Keeping it in the family

What comes to mind when we think of family businesses? Television would have us believe that a family business is either blissful harmony or pure horror. Shows such as ‘Fixer Upper’ or ‘Good Bones’ highlight the joys and idyllic dreams of working closely with family, but equally, shows such as ‘Open All Hours’ and ‘Steptoe and Son’ paint a picture of stifling drudgery and endless quarrels. So, what does it take to not only survive but thrive as a family business in the modern Australian landscaping sector? What is it really like? I spoke to three very different landscaping businesses to get a behind-the-scenes peek at what really happens in good family businesses.

“Well, I sack her about three times a week. And I resign about five times a week,” joked the first couple I spoke to, Sam and Kylie Langham of Outside Indulgence. As a married couple who clearly love what they do, Kylie and Sam started their business almost six years ago and have never looked back. Their motivations: to give landscaper Sam the opportunity to be more creative and extend himself, when working for others proved limiting. The timing was right, as Kylie was taking a career break from a role as a corporate accountant to care for their young children, making her more available to assist in the backend operations of the new business.

“It’s long hours and the first year I worked unpaid,” says Kylie, but they both knew the sacrifices it would take to set up a new business. In the long term, they hope the business will afford them more flexibility and time with the children. Sam enjoys acting as a role model for his young boys. It certainly looks like they are on track, with the business going from strength to strength. Kylie now handles all aspects of the business behind the scenes, from bookkeeping and insurance through to social media and advertising. Despite their joking, Kylie loves her role in the business and says she can’t see herself going back to corporate accounting, although she may one day take on her own new venture.

Of course, humour helps to lighten the load and reduce tensions that exist in any business. I found this sentiment echoed by Paul Takchi of Exotic Nurseries and Landscaping. Established in 1983 by Paul’s father and grandfather, Exotic Nurseries is now a multi-generational mix of family members working together with a number of hand-picked non-family employees. Paul tells me their family business has always had jokesters and prankers, keeping work light-hearted and fun. “We’re not running the country and you spend more time with work family than you do at home”, he says.

Creating a work family is a key component of success once the business grows beyond actual family members. Paul’s family is well-aware that employees may initially be intimidated by coming into a family-run business so ensuring that staff feel comfortable, happy and well-looked after is crucial to making that growth successful. Staff have to know that there is room for them to grow in the organisation. In all the businesses I spoke to, treating staff like family and creating an atmosphere where staff could always come and discuss issues, work or personal, was considered very important.

The third member of a family business I spoke to was Antoinette Sarkis of Gosford Quarries, launched almost 100 years ago. Once a publicly listed company, in 2014 Gosford Quarries merged with Sarkis Bros Pty Ltd, a business begun by four brothers born and bred in Lebanon. Today the business is run by family members and a staff of over 120 people. The merger was a challenging time for the family who worked tirelessly to make the venture a success. Working side by side with their employees, the family demonstrated perseverance and invested heavily in hiring the right staff and mentoring new people. With a policy of, ‘the right person for the right job’ the family have made it clear from the Board level that there is no nepotism in the organisation. While there is always a place for family members, they must be qualified and work from the ground up like all employees.

Paul strongly agreed with this policy at Exotic Nurseries too. He began work in the business whilst still in high school, weeding and doing small jobs such as fetching lunches from the take-away shop. All the businesses founders interviewed had no expectation that their children would be their successors, they all wanted their children to follow their own passions in life, whatever they may be.

Another area all the businesses agreed on was the importance of keeping work and family life separate, as difficult as that sometimes was to achieve. Whist Sam and Kylie have a relatively new business they are working to place more distance between family and work to achieve more balance in their lives. Paul tells me that they are not wanting to grow their own business much beyond its current size for the same reasons. His family want to enjoy more family time whilst maintaining the excellent personal relationships they have with their clients and the personal touch they believe is critical to their business success. Antoinette says that the hours in the business are long and while they try to separate work and family, their children are used to it. She laughingly tells me that their children joke that if they have something difficult to tell their dad, then they could tell him when he is busy. If he later complains they can say, ‘I told you but you weren’t paying attention.’

While it isn’t always easy or perfect, what seems to hold all these businesses together is the strength of the relationships, the shared vision they hold for the business and the great pride they all take in their achievements. Each of these businesses had very clear goals from the outset, with each family member sharing a vision for success that bound them together. They are all heavily invested in the success of their businesses, financially and emotionally, and passionate about what they are building. Antoinette is fiercely proud of her immigrant family achieving the ‘classic Australian dream’, as she put it. She tells me that the family reinvests all the money they make back into the business, particularly in research and development, to ensure that their Australian-made product is superior to overseas imports, especially when coupled with the aboveand- beyond customer service they supply to their clients. Gosford Quarries are also very proud that they are able to offer work opportunities to Australians rather than having jobs heading overseas.

Likewise, Sam and Kylie love that they are able to offer skills and opportunities to new landscapers in the industry and pride themselves on the work family tmosphere they are building. Paul loves the face-to-face interactions with his clients, he and his team give the personal touch to their customer service and are very keen to keep it that way. He believes his family’s morals filter through to their client interactions but this would not be possible if they weren’t all held together by important codes and approaches to dealing with one another on a daily basis. “It’s just like a marriage,” he says. “It’s about give and take and also respect. Everyone has their own opinions but you have to rely on them to take accountability and responsibility. It really helps if everyone has delineated roles.” Antoinette agreed stating, “Everyone lets off a little steam sometime and then they come back calmer tomorrow. You just have to trust them to share the vision and rely on them.” Sam and Kylie recognised the need for trust too, saying that you need to be honest and open-minded with each other, learning from your mistakes and if you can’t do that you may as well forget it.

As Sam told me, “If you are thinking of starting your own family business then give it a crack. If it doesn’t work out then there’s always something else. It can’t just be about the money though; you have to be passionate about what you’re doing. You won’t work a day in your life and then the money will come.”

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