Keeping it in the family: How to run a thriving business with your siblings

In a country that gave birth to the Tipperary brothers and founders of global technology company Stripe; Patrick and John Collison – or Kerry hoteliers John and Francis Brennan, it seems Irish sibling-controlled businesses are on the rise.

The family dynamic, when it works, can be an enviable collaboration of like-minded individuals who bring unique abilities to the meeting table—genetically programmed to protect and protect offspring for generations to come.

The downside, however, is a dysfunctional relationship — if narcissism, irresponsibility, bad boundaries, unprofessionalism, or passive aggression are rearing their ugly heads over the kitchen table, then they will follow you into business.

Chances are, too – if you’ve been the one who traditionally cleaned up the mess in a family context, then you’re responsible for dealing with the consequences and phone calls when things go wrong at the company. It can be devastating.

Take the case of Adolf (Adi) and Rudolf Dassler.

Their feud led to the destruction of the Dassler brothers, their successful company – and the bitter division of the entire Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach.

The brother’s bitterness lasted a lifetime – and both are now buried at opposite ends of the same graveyard.

But things went well for them after Nazi Germany – Adi created a household name; Adidas (Adi-Das(sler)), while Rudolf founded Puma Sportswear.

We speak to four pairs of siblings who have mastered the difficult balance of making a family business work for them while maintaining their relationships.

And of course they do this with a view to the key figures of their company.

Bantry House, County Cork

Brother and sister team Julie and Sam Shelswell-White know a thing or two when it comes to running their family business – the Bantry House visitor center with its luxury accommodation, wedding shops, cafes and beautiful gardens overlooking the bay in West Cork .

With over 400 years of investment in the property, the family business began in the 1940s with the siblings’ grandmother first opening the doors to visitors.

Julie Shelswell-White says attendance and occupancy have always been the key drivers of commerce. “In recent years we have welcomed around 30,000 visitors a year and thankfully we were not far off that number last year.

“2020 was a lot more challenging than you can imagine. The fact that our visitor numbers increased again in 2021 was a great success for us.

“We can also see a large number of bookings for the B&B from people around the world – much more in line with pre-Covid trends.”

“Trust your sibling’s way of getting a job done”

She sees family dynamics in a positive light. “What works well is that we both have quite different roles as I do a lot of office work while Sam does more general maintenance and gardening.

“We rely on that responsibility to be in our hands and tend not to step on each other’s toes.

“We meet somewhere in the middle when it comes to day-to-day business and leadership of our team. “

In fact, Shelswell-White believes that this separation of roles is fundamental to the success of any family business: “Focus on your individual strengths and experiences.

“These roles should be different from each other, I think. Otherwise, you’ll only clash over small details that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.

“Trust your siblings’ way of doing a job. “

Rockhall Veterinary Hospitals, Co Limerick and Co Clare

Sisters Kathy and Michelle Enright run a hugely successful chain of veterinary clinics in Counties Limerick and Clare and use their keen sense of family to keep the bottom line in check.

Veterinary Surgeon Kathy Enright says, “We would run the same KPIs that every company uses, but we are targeting growth to around 850 clients per full-time equivalent vet.

“We base all of our clinical decisions on what is best for the patient and client.”

“Michelle often has to push back here”

Like many other successful family businesses, she feels that the separation of roles and support is key to the company’s survival and doesn’t really clash much.

“As a veterinarian, I am very focused on the clinical side of the business and developing the teams, while Michelle handles much of the administration required to keep the show running.

“I try not to move to this area, but as an older sister, Michelle often has to push back here,” she jokes.

However, Enright believes that working together can create family problems. “There is no point in denying this. I don’t think we ever quarreled as there is a small age difference between us before we started working together.

“I would always be inclined to take the lead role and Michelle would be the peacemaker and more cooperative, but as Michelle has grown into her role and come to terms with the clinical aspects of the business, she’s trying harder, and so has been a lot good for business but sometimes it poses challenges for us as sisters but it’s always good to have your sister on the phone for advice, making changes or just nagging. “

For anyone thinking about joining a sibling in a future venture, she says, “It’s important that anyone entering into a business partnership has a clear understanding of what they want out of it and what their goals are.

“This is all the more important in a family environment, because you don’t want to damage the sibling relationship, even if business isn’t going well.

“If the company is very successful, one sibling may want to grow and expand while the other is content with the status quo.

“For these reasons, it’s important to have a plan in place before starting a business as a sibling.”

O Brother Brewing, County Wicklow

Wicklow brothers Barry, Brian and Paddy O’Neill have always looked beyond financial performance since they started trading in 2014.

According to Barry O’Neill, “We want to give people an amazing experience, fresh from a local Irish brewery.

“We have grown at an average of 26 per cent each year since our inception, have won over 15 awards both domestically and internationally, we export to 9 European markets and have grown to become one of Ireland’s highest rated breweries.

“For us, what matters most is not the KPIs or market share, but making sure people have a better beer experience.”

“They know how to react under pressure”

Yet at the core of the brewery is a basic realism with the O’Neill brothers. “I think it’s inevitable that you bring the family dynamic into the business, which of course can present some challenges but can also be brilliant.

“It can help short-circuit a lot of the initial uncertainty about how you work together, since you already know the integrity and many of the strengths and weaknesses of the people around you before you even start.”

It’s a dynamic that shines in the darker days of the economic cycle “when things get difficult the way they do, different aspects of people’s deeper personality and character come out.

“For example, if you enter into a well-considered business relationship with your brothers, you can avoid a lot of that.

“They know how they’re going to react under pressure, they know they’re going to dig deeper than anyone else, they’re going to do whatever it takes to make the business a success.”

He laughs when the subject of the company name comes up: “There are a few people who claim that name. Let’s just say it was a collaborative effort – the phrase “O brother!” the Coen brothers’ film Oh brother where are you which we are big fans of.

“These were just some of the inputs that made O Brother Brewing seem to float to the surface on their own.”

He advises families with entrepreneurial ambitions to play to their strengths: “Everyone needs to be flexible when starting a business, and with clearer responsibilities from the start we probably could have made faster progress in certain areas.

“It’s hard to say if we would actually change the way we do things as we are really happy with how everything is going and how the business is developing now and in the future.”

Max Benjamin Candles, Co. Wicklow

Van den Bergh siblings Orla, David and Mark, who operate Ireland’s leading range of luxury scented candles from their base in Enniskerry, have targeted sales growth as a one-sided key performance indicator, with an impressive doubling of sales over the next four years projected in the Shadows the impact of Covid on trade.

CEO David Van den Bergh says: “We have a common goal to make this profitable. With the pandemic came the need to restructure the business so we could be more competitive and better serve our customers online.

“Fortunately we have achieved this and retailers are fully open so we can now continue to focus on our retail business.”

“We still love each other very much”

With the family’s recent unanimous decision to open their first full pop-up store in Kildare Village, Max Benjamin has found a new way to engage with customers, according to Van den Bergh: “It’s an exciting step for us as a brand. Open until the end of May, the success of the pop-up is a great example of the strength of our momentum.”

At the heart of the family business is a solid sibling relationship “we still love each other very much”.

“Business-wise, I think our different personalities reflect the roles we take in the business, but that’s working out well – I hope,” he says.

When it comes to keeping family dynamics intact outside of the boardroom, he warns, there are two caveats: “Always make sure your personal relationship is nurtured, and make sure you behave properly in front of your co-workers.” Keeping it in the family: How to run a thriving business with your siblings

Fry Electronics Team

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