, which may not always be what is best for you, at least at the moment,” he said. “But long term, what is good for the business is good for you.”
    Ross offered her tips for keeping family business functional and friendly. “Not unlike any other business, you have to respect the leaders, and who is in what role should be clearly defined,” she said.
    Thompson advises playing up one of the most positive points of working with family: a good understanding of personalities and who is good at what. “We are fortunate in that our business is diversified, and as a result, we are able to give our family mem­bers opportunities that fit their strengths and not step on each others’ toes,” he said. “The more you can do that, the fewer prob­lems you’ll have. And determining clear leadership roles, whether it’s with family members or not, in the end will make or break any business.”  
    Small businesses make up a key segment of our area’s business community. Family owned small businesses are a smaller piece of that pie, but still important, and these stats show some interesting trends coming and some tricky challenges facing this sector.
    • 26% of the “next gen” have trouble getting the current generation to give their ideas attention.
    • 43%of family businesses do not have a succession plan in place.
    • 7% of the next generation of family owned small businesses believe their business has the right strategy for the digital age.
    Sources: Price Waterhouse Coopers “Next Gen” 2017 Study, Price Waterhouse Coopers
    Year Founded - 1949
    Family Members Employed – 2 (Peyton and Warner Mathis’ father bought it in 1962.)
    Primary Services - Windows, doors and other general building materials for both residential and commercial projects.
    #moneyquote - “If you can’t stand your sibling, don’t try to work with them.” Warner Mathis

    Year Founded - 1918
    Family Members Employed – 7
    Primary Services - Funeral direction, embalming and all related services.
    #moneyquote - “We [family members] all know we share the same goal of providing exceptional service. That’s a good feeling.” Sarah Ann Ross
    Year Founded – 1950 (CCC Associates founded in 1960. The companies are in the process of transitioning from the second to the third generation of family leadership.)
    Family Members Employed – 7
    Primary Services - Capitol’s Rosemont Gardens, fresh flower arrangements, décor and gifts; CCC Associates (includes Caffco, Southern Homes & Gardens and more), silk florals, home and garden decor, nursery/landscaping products.
    #moneyquote - “We share difficulties and rewards, and this sharing concept is the greatest strength of our family owned businesses.” J. Lamar Thompson
    Small businesses are the engines that drive our economy, and technology is heavily influencing the way small businesses start, grow and succeed. It’s also creating a new category of small business: IT and tech-fo­cused startups that aren’t just built on innovation, they’re empowering it. To draw these small businesses to our area and see them flourish, there is one essential ingredient: a skilled workforce.
    According to Renee Borg, Technical Mar­keting Specialist at RSA Dexter Datacenter, who heads the Board of Advisors of the Alabama Technology Foun­dation (ATF), we’re not where we need to be yet, but we are on our way, and the foundation is playing a crucial role. “Montgomery is becoming a tech hub, and the city wants to expand that, but you can have all the right infrastructure to get the tech startups here, and without the right workforce, the skilled IT folks, it just won’t grow like we want,” she said.
    The ATF is working to create a workforce pipeline for existing and new businesses in the IT sector, and it’s doing it by connecting needs and resources, as Borg explained. “We don’t have a ‘brain drain’ issue; I believe we have a connectivity issue. The talent is out there, but there’s no good way to find it,” she said. “So we’re creating a da­tabase where companies can find and pull students from all over the state,” she said.
    The ATF recently launched its new website that allows students studying IT topics and hoping for a career in IT to upload their resume, transcripts, certifications and recommendations into a data­base. Then, businesses – from large, established companies to tech startups – can access and search the database. They can search different curriculums and areas of IT, from project management and cyber security to data storage and mobile apps. “These students are our future IT professionals,” Borg said. “So we are connecting the employers with potential employees.”
    The project is still in its beginning stages, and the ATF is partner­ing with businesses and other organizations like Maxwell-Gunt­er AFB’s Air University to push it forward. ATF is also working with career counselors at colleges all over Alabama to encourage their students to put their information in the database. The database also allows students to note if they are looking for internships or fulltime employment, and Borg stressed the importance of internships in IT. “We know that to develop Montgomery and all of Alabama, we have to build on technology, and that is not just up to our schools,” she said. “It is up to our tech-focused business­es too. That’s why internships are so important; these compa­nies can mold students into the specific talent they need.”
    One positive on MGM’s tech landscape is the community of sup­port that has formed, according to William Woodhouse, president and CEO of eSolution Architects, Inc., which started in 2005. The 40-employee company provides software development, network services and website development and hosting, mostly for the Air Force community at Maxwell AFB and Gunter Annex.
    While Woodhouse has had issues finding enough skilled per­sonnel, he hopes that it is in the process of changing, and he noted the positive environment in Montgomery for small busi­nesses of all kinds. “We have a good small business climate and atmosphere from civic leadership and the Chamber,” he said. “You see small businesses being support­ive of each other.”
    He’s doing his part in that, taking the time to share his experience and expertise with new tech businesses. “We’ve been in the business long enough to have made the mis­takes, so we can show others how to avoid them. We try to do as much as we can to help new tech companies thrive here.”
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