Family Business Management: Getting Children Interested

The vast majority of businesses in the U.S. are family-owned. Ours
is no exception. Maybe it’s because doing business as brothers has been
so central to the success of our business that we were drawn to the
story of the Ponzis who moved to the Oregon countryside over three
decades ago to start one of the northwest’s finest wineries— Ponzi Vineyards.

It
all started in 1968 when Dick left his job as a theme park ride
engineer at Disneyland. He sold the family house, packed their
belongings into the car, and traveled the country in search of a place
to plant grape vines. He had $30,000 saved up to start his dream
business. He and wife Nancy found their dream acreage near Portland,
Oregon in the Willamette Valley.

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Since then, the
Ponzis have enjoyed many harvests, thousands of happy customers and
worldwide acclaim for their wines. But Dick and Nancy’s success has
come not only in the form of award-winning Pinot Noirs – perhaps the
biggest reward has been seeing their three children grow up to embrace
management of the family business and grow the winery into the world
class label it’s become. The Ponzis are living a dream many families
across the country share—to run a business that not only generates
substantial revenue and provides a great lifestyle, but one that also
creates career opportunities for the next generation of family members.

One
by one, all three Ponzi children have returned to play key roles in the
family business. Michel began working full time at the winery not long
after he graduated from college, slowly taking over management of
operations from his father.

Luisa, who had been
studying pre-med and biology, returned from a trip to France intrigued
all the more by the idea of making wines. “It wasn’t until I was 20
that I actually started seriously considering working at the winery.”
Ten years later, Luisa is now the winemaker for Ponzi Vineyards,
constantly crafting the latest generation of wines, including new
varietals like Chardonnays.

Maria, once a
high-powered ad executive for Inc. magazine, returned home to take over
marketing for Ponzi Vineyards after realizing just how empty fame and
financial success felt in the corporate world. “I got a Rolex and a big
office, but the whole idea of a ‘team’ in that environment just wasn’t
real.” What was so appealing to Maria about returning to the vineyard
was being part of a true team—working with her parents and siblings. “I
came home and started working and I never looked back. What could be
better than working with your mom?”

We featured
Ponzi Vineyards as a Super Startup on StartupNation Radio in August of
2003, and later visited with the Ponzi family in May of 2004 to tour
their beautiful facility firsthand. What we discovered was far more
than fine wines. Here are some of the key moves Dick and Nancy made to
create a business their children would want to call their own:

  • Soft Sell. When it comes to getting your children interested in the business, a soft sell is better than a hard sell .
    Though the Ponzi children worked in the vineyards growing up, they did
    it by their own choosing. While Dick and Nancy knew their true hope was
    that the children would one day carry on the legacy she and her husband
    had created, they stuck to their strategy. “The children had to decide
    for themselves that they wanted to be a part of it,” Nancy told us. “In
    our early years, we made some bad agricultural choices, but one thing
    we did right was giving the kids the choice to do whatever they wanted
    with their lives. We didn’t force them into the business. There were no
    expectations.”

Our hunch is that
this “soft sell” gave the Ponzi children the feeling of independence
and identity that children crave and a way to choose their own career
path, while allowing them to see the qualities of the family business
without any negative bias. If your children seem uninterested in the
family business you’ve created, take heart.

  • Get Them Out!
    The Ponzis made sure their children got out into the world before
    settling on a career at the vineyard. The Ponzi children spread out
    across the country before finding their way back home.

It
might be smart to encourage your children to work at another company
before taking on a role in the family business. This gives them a
unique set of experiences to draw from, which can inspire fresh
thinking and the bold new ideas that reenergize so many family
businesses when the next generation takes over. And it helps them
appreciate the opportunity to be part of the family’s business.

  • Roll with the Roles. The
    Ponzis did another smart thing—they let the children decide what roles
    they’d like, rather than forcing specific roles upon them. “They needed
    to figure out for themselves what roles within the business they were
    best suited for. We couldn’t do that for them,” said Nancy. This also
    keeps the siblings from competing or overlapping in their roles.
  • Step Aside.
    The Ponzis did a good job of stepping aside to provide growth
    opportunities for the children, even if it meant letting them make the
    same mistakes Dick and Nancy had made when they were just starting out.
    Luisa confirmed this. “While I still rely on my father for so many
    things, like his strong palate, one of the keys to the success of our
    business has been that our father was willing to step aside. He oversaw
    me, but he let me experiment. He let me make the same mistakes he did.
    He never said, ‘Well, I’ve done that, and it doesn’t work.’”

For
us, the Ponzis are a symbol of how important family can be to business.
By making it a priority and having a strategy to encourage
participation of their children, they’ve successfully made their
business part of the family legacy.

The Ponzis also
demonstrate how important business can be to family. Their vineyard has
provided a unifying mission that brings the family together and
strengthens—not strains—the familial bonds. They all share in a company
mission that benefits all.

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
StartupNation Writer
StartupNation Writer

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