01/16/2012 12:30 EST | Updated 03/17/2012 05:12 EDT

A Family Affair


How well do you get on with members of your family? That good, eh? Can you imagine working together, day in, day out?

These days, running a business is not for the faint of heart, but operating a family-owned business takes even more courage, tenacity and diplomacy.

Lately I have had the opportunity to chat to a couple of family business owners and they are the first to admit that it isn't easy, especially if as a family, you tend to spend time together outside of the office.

The gals at Mabel's Labels are role models for us all. Not only are the four women business partners, but they are related too. Each woman brings a different skills set to the business and even when they have feisty business conversations, they don't let it trickle into their personal lives. "We share a family cottage and our kids are all friends, so it would be very awkward if we took things too personally." shares Julie Cole, one of the partners.

Because they are such a talented group, one of the challenges has been to know when to get involved and when to step away and let your business partner run with it, something Julie admits "is always a tricky balance." "Our partnership is always a work in progress." she adds. Mutual respect is also crucial. You have to value and respect your partners' contribution to the whole, because without it, it's not going to work.

Letting go of the reins as the parent hands over the business to the adult son or daughter can be daunting too. In the case of Geoff Stephens at Capital Paving, his father had been grooming him for that role since he was 16. Not that he forced him to join the company -- he didn't -- but he didn't want his son to be viewed as just the boss's son and insisted that he work his way through the ranks and learn every aspect of the business.

And he let him make mistakes. "I grazed my knees several times, but it was all part of the learning experience," admits Geoff Stephens. He also went off to school to study business administration, so when he came back to the company, he had additional expertise to bring to the leadership role. In 1999 at the age of 36, Geoff took over the company and by that time his two brother-in-laws were also partners in the business.

Having worked for seven years with my daughter, I know first-hand that the working relationship can be fraught with difficulties. It is all too easy to slip into the usual pecking order, with mother, of course, always knowing best. But I have discovered that isn't always the case and sometimes having a young, fresh pair of eyes look at a situation can bring you a different perspective.

When you do disagree, it can be all too easy to assume familiar roles and forego the courtesy you would normally extend to others, which, if other staff are witnessing the scene, is not a good thing. So as the others said, having mutual respect for what each player brings to the business is key. In fact, that rings true for any working relationship. We had to set boundaries so that in our free time or at family gatherings we didn't talk shop.

We also found that when people found out who my daughter was, often they treated her differently. Some were patronizing, almost giving her a pat on the head for helping her mother out, while others were syrupy sweet hoping to get to me through her. Both responses were not appreciated, especially given she played a vital role in the business. When she got married, she couldn't wait to take on her husband's name, sharing mine led to complications.

A talented, young entrepreneur in her own right, she has recently moved on to spend more time in her own blossoming business. It's the sort of success that every mother dreams for her child, but as her "employer" I sure miss her.

But then for Christmas she proudly gave me a box of business cards -- she's made me VP of Sales -- so I guess we're still in business together, only this time she's the boss!