Family businesses are more than entrepreneurial endeavors. They are an emotional investment, creating deep personal ties with your relatives, employees, community and yourself. Is it possible to scale and expand one without losing those ties and the personal touch that made you a success in the first place? Of course it is, if you can learn to separate emotion from business and run your business like a business.
Brian Moak grew up working in his family business, HEART Certified Auto Care in Illinois, then bought it from his father when he was 27. Now 35, he is preparing to expand HEART into franchises across the country.
“I’ve always had this dream of growing the company, becoming part of multiple communities,” said Moak. “I’m looking for a way to create a legacy like what my dad created.”
Moak says anyone who wants to grow something that’s small and family can do it, as long as they don’t lose the family touch. He shared his best tips for doing just that.
1. Make yourself redundant
For a family business to expand, things need to run smoothly without you or other family members. So build out your succession plan.
“[My] company used to revolve around me, every question, every strategy came through me,” said Moak. “To turn this into a franchise, I knew I needed to be able to step out.”
Create systems that anyone can follow for key tasks like onboarding new customers, marketing updates, building new locations and hiring employees. Then empower your existing employees to make those decisions and follow those systems. If you don’t already have a general manager, now is the time to move someone into that position.
Once your business can function without you, additional locations can open without you needing to be on the ground. This frees you to focus on big-picture decision making and expansion, rather than dealing with the everyday needs of a single store. By creating systems that everyone can follow, you create consistency for your brand and your employees, no matter where they are located.
2. Get everyone on board
If multiple family members are owners of the business, all of them have to agree on a plan for growth. But even if a sole person is in charge, getting everyone on board will make an expansion go more smoothly.
“Explain what you’re doing and why it matters,” advised Moak. “If I was a dictator and walked in and said, this is what we’re doing, make it happen, it may happen out of fear, but it doesn’t happen because they want to. If an organization grows because they want to, you’re surrounded by an army of people who protect and grow your mission.”
Just as important as family members are any employees who have been with the business for a long time. They are as likely to feel a sense of pride and ownership as family members, and their buy-in matters just as much.
“There are people who work here who have known me since I was four years old,” Moak explained. “Their experience is valuable, their insight is critical. It’s my job to respect that and build on it.”
3. Communicate openly with customers
When Moak began sharing news about his franchise, his customers first reacted negatively, thinking that the local business was going to lose what made it special to the community.
“We were not as communicative as we should have been,” Moak admits. “A lot of customers felt that we’d sold out or that we’d joined another franchise.”
Customers who are loyal to a family business may dislike the idea of change or worry that your business is going to lose personal touch. To reassure them, communicate as openly as possible. Use your marketing channels to explain exactly what is happening and why you decided to expand. And show them through every interaction that you will still retain the level of service that you’ve always had.
“We’ve created scripts for everyone who deals with customer service, we pounded our customers with emails to explain and reassure them,” said Moak. The end result was that local customers became incredibly supportive and proud of HEART’s success.
“Once they understood that this was a real American dream story,” he said. People really got on board.”
4. Define your values
For many customers, the values of the owners and the personal feel of services are what lead them to support a family business. As you grow, it’s vital to define and understand what your business’ values are so you can continue those in your new endeavors.
Do you prioritize the experience of your employees? The integrity of your brand? The impact you have on your community? What emotions do you want people to experience when they interact with your brand? What compromises are acceptable and what are off-limits as you expand?
“We might fix cars, but we see it as, we’re in the hospitality business,” said Moak. “I had to train my store managers how to give the best experience to people who come in the front door and the people who clock in at the back door. They’ve got to do it in a way that fits our values.”
Your employees are responsible for creating an environment that reflects the culture of your core family business. Once you clearly define your values, they’ll be able to maintain that personal, family feel, even as your business grows.
5. Hire thoughtfully
To grow a business, you will have to hire new employees. This may be something you are used to doing, or it may be the first time someone outside the family has worked for you.
In either case, be thoughtful and careful about who you bring on. Every new hire should represent the values that define your business.
Don’t be afraid to turn away qualified candidates who don’t feel like quite the right fit. When your names is on the business, employees do more than represent a company. They also represent your family and the history behind your work.
“If someone is going to hang my shingle in front of their store, they’ve got to be the best of the best,” said Moak. “I’ve turned people away who are interested in becoming franchisees… If they’re going to represent our values they’ve got to be like us.”
6. Be willing to build slowly
Building a family business takes years — sometimes generations — of hard work. Once you decide to grow and expand, be prepared for that to happen slowly, too.
Whether you are opening new locations, creating a franchise or adding new services, each step of the process takes time, especially if you want to preserve the legacy of the original business.
For Moak, removing himself from the business took two years. Building up the systems to open franchises took even longer. And he is still interviewing potential franchisees — the business’ local locations are still the only ones open.
For him, though, that slow process is worth it, because it means that when the new franchises do open, they will feel like part of the business he and his father built. “We’re going to build something really special,” said Moak. “We’re going to build it slowly and methodically, and then it’s going to blow up.”
“Nothing happens overnight,” he added. “Nothing is easy, but it shouldn’t be. Nothing that’s going to survive can be easy.”