The joys of a family business are many. High stress, work following you home, replacing employees at odd hours, low pay, jealousness from other employees although you are making less than them, cleaning anything that employees refuse to clean, and more. However, like any endeavour, the upsides make it well worth it. For one, you learn to function as a family in business! Then, you learn what work ethic means, you get to sell something you are passionate about (hopefully) and you get to experience how difficult starting and running a business can be. Be warned, this post may be a bit of a cranky complaint 😅.
My parents started a bakery back in 2004 in Perpignan, France. My father had just reconverted from being a successful travelling salesman. He had been baking for his four kids for some years, and finding much enjoyment in using his hands to create delicious bread, decided to train as a baker. Soon after starting his own bakery, we started seeing him less. To say that this bakery in France was draining would be an understatement. His days often transformed into 16 hours of consecutive work. A lack of employees forced him to carry almost the whole bread and viennoiserie production. The business became successful enough that a second small point chaud (a bakery where bread is baked, but not made) was opened. However, work eventually took its toll, and seeing that no one wanted to work in France, my parents decided to move to Canada in 2008 to open a bakery in Vancouver, Canada. Intense work started again. My mother supported the business by teaching in a local high school while my father worked the graveyard shift. He baked his bread from midnight to 7 am, then delivered it to grocery stores and restaurants and finally sought new customer leads, coming home mid-afternoon. Thirteen years later, the business is still alive. It has grown significantly to some fifty employees. They still bake the same basic products: slow-fermented leavened bread with only flour, water and salt. Simple ingredients, like we do in traditional Boulangeries in France.
So, was this all worth it? It's a difficult question. As a biased individual, my intuitive answer would be...no.
The 19-year experience was extremely difficult for my family. Both of my parents could have had more lucrative and relaxed careers remaining employees. However, my parents wanted to be small business owners.
A family joke is that all our conversations tend to gravitate towards the family business. Whether ideas, worries, annoyances, improvements or others. They clouded every hour of family time from the day the family business started. It got old rapidly. The separation become work and life was nonexistent and everyone would get irritated at taking their jobs home. As my siblings and I grew older, this aspect worsened as we became much more involved. Many of those conversations lead to no favourable or useful outcomes except perhaps entertaining high levels of stress.
The family business also introduced an endless supply of work, much of it unpaid and difficult. We replaced people and completed the jobs no employee would do. I was expected, like any of the children, to support at any moment the business. We rapidly learned that our family livelihood depended on it, and we early on never hesitated to break a sweat to provide free labour. As a food business, the margins were extremely low and the children filled many positions that would have been too expensive to pay someone for, or the jobs were simply ones we could not hire for. Many "disgusting" or physical jobs ended up for us as employees were often too proud to take them on. For example, it turns out most people refuse to clean the bathroom. You could have asked anyone in my family, and they would not have hesitated. There was no job for us that was too low to complete. If it had to be done, it had to be done. That's the mindset of business owners. We poured heart, soul and sweat into doing the most perfect job we could. The biggest praise was a pleased parent, thankful that we were there to help and complete critical, bottle-neck tasks.
In my family bakery, I have filled nearly every single position. I have been a baker, a cleaner, a dishwasher, a salesperson, a woodworker, a repairman and others. In a family business, you help wherever is needed. Family is also called on when employees do not show up at work. This is an unfortunate occurrence in blue-collar jobs. Perhaps that is because I grew up in a family business and my work ethic required me to be rock solid, but having to replace employees who simply did not show up to work with no lead time was the most emotionally draining part for me. I could not in a million years imagine not going to work without telling my boss. This lack of respect and reliability from these people just turned me into a fury. The worst ones were delivery drivers who decided to not come to work at 2 am. At 3 am I would receive a call from a manager or family member because I now had to cover. I still have an immensely difficult time imagining how anyone could ever just not show up. However, that is unfortunately very common in such blue-collar jobs, and the family business still sees this behaviour to this day. I have never taken a sick day. It was not enforced, but except if you were glued to your bed by some terrible illness, my family always went to work. I can remember my father breaking two ribs and going to work. He had a mean motorcycle accident from which he walked away and still went to work the day after. As a young lad, seeing my father persevere in the face of such difficult circumstances set a permanent sky-high expectation on my work ethic.
Working with family can be challenging. When your bosses are your parents, heated discussions may come around. Retaining a high level of professionalism can be difficult, and the relationships can at times degrade. The most difficult aspect becomes compartmentalizing your work life and your personal life, especially when you see your coworkers and bosses at home. On the positive side, family members make incredibly reliable and high-performing coworkers. They often do not limit themselves to legal working hours and are ready to sacrifice much for the common cause: the success of the family business.
Major stressful events occur when, especially as a young teenager, a crisis hits. A production machine may break, there may be an employee exodus, we might have lost a sales stream or the finances are going south. In these times, family discussions can veer into a toxic panic and be draining. Everyone pitches in extra work in the hopes of keeping the business afloat. This is where I can understand the strength of a family business. If it had not been one, I am convinced my parents’ business would have collapsed and died multiple times over. With a family of six, we had many arms and brains to jump in to help.
To conclude, I am not sure starting a family business was the right thing to do. The margins in the food industry are infinitesimal and finding then retaining good workers is challenging. My parents ended up making lower incomes than if they had been regular employees. My father was a very successful travelling salesman until he was 40 and my mother was a teacher. In 19 years, my father ended up working as much as a regular employee would have worked in a lifetime doing 40 hours a week. He also did not pay himself for a full year when the business was struggling. The upsides? High agency and hearing the impact you make on your customers. There is also the possibility of making much more money than you would as an employee. However, for my parents, this has not yet come to be, and it has been 19 years. To conclude, starting a family business can be a difficult marathon, and one should be aware of the likely struggles before attempting it.
I know that there are likely more positives to the whole experience, but I tend to harness quite a bit of irritation at the family business. This post helped me dive in a bit more into what it was like growing up in that environment. Perhaps I will write a more positive one later once I can rake my brains a bit more on the positives 😉.