The oldest of five siblings, David was a “horrible big brother” to his four younger sisters, Anthea says.
But the apology was an important step in setting aside the emotional issues from their childhood.
“What we didn’t realise was at that moment we’d freed ourselves of all our childhood stuff,” he says. “And then we could just be adult siblings together.”
Anthea always knew she wanted to join the family business after working at Scenic World throughout her teenage years.
”I remember standing on the platform saying ‘I’m going to run Scenic World one day’ and 30 years later, I do.”
Mixing family and business has long been a recipe for strife. It has been fertile ground for many movies and TV shows over the years including BINGE’s award-winning US drama Succession about a media-owning family dynasty led by a tyrannical patriarch and squabbling children.
And in Australia too there have been family dynasties that have encountered problems. Mining magnate Gina Rinehart and Hancock Prospecting are undergoing secret arbitration in the Federal Court with her children Bianca Rinehart and John Hancock over the Hope Downs tenement. Then there was the fraught relationship between Kerry Packer, Australia’s richest man when he died in 2005, and son James, which was brought to the stage in 2019’s Packer & Sons.
“James did not have an easy ride as Kerry’s son and his ideas for how to shepherd the family enterprise into a new era were sometimes scorned by his father,” playwright Tommy Murphy says.
Research shows that the majority of children do not want to join the family firm preferring to go it alone with Patrick Garcia, associate professor of management and organisational behaviour at Macquarie University, suggesting there is a “looming succession crisis”.
“About 70 per cent of Australian businesses are family owned and they employ about 50 per cent of the workforce,” says Garcia, who led the research team. “As such, their survival and wellbeing directly affects the economy.”
Garcia says research suggests children were reluctant to work in a family business, particularly after graduating from university. A British study found only 6.7 per cent of children surveyed were willing to take over the business five years after completing tertiary education.
“In the context of an ageing population and many family business leaders’ desire to transfer their business to next-generation family members, these numbers are alarming,” Garcia wrote in the co-authored Perceived Parental Behaviors and Next-Generation Engagement in Family Firms.
Yet the Hammons and other successful Sydney family businesses have found a path through the minefield that working alongside parents, siblings and children presents.
Bruce Solomon, who heads up the Solotel pub and restaurant empire alongside his children Anna and Elliot, says conflict is not bad for business so long as it is handled correctly.
“I really enjoy talking to Anna and Elliot about different ideas, the sandpapering of minds, you throw a few sparks off,” he says. “We have disagreements but it never gets to that stage where there’s any anger.”
Bruce says the family has a rule not to talk about the business outside of work.
“We have Friday night dinner and we just don’t talk about work,” he says. “You want your relationship to be more than just work. There’s a lot more to a family.”
Elliot says the pandemic had been “pretty devastating” for the family-run hospitality company, which operates dozens of venues in Brisbane and Sydney including the Golden Sheaf Hotel in Double Bay. He says they was forced to stand down almost 1000 employees in March when they temporarily closed for business – although many later got their jobs back.
Elliot also moved back home with his parents during last year’s lockdown, which he says was “a very intense period. It felt like the whole business was falling down”.
However, he says Solotel was able to “weather the storm” of COVID-19 because of the strength of its outside advisors who could offer dispassionate advice in tandem with the family’s capacity to make nimble decisions.
“We’ve survived as is often the case in family business because we’ve always been quite conservative in the way we’ve grown,” Elliot says. “We weren’t over-exposed.”
The Hammons have a family council sitting above the board of directors that meets every six months to discuss the family’s ownership of the business. They also have an “emotional facilitator” who attends family council meetings to deal with emotional issues.
“If we’re in a meeting and he realises someone’s really unhappy about something, he’ll pull them up after the meeting and ask ‘What’s going on?’,” Anthea says. “So at a family level we’re managing everyone as adults, not siblings.”
For the Hammons strict rules dictate that family members must be paid market rates and are properly qualified for a job. She is an engineer and David is an accountant.
“To be honest, if you don’t do something like that it will be a lot harder when you get in the business because the other staff won’t respect you,” Anthea says.
Michael Neuman says he had difficulties in the beginning working with his father Fred when he joined the family’s Mondial diamond business.
“Fred would say that no, my ideas were foolish and founded on a lack of experience,” he says. “There was a lengthy settling in period where there was a bit of push and pull.”
In contrast, Michael’s sister Nadia was the “golden child” whose ideas he said were accepted, encouraged and supported by her father.
He attributes the “very special” relationship between his father and sister to the untimely death of their mother Maria when Nadia was 14, which left Fred bringing up a teenager as a sole parent.
Michael says there was a period when the siblings worked in the business together but “really didn’t appreciate each other”.
“I think maybe there might have been a little bit of resentment,” he says. “But it never affected the operational side of the business.”
Busy lives mean the siblings rarely catch up outside of the business, but Nadia says: “When we do, we all love talking about business. It’s just the wives don’t like it.”
Joining the family firm
Tony Kabrovski, the director of Harrington Advisory, is a specialist accredited family business adviser and chartered accountant who has been helping business owners develop and implement growth and succession strategies for more than 20 years.
He says a lack of succession planning is another challenge for many family firms. Kabrovski says they also face issues with separating business and personal feelings and dealing with ‘‘incoming (and outgoing) marital family members’’.
The 2018 KPMG Family Business survey also highlighted the importance of non-financial aspects or emotional value of family businesses.
Kabrovski says he expected many family businesses will be offered for sale in the next five or 10 years.
“The next generation has lived through the challenges their parents may have faced when accidentally starting the family business and the children are more confident to step out on their own with the support of the family wealth,” he says.
Garcia says parenting style also dictates whether a child wants to join the family business.
“More supportive and nurturing parenting styles can lead to higher levels of confidence and a greater emotional attachment to the business.”
The economic and health impact of COVID-19 has also affected family firms, Garcia says. “COVID-19 took us all by surprise and this may have disrupted or accelerated the need for next-generation members to engage and help out in the family firm.”
John ‘Herman’ Winning jnr, the chief executive of Winning Appliances, attracted headlines in 2019 when he criticised the poor work ethic of Millennials at the opening of the company’s new showroom in Melbourne.
John jnr says his decision to join the family business as a teenager was, in part, thanks to a dog that bit him while he was a door-to-door salesman.
“I was at home, lying about, living at my parents’ place and driving a company ute at the time and had a phone – I wasn’t paying the phone bill,” he says. “And I thought ‘This is pretty good’. I’ll be able to live on not much for a while and just go sailing.”
However, his father John “Woody” Winning snr told his son: “I’m happy for you to work somewhere else, but if you don’t have a job by Monday, you can come into work until you find another job.”
“Next thing I knew I was in the warehouse, moving stock and the rest is history,” John jnr says.
When John jnr asked for $50,000 to set up an online store, his father provided the money even though he did not believe the idea would work.
“It’s probably the best 50 grand we’ll spend,” he says. “He’ll have a go, he’ll see it doesn’t work and then he can get on with running the business.”
Yet Appliances Online has proven a success throughout the COVID-19 crisis and John snr says he was happy to admit he was wrong.
Andrew Taylor is a Senior Reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.