Women in HVAC: Got a Partner? A Family Business? Need an Aspirin?

Oct. 11, 2012
Mechanical Systems Week (Comfortech), for those who didn’t attend, was outstanding. Great seminars, networking, and exhibitors with new products, services, and ideas

Mechanical Systems Week (Comfortech), for those who didn’t attend, was outstanding. Great seminars, networking, and exhibitors with new products, services, and ideas. If you missed it, don’t do that to your business next year. Be in Philadelphia, September 18-20, 2013.

The themes were many as always, but the conversations that caught my attention involved families in business together with the theme of dysfunctional partner relationships. Dysfunction is a prevalent topic because so many businesses in our industry start with a handshake and an assumed understanding between the originating family members or partners. Then, four headache-causing problems can occur.

Problem One — Different Pictures. Attorneys are a necessary part of a business’ life. An attorney is never more critical than at the beginning years of a business. He or she draws/creates the picture of the organizational structure based on the vision of the founding members. If that picture isn’t in alignment between the founding members, working it out early in the business’ life is much better than later.

Problem Two — No One In Charge. Often, when service technicians go into business for themselves or a family business adds another family member, no one wants to appear egotistic. They think, “We are friends now,” or, “We are family now and we can work things out.”

So, no one wants to have the title of general manager or president. Partners or family members will just be owners. Who needs fancy titles?

That may work for distribution of profits, but it’s a lousy way to run a business. It must be determined who makes what decisions, who hires and fires, who sets pricing, who has responsibility for watching the financials, who generates new business, who sets the marketing budget, who implements it, who makes cost decisions, and who buys what.

The solution — organizational charts that define who within the company is responsible for the performance of certain departments and people. The benefit is that employees can’t play the bosses (owners) off of one another. Systems and processes are not an option for a successful business. Systems and processes create a successful business.

Business owners who work in a business often forget that they’re also employees. Every employee must be accountable for his/her performance. Being an owner doesn’t eliminate employee responsibilities to the company, making job descriptions and performance standards a required.

Problem Three — Business Outgrows Family Members and/or Partners. So if you’ve corrected the first two problems, what do you do with that family member or partner who can’t perform his/her responsibility as an employee? Solution: The company’s board of directors must fire that family member or partner. The partner or family member remains an owner, but he or she is no longer an employee of the business.

Typically, most privately-held family-owned companies have a board of directors in name only to meet the requirements of incorporation or Subchapter S. And the thought of having an active, functioning, decision-making board with 60% of its members from outside the company and ownership is frightening. But a good board is the neutral advocate for the business. It facilitates the implementation of strategies that ensure the value of the business continues to increase, including the power to fire owners from employee positions.

Problem Four — Mom/Dad Won’t Let Go. Unfortunately, this happens too frequently for many reasons: baby boomers don’t have a life without work; parents don’t trust the kids (after all, the kids want to do things differently) and the parents haven’t set aside funds to retire and need the continued revenue stream from the business.

Children have two or three courses of action. First, they must force mom and dad to talk about the business: the future of their role in it and the future of the business itself. Next, consider having grandchildren so mom and dad have something else to play with (only somewhat kidding!). Or help them find something else to be involved with — volunteering, giving back to the community, some passion they never had time to pursue.

Seek family counseling. There’s no stigma associated with this. Finally, if all else fails, leave and start your own business or go to work where there’s an opportunity for personal growth. Sometimes, this may be the only alternative.

See why you must be at Comfortech next year? It provides aspirin for this issue and so many others.

Vicki LaPlant has been working with HVAC contractors for the past 30 years as a trainer/consultant. She helps people work better together for greater success. She is also a founding member and president of the board of the Joseph Groh foundation. Vicki is a longtime Contracting Business.com editorial advisory board member and can be reached by email at [email protected], or by phone at 903/786-6262.