3 Tips for Building a Family Business Without Breaking the Ties That Bind
Gina And Jana Denegri
Some babies fall asleep to the sing-song lilt of a lullaby or the soft shush of a noise machine. But for Gina Denegri, it was the clickety-clack of her mother’s calculator that supplied the soundtrack to her early life.
In 1986, her parents, Jana and Charles, started their own accounting firm, Denegri & Associates, in Sonoma County, California. When Gina was born two years later, she quickly became a regular fixture in the family office.
“Within the first week of coming home from the hospital, I was being rocked in my bassinet next to my mom, with one hand on the calculator and one hand rocking me,” she said.
Through grade school and high school, she pitched in where she could, filing papers and filling out basic forms. But, despite her mom’s encouragement, she had little interest in joining the family business full time.
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, when Gina was in her mid-20s and unfulfilled in an office assistant job, that she finally let her “bookkeeper genes” shine through. At first, she said, she asked for the hours out of necessity. But it wasn’t long before she realized that she wasn’t only adept at managing the demands of the job, she actually enjoyed it.
For Jana, it was like a secret dream come true.
“In the back of my mind I’ve always wanted one of my daughters to join the business. I really thought that wasn’t going to happen because neither was really into it,” she said. “When Gina said she wanted to learn more, I was honestly thrilled. I don’t know where it’s going to end up … but it’s really motivated both of us.”
The transition hasn’t been without its trials, but the mother-daughter duo is learning to lean on each other’s strengths: Jana’s imparted her years of accounting wisdom to her daughter and Gina’s helped her mother update the business for the digital age.
Gina has helped the company develop its online presence and bring more of its practice into the cloud with Xero, an online accounting software platform that lets businesses manage a range of financial services in real time.
“We don’t think alike, but she has a younger voice. She’s the new generation,” said Jana. “And because she’s my daughter, I’m more open and trusting.”
Added Gina: “I think it might be easier for her to listen because my only interest is in having her business succeed. There’s no ulterior motive.”
Both acknowledge that there was a bit of a learning curve in adding a professional dimension to their relationship. But two years in, they say they’re as close ever – and the business is thriving.
Here are a few of their tips for running a successful mother-daughter business:
For parents who have built their businesses from the ground up, there’s often a natural tendency to want to stick to the tried and true ways of getting work done. But, advised Jana, you need to be open to new ideas, as well as new ways of relating to your child.
“There’s going to be chaos in the beginning – that’s true whenever you take on anything new,” she said. “Give it six months to a year to really work things out… Look at the big picture.”
Don’t force it
When a business has been in the family for years, the children often feel immense pressure to carry the torch. But if they do not bring their own passion to the job, they’re not going to want to stick it out, said Jana.
“For me, the passion comes from helping people with their finances, taxes, and accounting, and I get pleasure consulting and seeing their books balanced” said Jana. But she added that Gina is learning that management is where her interests lie. For now, she’s able to hone those skills while building the family business, but Jana said, “I wouldn’t want her to feel like she couldn’t leave to pursue something else.”
Respect the line between the professional and the personal
Few bonds are stronger than the one between mother and daughter. But when you work together, you can’t let it drive every decision.
Above all, you’re mother and daughter, said Gina, but you have to “find the line” and know when to separate the professional and the personal.
In the beginning, she acknowledged, it was difficult to know what to say and what not to say. But after a few months, she said, they learned to communicate in a way that didn’t harm their relationship and kept the business humming.
“We’ve found a good balance,” she said. “And, ultimately, the best part of this experience is that you get to be around your mom. All I know is if I’m having a bad day at work, I can always get a mom hug.”
Amy Vetter, CPA, CITP, CGMA, is the global vice president of education and enablement and
head of accounting, USA for Xero. In this role, she is responsible for developing and executing Xero's worldwide education strategy with a focus on Xero University (XeroU). Follow her on Twitter @AmyVetterCPA.