Family-owned business backbone of our country
by Martin Willoughby
Published: April 4,2010
Family-owned businesses make a significant contribution to the United States economy. Depending on your definition of a family owned business, researchers have found that there are approximately 10 million family-owned businesses employing over 77 million people and contributing to over 50 percent of the United States’ GDP. Many of these are small businesses, but they also include Fortune 500 companies. It is worth taking note of the impact that these businesses have both nationally and in our local communities. In addition to the normal challenges that entrepreneurs face, family business owners have some additional challenges, but also significant opportunities.
When family members work together, emotions can interfere with business decisions and conflicts can arise as family owners have differing goals and expectations for the business. Family businesses may also experience high turnover of non-family members who don’t see growth opportunities. For some family business owners, the stress of the blurring lines of work and home can take an emotional toll. In spite of the challenges, there are also tremendous opportunities. Families can unite to achieve clear and compelling goals. New generations can build upon the foundations of success of previous generations. Celebrating success has new meaning when shared with loved ones, and there is the opportunity to have real trust within an organization.
The Swalley and Harrigill families are a great example of a family owned business that is getting it right. They own the Party City franchise for the metro Jackson area. Sisters Alice Harrigill and Alyson Swalley grew up in an entrepreneurial family. Their father and mother owned and operated Western Sizzlin franchises. According to Alice, “From the time we could walk, we were up at the restaurants with our parents interacting with customers.” Their father, Hunter Roussel, briefly retired from the restaurant business and opened the Party City franchise in 1994 on County Line Road in Jackson. Both daughters, then college age, worked in the store during holidays and summers. In 1997, in their early 20s, the sisters were thrust into the business full time when their father passed away.
Since then, Alice and Alyson along with their husbands Robin Harrigill and Scott Swalley, have continued to grow the business. In 2004, they expanded to a second location in Flowood and now employ over 40 people. Their success in part has been because of excellent customer service. Alyson noted that “we learned how to take care of our customers by watching our mom and dad run their business ‘hands on’ and bend over backwards to take care of their customers.” The family has done a great job of letting each family member utilize their strengths for the greater good of the company. Each person knows his or her roles and responsibilities and is conscientious to get the job done. In spite of the economic downturn, the company has continued to do well. Alyson Swalley observed that “people still want to celebrate things in life and we help them do that.” While there are “big box” and online alternatives for party supplies, the family has continued to do well by listening and catering to their customers. In addition, many people enjoy supporting locally owned businesses like theirs.
Like any business, family-owned businesses need to have clear goals, a solid management team and flawless execution to succeed. In addition, communication is key. I encourage family members to utilize formalities in their business including regular meetings, utilizing job descriptions, and evaluating performance. Just because you are in a family business, it does not mean that accountability does not matter. The overarching idea is to treat your business like a business and your family like a family. Mississippi has benefitted significantly from family owned businesses and will need more entrepreneurs like the Harrigills and the Swalleys in the future to employ people and maintain a healthy local economy.
Martin Willoughby is a business lawyer in Jackson. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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