The transition from daddy’s little girl to CEO in waiting is rarely an easy one. Whereas succession from father to son is not just accepted, but expected in the family business realm. Succession from father to daughter is, for many business families, a road less travelled.
Nobody understands this better than Chicago-based Jelmar CEO Alison Gutterman. Alison is a third-generation family business owner whose entry into the business was more by happenstance than by a grand plan for future succession. When she started, she had no job title and no defined responsibilities. Twenty-five years later, she finds herself at the helm of a major corporation that manufactures household cleaning products, such as CLR and Tarn-X.
Alison sat down with the Women in Family Business hosts Ramia El-Agamy of Tharawat Magazine and Amy Katz from Daughters In Charge to discuss the unique situation of daughters working with and succeeding their fathers in the family business.
Ramia: Alison, tell us more about your career and your trajectory in the family business.
Alison: When I grew up, my father didn’t talk about succession planning at all. We used to talk about the family business at dinner, but I don’t think he even had a plan for how the business was going to succeed after him. When I was in high school, my father wanted me to be an actor. My mom wanted me to be an attorney. Nobody ever mentioned that I should take over the family business.
A lot of people talk about fathers and sons being involved in the family business, but not as much is said about fathers and daughters. As women become more prominent in businesses, I think it’s really interesting to analyse how fathers and daughters act when a new generation takes over the business.
When I went to college, I took on internships in different areas – advertising, public relations and one with a cable company. I was a speech communication major, so I had no real skills other than the fact that I could talk to people. When I got home from college, I sat on the couch for six weeks until my dad gave me a job application from a retail store. I ended up working in retail for a couple of years. It was a lousy job, but it taught me how to manage customers.
From there, I moved on and started working at a television representation firm. I worked for six different people in a year as a sales assistant because none of the other assistants would come in early, stay late and actually do their jobs. I couldn’t understand that. Yet, when I asked the television representation company if I could get into their sales training program to move up, they said no. They didn’t want to invest that money in me.
I realised it was time for me to get my resume in order and look for something else. My mom knew that I was unhappy and told my dad that he should offer me a job. He was really surprised. He didn’t think that I would ever want to work at the company because we never talked about it. I was almost 25 when my father finally asked me, “Why don’t you come and work for me? If you hate your job, I’ll fire you. If you’re bad at your job, you can either quit, or I’ll fire you. Whatever happens, you’ll always be my daughter.”
When I started, I had no job title and no responsibilities. When I walked in on my first day and asked what my job responsibilities were, my dad replied, “Well, I don’t know. Why don’t you go and read some customer service letters?” He didn’t even take me out to lunch that day, so I sat there twiddling my thumbs. It was the most bizarre first week of work ever, and that’s how my position started. And now, I’m CEO of the company 25 years later.
Ramia: When did you realise that your relationship with your father was going to change? Did you start seeing him in a different way when you started to work for him?
Alison: Our relationship was quite challenging for a very long time. My dad would assign me different roles that I was not suited for. He once put me in charge of a computer conversion even though I had no skill set in that. I think that was his way of testing me, but that’s not the way I would want to train the next generation to come into the business. To be fair, he probably didn’t know he would have a next generation. And when he came into the business, he was not trained either.
Another challenge was his idea of me as the little girl who used to dance on his feet in the kitchen. Seeing me as something other than his little girl was really difficult for him. We had to learn how to set interpersonal boundaries. He wanted to talk to me every day and expected me to come in at 6:30 in the morning and work until 6:30 at night because that was what he did. He expected me to give him a kiss every day before I left. There was no way I would be able to call him by his first name because he never called his father by his first name. He wanted to talk to me on the weekends because I was his daughter. My mom also wanted to talk to me on the weekends, but I didn’t want to talk to my dad because he was my boss. I would go out to lunch or shopping with my mom, and this made him very jealous.
It took a third party for us to overcome that challenge. I’ve been in therapy for many years, and I think a lot of people who work in family businesses don’t realise how important it is to have someone who can help make sure that those boundaries are set.
Ramia: Did it ever come to the point where you felt like you had enough or either of you wanted to part ways?
