My love for the family business model is close to passionate. I love talking about them, working with them and most of all I love working in one of them.
When I was younger I had the good experience of being part of a business family. My father was the 4th generation of our family to work in a company in Cork called Dwyer & Co. My eldest brother George worked alongside him for a number of years. At that time my Grandfather George (Dubs) was also still working in the business running an associate company Lee Footwear. Three generations of my family in one family business at the one time was I thought pretty cool!
As a young boy I used to be brought in to the various businesses and I met some of the wonderful people who worked there including family members who worked in the various departments of Dwyer & Co. In particular I used to enjoy visiting my godfather John Harding who always had a Fry’s dark chocolate bar hidden in his desk for me. That original Dwyer building still stands, directly opposite the Courthouse on Washington Street in Cork city.
Dwyer & Co was started by my great great grandfather James Dwyer in 1820 and over the years passed successfully through the generations eventually becoming a major employer in Cork. At one time over 2,000 people worked in their different companies.
But bit by bit things started to unravel during the 1960’s and 1970’s. My father and his fellow director/owners were grappling with very difficult trading difficulties and complicated succession issues in the business, with too many family members involved. There were ongoing battles too about the ownership of the shares in the business and about who was actually the boss. My father also had at this time his own issues with alcohol and eventually lost his job and was effectively left with very little as his shares in the business became worthless.
My brother George because of the family confusion could see that there really was no future for him in the business and left it in 1972 to form his own clothing company Eurostyle Ltd which he has since transferred smoothly to two of his sons Alan and Peter.
Dwyer & Co eventually closed its doors in 1981 having traded for 161 years. That was the saddest day you can imaging as so many wonderful loyal people lost their jobs at a time when work in Cork was very difficult to come by. The only positive thing I took from that sad time was that when the liquidation of the company took place there was sufficient cash to pay off the creditors in full.
For me the decision to start my own business was not too difficult because I suppose when family business is engrained in your soul, the starting of one seemed a natural thing to do. And so in 1971, over 45 years ago I started my own little business on a wing and a prayer with a few quid borrowed from the bank. 13 years ago my eldest son Eamon joined me so now it is a family business in a real sense. The succession journey is now well underway as the control, ownership and responsibilities pass more and more to him as each day passes.
I read a nice article in the Financial Times last week about a particular business founder who was talking to his son about joining him in the business. His words were to the effect that if his son joined him, then, initially his son would work for the father. After a time they would share the responsibilities and ownership. Then after another while, the son would take over most of the responsibilities and ownership and the founder would spend the rest of his working days continuing to build up the value of the company for the benefit of his son and his son’s family. That was the deal.
In the words of Leonard Cohen when he talks about the various stages that we go all through in life. I am coming to realise that that’s the stage that I am at now.
I actually needed to read that article because for some people the letting go of the family business they started, comes easier than for others. For me I find it quite difficult and I think I needed to read those words and to feel I have a purpose in my continuing day to day work.
For so long the business was for me the only way I had of feeding and education my family and its survival through good and bad times was absolutely vital as I didn’t have any other way of earning a living. Yes for many years it was tough going and when the need for survival is engrained in you, it is perhaps difficult to let go.
I think that in the future when I talk to business owners who have a daughter or a son working with them in the business that they started, I will have more empathy for their feelings when I suggest that they start to pass some shares in their business to that daughter or son so that the business becomes their business too.
When I suggest that they should get their son or daughter to start putting some money away every month into a pension plan so that they too like the founder will have financial independence outside of the business I must be careful. Careful not to be too casual about the fact that bit by bit a successful succession plan means that the founder will in time not be needed by the business so much. That the business that was their working life for so long will in time perhaps not need them anymore.
It is a good problem I have and I am not complaining. There were many times over the years that our little business was struggling and could have gone under. That would have presented me with a much more difficult problem to overcome than the little one I face today. This one hopefully will just take a little bit of getting used to!
Ted Dwyer Family Business