June 1, 2014

Family dynamics


My mother loved to tell the story of when I was two years old; I would dance on the doll case that belonged to my older, four-year-old sister. I would do a jig until she screamed blue murder. “Mom!!! He’s doing it again!” I would then smile; having gotten the reaction I had so eagerly sought, and carry on with my day. That is called a family dynamic. For most of us, family dynamics enter into our business life more often than we think. There is nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. What is important is how we handle that dynamic. Is it for the better or for the worse? This column is a collection of stories and opinions with one common thread — the family dynamic.

I had a woman working in my greenhouse in the 1990s. She was a wonderful employee. After two years with me, her husband was transferred to a city in Ontario. She found the premiere garden center in that city and applied for a job. She was hired, and was no doubt a wonderful employee there, as well. She returned to Regina for a family visit, after a year in Ontario. She dropped by to see me. I asked her how things were going at her new place of employment. She said that my operation and her new place of employment were quite similar. We both stressed quality products, cleanliness and customer service. She then went on to tell me that because there were three generations of the family managing the operation, “the staff meetings are absolutely nothing like the ones in your place.”

I asked her to explain. “The staff meeting starts out as a basic staff meeting. It quickly deteriorates, with the non-family employees hugging the walls and looking for cover. Turmoil breaks out with some family member accusing either his brother or his mother or his uncle of sabotaging his best efforts — or something similar. It is so bizarre.” As they say in the space program, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Lines of authority
When you have more than one family member as either a manager or as an owner, it often leaves the staff uncertain who they should be taking orders from. Just think. If you were a staff member and one brother said to water a block of plants lightly, and ten minutes later a different brother insisted that you increase the water volume to the saturation point, what do you do? To some, it might sound funny, but rest assured, I have spoken with those employees, and to them it is chaos. They feel as if they are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

If you are going to have more than one family member directing traffic, and rest assured, I am not opposed to multiple family members under the same greenhouse roof, then a clearly defined set of roles must not only be agreed upon, it must be followed to the letter and the spirit of the agreement. No staff can serve two masters, and it is mandatory that the family ascertain who is in charge, and more importantly, who is not.

Once a dad…
Another problem that I have seen with the family dynamic of our trade is when dad retires, but he doesn’t really retire. He tells everyone that his son, daughter, niece or nephew is now in charge, but he always seems to be around, not giving advice as an elder, rather, issuing orders. He answers the phone, he places the orders, he tells the staff to lower the price of this plant and raise the price of the hanging baskets. He is quoted as being “more or less retired.” Sadly, he is around just enough to not only interfere with the day-to day operations, but to give the appearance that the person who is supposed to be in charge, is not. Nice try, Pops. Let me find a dictionary so you can read what the word retired means.

I was fortunate in my personal family dynamic, that my mother never interfered with my parenting skills, or the lack of those skills. Only once did she ever pass an opinion. The youngest son was 16 and he usually saved his temper tantrums for the immediate family. He didn’t throw them in front of friends, aunts, uncles or grandparents. One day, he carried out a grand performance, with my mother watching. When he was finished, my mother chortled and said to me: “All your chickens are coming home to roost, aren’t they?” That was her one and only comment, and I appreciated that there was only ever the one. I now try very hard to follow her example, and as my son parents, I try to be a cheerleader, not an advisor. They don’t need my meddling and neither does anyone trying to run his parent’s or relative’s former business.

Season to celebrate
I know that many readers will be able to relate to the following story. I was the only member of a large, extended family to enter the green trades. I made most of my income from April 15 to July 15, and from December 1 until the 24th. Everyone knew this was true, and I really, really want to emphasize the word everyone. Having written that, every Mother’s Day, every family function including birthday parties and graduations, I was expected to attend. Try as I might, it took me years to convince my family that it was too hard on me to be there at a brunch when the greenhouse was humming, filled with customers. Even if I were to attend a function, my mind would be back at the greenhouse. Finally, and it did take many years, my family started coming down to the garden center so that I could wish everyone a ‘merry merry.’

My beautiful wife’s birthday is June 4 (or at least I am pretty sure it is), and we finally reached an agreement, negotiated over the years. Flowers and a gift on the 4th, but the romantic celebration, the weekend getaway, waited until August. I don’t expect people outside our trade to understand the intensity of what we experience in our spring rush, so I share the above only with you, a chosen audience.

One of my all-time favourite stories regarding the spring rush is this one. A friend, unnamed to protect the truly guilty, owned a nursery. It was the first week of May. He had five semis in his yard. Two inbound and three outbound. His wife went into labour with their third child. She called. He took her to the hospital. He grumbled so much about the five trucks that she told him to go and deal with his “precious trucks.” Without a word of apology or saying, “I will be back later tonight,” he took off. As he ran out the door, his wife screamed, “When you were making this baby last August, you weren’t in such a hurry!” She told me the story. I laughed. He didn’t. Apparently, it was still a sore point in their marriage.

Close to home
Back to the family dynamics of business. I have three sons. My beloved mentor from my youth, Dieter Martin out of Langham, north of Saskatoon, cautioned me when the boys were young: “Never inflict your dreams on your children. You wanted the garden centre. You wanted the glass greenhouse. That is your dream, not theirs.” I listened to everything he told me, including that nugget of wisdom. Each of the boys tried the business. Two would have been good managers, very good in my opinion. One told me that I worked too hard for my money. That was not a problem for me but it was for him. He now owns his own shop in Calgary, working too hard for his money just as I did, but it’s his shop and his money. The second one needed to branch out on his own. He needed to get away from his dad’s shadow and I understood that. He and his wife are successful entrepreneurs in Edmonton. The third one asked his mother how I made my money. She explained that I bought at wholesale and sold at retail. He asked, “Is that even legal?” Obviously, he was cut out to be an artist and a musician, which he chose to do.

I followed Dieter’s advice and I did not inflict my dream on my children. Sadly, I and no doubt you as well, have seen where a father has inflicted his dreams, rather than letting his children find their own way, and those children are often less than happy. It is as if they have been held hostage to a situation they have no control over.

Children find their own way and they often find their way not by preaching, but rather by example. When my boys hit that wonderful age of 14, when they would sleep all day, occupying the messiest bedrooms and shower so seldom that their greasy hair stuck to their head — I knew I was being tested. When they were 14, I went through that worrisome period that they were going to be lazy adults. My wife got after me to have a bit more faith. She said, “Actions speak louder than words. You go to work every day; you thank God in your prayers that you can work hard. The boys see that. When their turn comes, they will know what to do.” I didn’t really believe her.

One of the boys turned 16 and got his first after-school job, working in a computer shop at the local mall. It was 4:15 p.m. and he asked me for a ride to work. I got him to the front door of the mall at 4:25 and told him to “run.” He looked at me and said “Why? My shift doesn’t start until five. I have lots of time.” I asked, “Why, if your shift doesn’t start until five, did you get me to drive you here so early?” His answer: “You always told us it is important to arrive early for our shift, so I am early.” My wife was right. They were paying attention. My faith was restored.

Family businesses work only when they are organized to work. They do not work when chaos is the norm or anarchy is the non-structure. Sort this stuff out and you will stay on the road to success.
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regna, Sask., for 28 years. He now works
full-­time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.