Running a business with other family members can have its challenges, most notably sibling rivalry, succession and simply striking a healthy balance between home life and the workplace. But as many small family firms have discovered, those close family ties can also reap significant business benefits.

According to the Institute for Family Business, there are over five million family businesses in the UK, generating almost a third of GDP. “Strong values run through family businesses,” says the institute’s website. “Owners have the opportunity to teach and pass along their business and personal values to the next generation.”

To coincide with Mother’s Day on 14 March, online shopping platform ShopAppy.com – which is supported by the bank and Visa – is celebrating the UK’s family businesses, recognising in particular those run by mother-and-daughter or mother-and-son teams.

As ShopAppy.com founder Dr Jackie Mulligan explains, for many of these businesses during the pandemic it’s been all hands on deck, even offering a chance for homeschooled kids to become more involved in their parents’ work.

“We have seen mums running shops and other local businesses, struggling to balance this with homeschooling and other family responsibilities, and calling on the rest of the family, including the kids and their own mums, to help out,” she says.

Jackie is conclusive about the advantages that close family bonds can bring to a business, including enhanced loyalty and commitment. “They are also the critical friends who will tell you exactly like it is, unlike most non-family colleagues and staff,” she says. “When you’re running a small business, it is difficult to get anyone other than your own family to bring the same passion that you do to the business.”

Shared passion: ShopAppy.com

She is speaking from personal experience, as her own business team includes her mother, Maureen, while her 12-year-old daughter Harriet helps out too. “My mum came out of retirement to help out and is completely engaged with the business and passionate about its success,” says Jackie. “Through working with her I’ve realised where my own drive has come from: she is motivated and a complete workaholic, and I’m exactly the same.”

With family involved, there is always the potential for conflict which could affect relationships away from the business. “The key to avoiding this is having distinct roles and responsibilities within the business,” says Jackie. “Mum’s is admin and aftersales, and she is brilliant at it!”

Harriet’s first involvement in the business came when she was eight, accompanying her mum on weekend launches and making an instant impact. “Customers were amazed to see an eight-year-old talking so passionately about the merits of buying locally,” says Jackie. “She is confident, creative – she has designed the mascot for our Easter campaign – and is also brilliant with technology.”

My mum came out of retirement to help out and is completely engaged with the business and passionate about its success. Through working with her I’ve realised where my own drive has come from

Dr Jackie Mulligan
Founder, ShopAppy.com

If Harriet fulfils her ambition to eventually run her own business, the experience will stand her in good stead. “It has taught her some valuable lessons for business and for life: things can be tough and don’t always go to plan, and you can’t always win,” says Jackie.

Family values: Bushmills Meat Centre

Bushmills Meat Centre in County Antrim has been in the Laverty family since its launch in 1988.

“We began as a small butcher’s shop and we’ve grown from then,” says matriarch and managing director Maud Laverty, “and it really is a family affair from start to finish.

“Both my daughters, Elaine and Sharon, started in the business as soon as they left school, as the shop was getting bigger, and they decided they wanted to be part of it. And I’m very glad they did!”

“My sister Sharon did a short spell in a secretarial post before joining,” says Elaine, “and when I was at school I thought I might want to be a teacher – but we’re both very happy with the choice we made, and that we’ve helped the business grow.”

As well as selling beef from their own farm, which is managed by Maud’s husband and son, the shop stocks lamb provided by Elaine’s husband, while Elaine’s two sons also help out at weekends. The family farm sits close to the Dark Hedges, an atmospheric avenue of 18th-century beech trees that featured in Game of Thrones and is much visited by tourists. But tourism is one thing that Maud and the family have been missing throughout the pandemic. “We didn’t have the flow of people visiting their caravans last Easter, and last summer we missed out on a few barbecues – but overall, it’s actually helped the business.”

Since buying the building that houses the shop, Maud has been producing baked goods from an upstairs kitchen, and alongside extending their vegetable range and store cupboard offering, Bushmills Meat Centre has become a one-stop shop for the community throughout the pandemic. The family’s focus on strict safety measures has also helped: “We’ve noticed people travelling from further afield to stock up with us, as they feel safe,” says Elaine.

There are many benefits to working with your family, says Maud, “but the main one is that they work any time you need them!” That flexibility is a unique benefit – as is the level of commitment that family members bring to their business, says Elaine. “Staff don’t seem to have the same passion to make the business as good as it could possibly be – whereas for the family, we give it everything we’ve got.”

Valuable lessons: It Started With A Stitch

When embroidery artist Gemma Winter opened her gift shop It Started With A Stitch last year, she had help from her 13-year-old son Robbie. Based in Abbeygate in Grimsby, the collaborative space is filled with handmade items from over 40 local and nationwide independent businesses.

After a second national lockdown last November forced schools to close, Gemma had no choice but to take Robbie with her to prepare the shop for opening, and was pleasantly surprised when he decided to get involved.

“He helped with the painting, wanted to be in charge of the music, and was very interested in what we were selling,” she says. “He loves fudge, so we found a local supplier and agreed that I’d buy the fudge, and he could keep the profits. He really threw himself into it, researching which flavours people were most likely to buy.”

