Marrying into a family business requires careful navigation.
As an in-law in a family-owned business, Jamie Richardson is convinced it is important to look back as well as forward in his duties as a vice president at White Castle Management Co.
He joined the iconic restaurant chain 18 years ago after he and his wife, Kate, returned to Columbus to work for the company cofounded by her great-grandfather, E.W. “Billy” Ingram. Up to then, there had been an unwritten rule at White Castle against hiring in-laws. Richardson, who had earned his business chops during 11 years with the global J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, remembers feeling honored to have the opportunity to work for the Ingram family.
Richardson has made the most of that opportunity; he's now responsible for White Castle's government, shareholder and public relations. Along the way, he has come to understand what an in-law needs to do to be a true asset to a family business.
“To me,” he says, “the biggest mistake for an in-law is to not have a reverence and respect for all the history and groundwork that's come before from the family members. … You've been asked to merge into a (family business) journey without the shared experience of the people who have been driving that journey. But you can add your unique perspective on what the road ahead might be.”
An outsider's perspective and objectivity can add value to a family-owned business, say those familiar with the workings of companies that have in-laws in the management mix. But there can be challenges as well, ranging from the difficulty of separating business and family matters to the resentment of in-laws who pass family members related by blood on the company ladder.
“There's a whole array of why it works and why it doesn't work,” says Thaddeus O'Brien, an organizational psychologist and principal of O'Brien & Associates in Columbus. His practice includes working with small businesses, and he is a founding board member of Conway Center for Family Business.
“So much of it depends on the degree of separation between the family and business,” he says. “The better they are at clarifying the bright lines between the two—‘we run the business in a professional fashion and the family as a family'—the better their chance for success.”
O'Brien has seen many instances in which a son- or daughter-in-law is the most competent person to lead a family business. In-laws can provide a level of objectivity that hasn't been clouded by complicated parent-child or sibling relationships. And sharing a gene pool doesn't necessarily translate into having the confidence and courage to run a successful enterprise.
“Some people don't want the responsibility of worrying about payroll every two weeks,” O'Brien says. “Some sons in a business prefer to leave work at 5 and take their kids to soccer. That's not a knock against them, but they don't have the same ferocity and passion their old man had.”
He also stresses the importance of a family business owner identifying a successor, possibly a son- or daughter-in-law, as soon as it's feasible.
“A large corporation may take a wait-and-see approach on succession to keep everyone motivated,” O'Brien says, “but that's an absolute nightmare in a family business. You need to know who is going to succeed you (as CEO) as soon as you have a competent person to do that.”
Jamie Bull, a son-in-law of Capital Resin Corp. CEO Judy Wensinger, is in line to become president of the Columbus-based manufacturing company this spring when current President Mike Kelty retires. Bull now serves as chief operating officer in his third stint with the manufacturer of industrial resins and chemicals.
He got his feet wet at Capital Resin as a high-schooler, when his future father-in-law, company founder Jim Hansen, hired him as a laborer. After graduating from the US Military Academy and fulfilling his service commitment with the Army, Bull went on to work at Worthington Cylinders before returning to serve as Capital Resin's plant manager and general manager from 1995 to 2005. Then, after nine years in sales at Boston Scientific Corp., he came back to Capital Resin in 2014 as part of the company's leadership-succession plan.
Bull has a long relationship with the family of his wife, Wendy. The couple met in the 8th grade and have been married for 26 years now. Over the years, Bull has learned the importance of keeping work and family relationships separate.
“When your boss is your wife's mom,” he says, “you are not talking about your boss when you're at the dinner table. You're talking about Mom and Grandma, so everyone has an interest in the subject. It can be delicate.”
Bull also has come to understand that an in-law does not have the same lifetime bonds as family members related by blood.
“You navigate by behaving like you would at any other job,” he says. “You need to be a dedicated professional working for the stakeholders of the company. In our case, it is family ownership and equally for the associates at Capital Resin.”
