MT EXPERT: Why my family business won't be the death of me

Charlie Field, the 10th generation to run his family funeral-director, on the coping strategies he's come up with to avoid family breakdowns...

by Charlie Field
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

When you’ve been born into a family business that’s over 300 years old, learning to work with your colleagues is an essential life skill. Our family funeral-directing firm was founded in 1690; today my brother Jeremy and I are the 10th consecutive generation to follow in a tradition that has seen Field family members care for the funerals of monarchs, national heroes and thousands upon thousands of everyday people. Throughout the 300 years there have been niggles and snipes, but for the main we have succeeded and in June 2013 were named London & South East Family Business of the Year.

Sunday lunch is not a board meeting
We have five members of the family on the board, so not ‘talking shop’ at family gatherings is a golden rule. It’s important to remember to find time to relax as a family, not just work.

‘Chairman’, ‘Dad’ or ‘Colin’?
Working for a family business as a non-family member can be as delicate as for those within. One area of confusion is how to refer to ‘senior’ members of the family. In order to save blushes all round, we try to stick to first names. Never has a meeting been more embarrassing than when your fellow director introduces herself as ‘Charlie’s mummy’…

Play to each other’s strengths
You may share a name, but we all excel (or otherwise) in different areas. It’s important to recognise the strengths of each individual family member and play to them – where there is a gap, we’re not shy of looking outside the family fold. Once those strengths have been identified, respect the boundaries no matter how tempting it may be to dabble.

Inherit equity, not animosity
Every family has unique relationships at play within it but no matter how hard it may seem, when working together it’s imperative for each individual to learn to build their own relationships and perspectives, not simply perpetuate those of a previous generation.

Courageous restraint or blunt truth?
Unlike a ‘normal’ job, sometimes there are moments where you think better than saying what you really feel – usually to protect other family members. Ultimately, this can lead to greater issues in the long run – unlike the telephone advert, it’s not just good to talk, it is essential. Regardless of the subject: succession; pay; holiday; role or even just workload, it is essential that you are open and honest with each other to ensure everyone’s expectations can be managed.

We all set out to be individuals and forge our own paths, but inevitably there are inescapable facets of working within a family business. Sometimes it is the tiresome "don’t you look like your father" comments and at other times, the shared genetic fashion impulses – all coincidentally wearing the same colour shirts on the same day. Yet, when playing by the rules, there are very few environments in which work can be as fun, challenging and rewarding, in equal measure, than in a family business.

- Charlie Field is chief financial officer of CPJ Field & Co

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