With the shop closed during the current lockdown, Gemma and Robbie have focused on online sales, including selling through ShopAppy, and creating videos to support them. She says: “Having Robbie work with me in the business has taught him about the value of money and business generally; I’d be very happy if he ended up running one of his own.”

A perfect fit: The Lingerie Room and Orchid Lingerie

When Yvonne McFarland started her business, The Lingerie Room in Moygashel, County Tyrone, her daughter Jocelyn Reynolds was at university but would help her mum whenever she was home. Jocelyn went on to work as a nurse at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children but, as Yvonne recalls, they had a lovely informal working relationship. “It worked really well and we loved what we did together,” she says.

So when, four years down the line, Orchid Lingerie on Belfast’s Lisburn Road came up for sale, Yvonne decided to buy the shop, with Jocelyn in charge. They have been formally working together since 2005.

The mother and daughter have had few problems running the business together because they’re so similar. They’ll discover from sales reps that, independently, they’ve chosen the exact same stock for their stores. “It’s spooky sometimes,” says Jocelyn. “We’re on the same wavelength; we’re similar in terms of what we want the shop to be. If there’s something we really disagree on, Mum can buy for The Lingerie Room and I can buy for Orchid.”

Yvonne adds: “That’s exactly what I was going to say. It’s quite uncanny!”

As any entrepreneur knows, running your own business is often a 24/7 exercise – as Yvonne says, you live and breathe it. They’ve learned to be disciplined over the years, and don’t let the business dominate their family relationship, even though the temptation is sometimes there. At the same time, it’s good to know they can get something off their chest if they want to, says Jocelyn, or pass on good news to each other. Yvonne adds: “Quite often, it’s to reiterate a pleasant story or something that has worked out nicely for people. They’re the sort of conversations we would have at home.”

Wherever we go we can bring the girls – the people at the exhibitions are always so pleased to see the children. So it’s a bit of an education for them as well

Yvonne McFarland
Owner, The Lingerie Room and Orchid Lingerie

They have supportive families who don’t roll their eyes at mother and daughter talking shop. Jocelyn says her own daughters are now of the age when they want to accompany their mum on business trips, so there could end up being another generation running the business. But as she says, you have to have something of your own. Her mum encouraged her to finish her nursing “and I would very much want that for my girls, for them to do their own thing. But it’s lovely to have it in the family.”

Their industry is welcoming of family businesses, adds Yvonne. “Wherever we go we can bring the girls – the people at the exhibitions are always so pleased to see the children. So it’s a bit of an education for them as well.”

Even better, each generation brings a fresh perspective and their own talent. Jocelyn’s daughters are Instagram savvy, for example, Jocelyn knows the ins and outs of e-commerce and Yvonne has the personal touch – her customers know she’ll have something for them, from the first bra to the last.

They’re both keen to open their doors again once it has been declared safe to do so – a tailored fitting service is their real selling point. In the meantime, customers can shop online and they’re going the extra mile when they can. “We were able to do a video call with a lady who’d had a mastectomy; we sent her something in the post so she could try it and then followed up with another video call to check it worked,” says Jocelyn. “It’s not my favourite way of working, but it’s a way of helping people and keeping the business alive.”

Fresh ideas: My Elements

When Amita Clements encouraged her graduate son Neil to lend a hand in the family business she ran with her husband Michael, they had no idea where it would lead. The Clements family run My Elements, an Enfield-based business that specialises in bespoke and industrial engraving as well as personalised gifts and clothing.

“When Neil graduated in 2012, the recession had hit and there were no jobs,” recalls Amita. “I suggested that instead of sitting around while he waited to find a job, he helped out in the business.”

Not everyone thought it was a good move. Neil says: “When I told my university friends I was planning to work with my family, they tried talking me out of it, saying it was a bad decision. It just made me wonder what kind of relationships they had with their own parents!”

“When I told my university friends I was planning to work with my family, they tried talking me out of it, saying it was a bad decision. It just made me wonder what kind of relationships they had with their own parents!”

He quickly made himself useful, arranging broadband, which the company didn’t have, taking an interest in the accounts, and doing some business analysis. Before long, what was intended to be a temporary role became permanent, and at the age of 21 he was made a director of the business.

One of the challenges of working in a family business is balancing family life and business life without compromising either, which the Clements have successfully achieved.

“When decisions need to be made we discuss them, give our opinion, and sometimes we disagree,” says Amita. “But we all have to be adult enough to say, ‘OK, we agree to disagree,’ and find a compromise. Michael and I bring our experience and our knowledge, and Neil brings valuable skills and fresh ideas. We have to stop being dinosaurs!”

The business was so affected by the pandemic that the family considered closing it down. However, they persevered and last September launched My Little One, a baby gift box business, which mother and son are working on together. In spite of the challenges, Neil has no regrets about joining the family business.

“I have wondered what it would be like to work for someone else or with a different group of people, but it’s not something I’d want to do,” he says. “I definitely made the right decision. I love my family and really enjoy working with them, and with a new arm to the business, we are feeling optimistic for 2021 and beyond.”

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