The Secret To Running A Family Business

By Mark Waldman

I walk into a room, any room, and immediately look down. No, I’m not shy or afraid to engage in conversation. There’s a reason why my eyes travel south. It’s the power of shoes.

That may sound odd, but I grew up in a family who made their livelihood from footwear. Together my grandfather and my parents founded their shoe company in 1951. Today my brother, sister, and I run our business along with my nephew. Shoes are literally part of our bloodline. Four generations of owning and operating a family shoe company have made me who I am today: a true footwear fanatic.

If this were a game show like Name That Tune, then with just a glimpse I could name a shoe’s specific brand, size, and year it was manufactured in 15 seconds or less. I could even spot if the shoe fit the person wearing it correctly or if a blister would surely make an appearance later in the evening. Extreme, maybe, but it’s all part of the passion I feel when I see fine footwear.

How to run a family business: break bread and barriers

Families who work and play together are an interesting bunch. Our meals can start with a salad and evolve into a business brainstorming session. While sometimes we agree to disagree, overall we share a common mission to maintain—and grow—what our family began seven decades ago. Here’s how we accomplish this goal:

1. Know your brand

My family has never deviated from our brand promise to put customer service on a pedestal alongside quality products. We know who we are, and so do our customers. Our products and personalized service translate into loyal, satisfied customers who spread the word about their overall positive experience.

2. Tell your story

Communicate your journey—both internally (with staff) and externally (with customers and vendors)—and what you represent across all avenues. Speak, and speak often, with your staff via email, meetings, texts, and in-person exchanges. Connect often with your customers and vendors through newsletters, social media, emails, and one-on-one interactions. The more touches you make, the more engagement you cultivate in order to tell your tale about why you are who you are.

3. Share your vision and values

One partner wants to practically give away the store with contests and donations; another tries to expand the company’s national reach beyond a sales manager’s comfort level. How do you handle these contrasting views? Go back to the basics of the business and what vision it was founded upon. If philanthropy has remained in the company’s forefront, then compromise with these efforts so all managing parties are pleased.

Remain true to the company’s original vision and values so that, when judgement calls are needed, the team will be more accepting of the outcome. Give and take in this department is trickier and ultimately lies with the owner’s final word being final. Sometimes concessions must be made when families and multiple leaders are involved to ensure a happy medium for all.

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Marketing a family business

No matter what your product or service, you have the power to make your business both marketable and inviting.

From the very onset of establishing our family’s company, my mom understood how enticing value-added could be. She single-handedly created a “Balloons for the Kids and Dad’s Cookies for All” policy to enhance the appeal of our stores over the competition. Kids knew they would be rewarded with a balloon when their fitting was over, and parents enjoyed our area’s favorite local sweet treat. My mom was definitely a master marketer before her time.

My suggestions to best beguile your audience:

Remain consistent—If your brand’s foundation is based on a love of animals, then support a nonprofit that serves your community’s creatures. A demonstrated passion for pets will be noticed by your customers.

Make an impact—While there is a significant cost to doing business, providing value is essential to ensure longevity. Do not skimp when it comes to making a first impression or retaining your customers. Value is perceived in everything from your actual office space to the shopping bag your customer carries out the door.

Promote your name—Your website is your ultimate business card. It’s a one-stop experience that represents you and all that you do. Your website and social media presence are the virtual face of your business. By providing captivating engagement with your target audience, you ensure customer retention and ongoing interest in your business.

Make everyone feel valued in your family business

In order to operate a successful family-owned business, all members of your team—even non-family members—must feel they are valued and part of the family. Think beyond the walls of your business by reaching out and building partnerships with your community, financial institutions, and others with whom you collaborate. Alignment in and around your business will draw support and advocacy for growth and sustainability.

Transparent companies, the ones that share their wins and losses with the entire team, establish an enlightened working relationship where unified attitudes and informed actions enable their business to thrive. Provide your staff with the guidance and tools they need to make confident, informed decisions on behalf of your company, and you will be rewarded with a healthy bottom line.

How family-owned businesses stay in business

Classic television shows loved to highlight the trials and tribulations of family-owned businesses in dramas like Dallas and The Sopranos. Compared to the over-the-top antics of those shows, today’s business scene showcases many successful family-owned corporations including Berkshire Hathaway and the Buffett family, Ford Motor Company, Comcast, Dell, and more.

What do they all have in common? A shared quest to be an industry leader. And how did these families accomplish this feat? By simply putting their best foot forward one step at a time.

A fitting solution: what’s your shoe style?

Whether you run a company with your family or are in a business partnership with colleagues, shoes are the perfect metaphor because some fit … and some don’t. Just make sure that no matter the business (or shoe) you pursue, be passionate about your choice and enjoy the journey.

Feel the freedom—Creative industries have less formalities and are typically exempt from the hardcore rules of financial institutions.

The perfect pairing: A strappy sandal that’s open and breezy allows the flexibility necessary for embracing all innovations.

Utterly immobilized—Businesses that freeze up during adversity must focus on overcoming tough times. According to Dory from Finding Nemo, these are the moments to just keep swimming and moving forward.

The perfect pairing: A combat boot—less pliable and more restricting— is a safe and strong choice when facing adversity.

On the move—A supportive team provides the versatility and necessary endurance to tackle a long-distance marathon or organize a quick sprint to the finish line.

The perfect pairing: An all-around athletic shoe provides the backing it takes to help reach your goal.

High hopes—Dress the part in order to achieve what drives your purpose.

The perfect pairing: A stiletto heel may not be appropriate for a 5K race, but it’s the perfect design for ambitious go-getters with lofty aspirations.

Loud and proud—If you strive for uniqueness and want to position yourself as an industry trendsetter, then take the path less followed.

The perfect pairing: A bejeweled pump makes a statement and commands attention.

About the Author

Mark Waldman is the president of Laurie’s Shoes, which is currently celebrating its 70th anniversary in business.

RELATED: Taking Over the Family Business: The Basics

This article was originally published on

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