Alison:Well, I think he fired me a lot of times. We had different opinions in a lot of areas. I would ask questions that were probably inappropriate or asked at inappropriate times, but I felt those questions needed to be asked. When you have a very small staff, you need to be able to ask questions to understand why things are done a certain way. That was not always appreciated. I had some pencils thrown at me.
Amy: How did the employees view the dynamic between you and your dad?
Alison: It was challenging. Some people thought that I was encroaching on their relationship with my father. But the hardest thing for my dad in terms of family relationships was when his brother retired 10 months after I came into the business. My uncle realised that his children were probably not best suited for this type of business, and he wanted to do something with them. His kids were more interested in childcare, so he decided to set up a child care franchise. I respect him for turning his career path in a direction that he and his family were more passionate about. But it was hard to see him go, and my dad took it the hardest. It took my uncle and dad a long time to rebuild their very close relationship after that.
Ramia: Amy, in your experience working with Daughters In Charge, what are the main concerns that women express when it comes to building a professional relationship with their fathers? What are the most common challenges?
Amy: Some women share that their father is a very powerful person in their lives. When they watch the father at work, particularly if he’s working with another family member, they sometimes wish he would stand up for himself or be a little more influential. Other women experience the opposite. The father is very caring and supportive at home, whereas at work, he seems to be firm and strict. This authoritarian style can be disruptive and disenchanting, especially when it no longer works or is just perceived as out of date. Another common scenario is when a woman has a child. The father becomes a grandparent, and there’s that sense that maybe he should be staying home with the grandchildren.
The parent-child relationship continues to evolve over time. One of the most common concerns these days is related to when the father gets old, and it might be time for him to retire. How do you handle your father when he leaves the position, but is still involved and keeps coming and going? The daughter might feel that he’s no longer able to work effectively, and she is also going to have to care for him.
Ramia: Alison, when that time came for the two of you, how did that discussion evolve? Were you prepared for this transition?
Alison: This is another interesting happenstance. I had been working full time and going to school, and I adopted a child. Our company dipped a bit at certain points, as every company does, but, overall, it had grown. We weren’t affected by a recession. The way the topic came up of me taking over the company was started by my mom. She was on her deathbed and told my father that he should let me lead the company. His life was his family – his wife and children – and his company. Not only was he going to lose his wife, but to top it off, she was telling him to move on from the company as well.
You can imagine it was a hard decision. It took him a little while, but eventually, he decided to step back. What was wonderful for him is that he found his purpose through another vocation. He started to spend a lot of time working for a charity, and he is busier now than he was the last 10 years of working in the company. He’s travelling a lot to attend different charity functions, and that has kept his mind active and given him new life. He’s helping others in the community, and he likes it a lot more.
Ramia: If your children were to join the family business, what would you do differently?
Alison: For the next generation, I would say the same rule that applied to me would apply to them – nobody can join the business right out of school. They have to learn how to work for somebody else before they can work here. You don’t start out working as a vice president; you start out as an intern.
Last year, we had an intern for the first time over the summer. It was my sister’s daughter. She was 20 years old, and she had never taken a business class in her life. I did not directly supervise her. Instead, I told her that she would have to send the resume to our chief marketing officer, and I was not going to be involved. She was expected to come in at 8:30 in the morning and work until 4pm. She didn’t get any special treatment. We didn’t have lunch together on a regular basis, and I didn’t evaluate her. I think that is an appropriate approach.
It was challenging because, at dinner time, she did get to know what my perspective was on running a business. I explained to her that some of our conversations were between the two of us only, as aunt and niece, and she shouldn’t take them to the office. I think that was a much more concrete way of onboarding her that I did not experience with my dad. As we get larger, we’re becoming more institutionalised in our processes than we were 25 years ago. We didn’t have an employee handbook back then. As we grow our team, some of those processes are going to keep developing, and future generations are going to have to adapt to that.
After working here for the summer, my niece took her first marketing class. She had the highest grade in her class, and she now has a paid TA position for her senior year. She also got an internship for the summer in an entrepreneurial think tank at college, and it is all a result of her coming to work in this office. I believe that, in a way, should be the kind of benefit a family business brings to the next generation: to set them up for success regardless of the path they choose in life.
Featured photo courtesy of Alison Gutterman