At the same time, he considers it a blessing that his family can celebrate business success together and rely on a support network of family members who understand the company.
Strait & Lamp Group President Steve Arnold has a built-in support system in Wilbert (Wib) Strait Jr., his father-in-law. Strait was president of his family's building products supply company from 1976 to 2013, when he sold the Hebron business to Arnold and Arnold's wife, Barb. Strait, now company chairman, remains active in the business, as do two of his brothers, Raleigh and Dan.
“Wib has been a mentor of mine,” Steve Arnold says, “and I've been very fortunate to have someone with all the experience he has. I get great advice from him ... and we both have the same vision for the company.”
Arnold started in the construction industry after graduating from the University of Rio Grande in southern Ohio. He is in his second stint at Strait & Lamp, coming on board as a salesman in 1986 and returning in 2008 after eight years of running his own company.
One of the potential perils for in-laws in a family business is establishing their authority if employees think the only reason they got their position is because they married into the family.
“People don't give you respect; you have to earn it,” Arnold says, noting it is important for in-laws and family members to learn the business from the ground up. “By working your way up, you cement your reputation for being willing to work hard for the company.”
He also says an in-law shouldn't be afraid to be told “no” by the family business leader.
“You need to be heard and let some things roll off your back,” Arnold says. “In a family business, people sometimes feel a little more freedom to be frank and say things that cause hurt feelings. You shouldn't take it personally, and you should understand you all have one goal—to make the family business successful.”
Arnold is also bullish on open communications with employees and family members and establishing responsibilities for all involved. But his best advice for in-laws in a family business goes back to his relationship with his father-in-law.
“Treat it as an education,” Arnold says. “You need to make your own decisions but also listen to someone who's experienced. It's not that you can't change things, but you want to listen to the person who is the mentor and handing over the reins.”
Dustin Wilshire has been listening to the advice of his in-laws at Reitter Stucco & Supply Co. since he was a student at Otterbein University in 2006 and landed a summer job as a laborer with the stucco and stone company. His wife Rachel's father, Fritz Reitter, is the company president, and two of her uncles, Jack and Bobby Reitter, are vice presidents. Wilshire's brother-in-law, Kyle Reitter, is also in a management position with the 102-year-old family-run business.
“Most of my (job) interview was about convincing them I wasn't just a soft college kid and that I was used to manual labor jobs,” Wilshire recalls. He grew up working on his uncle's produce farm in Pickaway County and as a grave digger during summer breaks from high school and college.
After graduating from Otterbein in 2007, he returned to Reitter, working in the field until landing a position as an operations assistant in in 2008. He has taken on additional responsibilities since then and now is service manager and safety director for the company.
“It's nice to be able to work with family,” Wilshire says. “There are great, hard-working people here. That lines up with how I was raised.”
He says the biggest challenge for an in-law in a family business is the perception by others that you were handed your position because of your family connection and that you feel a sense of entitlement because of it.
“To overcome that,” he says, “you first have to come to terms with the fact that they may be right; you probably have been granted a unique opportunity. Your job as an in-law must then be to prove you're the right person for job. You can't let their perception become the reality, or you've allowed yourself to become a stereotype.”
Wilshire also has found it can be tricky for an in-law to balance business and family life. That includes the challenge of not allowing shop talk to dominate family gatherings.
“While we always say that family is the most important,” he says, “the truth is that it's paramount that both aspects of your life are healthy or they both suffer. Navigating that is extremely challenging, but I think it's also an incredibly rewarding thing if you can manage a healthy balance.”
At White Castle, Richardson has come to understand the importance of not letting business matters spill into family functions.
“We handle it pretty well,” he says. “As time goes on, everyone has realized the best way to address it is to be purposeful about it and that this is family time.”
Richardson's advice for in-laws looking to succeed in a family-owned company is to have as much passion for the business as the people who grew up in it.
“You should do it with love and heart,” he says, “and be grateful to have a chance to be part of something bigger than yourself. For me, (White Castle) is a labor of love. I feel honored to be part of it.”
Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.