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t-mac: how to break the rules and win

Most family business advisors recommend spending time on a plan to integrate the next generation, but in practice it's not always possible. When Lisa Wilkinson joined her family's business, FAW Electronics, it wasn't to a pre-determined timetable – as she admits, it was a case of "Can you please get here and join the company now!"

FAW was established in 1978 by Lisa's parents Irene and Alan. Alan was an electronics enthusiast who started making the alarms you hear on lorries to warn people they are about to reverse. Today, FAW designs and manufactures a range of customised electronic control solutions including the reverse warning systems, wireless sensor technology and its latest product, t-mac – a device that allows businesses to remotely monitor and control critical assets such as energy, equipment, volume, temperature and electricity, with the express aim of cutting their carbon emissions.

In 2002, 30-year-old Lisa was on her way from Edinburgh to London to continue her career in music public relations when she got the SOS to come and join the family business. Naturally she took some time to weigh up her options before deciding to take the plunge and join forces with her parents and younger brother Jonathan, 28.

"I viewed the family business as a pure technology company and, given I had done a degree in social sciences and was working in pr, I had very little knowledge of what it really did," she exclusively reveals to Campden FB. "However, the pr industry is populated with people who are prepared to work for free and I wanted to build a career and earn some money."

According to Lisa she had begun thinking about the possibility of joining when Jonathan started at FAW a few months previously: "I thought about what I would do if I joined and warmed to the idea."

Lisa set herself three questions to test whether she really wanted to be a part of the family business: would it be a challenge? Did it fit with where she wanted her career to go? And given her small, close knit family, how much did she want to give something back to her parents?

The positive answer to all three questions meant she decided to follow her brother into the business, but if the manner in which she was asked to join the company would have given your average family business advisor heart palpitations, the application process would have had them on course for a full cardiac arrest.

"There was no formal application process and I didn't have an interview – I just turned up and started work," explains Lisa, who was hired as business development director.

But while Lisa had an unnatural progression into the family business fold, Jonathan's route was a little more structured. For one thing, he spent his summer holidays as a teenager helping out in the business and went on to study computing and business management, which fitted in well with what the company was doing.

As innovations director his first role focused on new designs and t-mac was one of the first products he worked on. However, it was decided that t-mac did not fit with FAW's business model. While FAW designs and manufactures customised solutions for original equipment manufacturers,

t-mac is aimed directly at end-users. Consequently, it was spun out into a separate company with Jonathan and Lisa were put in charge of managing its development.

"We wanted to give t-mac its own personality and thankfully our parents gave us a free reign to build the business," says Jonathan. "This was lucky as in many family businesses you have to do it 'dad's way.'"

Lisa put her pr skills to use and focused on developing the t-mac brand, but both admit that one of their most difficult challenges at the beginning was not the product itself – it was gaining the respect of the non-family management and wider staff.

"I found it difficult to gain their respect because I was so young," says Jonathan who was just 23 at the time. "I made sure I worked really hard – I was first in in the morning and always last to leave at night."

While Jonathan tried to lead by example, Lisa had other challenges to overcome. "It was hard as a female because people could have thought that I was daddy's little girl coming in to run the business," says Lisa. "I decided to focus on empowering them, helping them to grow and develop to show that I wasn't there to tell them what to do."

She cites the example of a female employee as proof that her approach has worked. The woman in question had been with FAW since Lisa and Jonathan were toddlers, so has seen them grow up. However, Lisa worked with her on building up her confidence and giving support and advice on how to manage staff members and motivate her team. She became the department leader not only managing the products to be made/manufactured but also managing team development, progress, skills and experience. The two women now work closely together and Lisa believes the fact their relationship goes back such a long way was a real advantage.

The different nature of their roles means that both Jonathan and Lisa feel they complement each others work and avoid the dreaded spectre of sibling rivalry. Indeed, Jonathan says that their business relationship has so far been trouble-free.

"Working together is easy but it helps that we have two very different roles so we don't step on each others toes," he says. "While Lisa focuses on business development I focus on product design."

Naturally there is some overlap, but the pair think their different skills show up best when they go on sales pitches together; Lisa focuses on what the clients want and need while Jonathan steps in to present the more technical aspects of the product range.

Although it all seems to be working without any hitches now, the pair admit that it wasn't always the case. "Personality wise, we were different when we were growing up and we had our issues like all brothers and sisters," explains Lisa. "Essentially, our thought processes are completely different; Jonathan is technically minded whereas I'm more creative."

Ironically of course, it is this very difference that ensures they don't compete against each other in the business world. In addition, says Jonathan, the strong work ethic instilled by their parents also guarantees that the children don't compete against each other and have the same target to grow the business.

That's not to say that the family doesn't have disagreements. "We all have the chance to put our arguments forward when making any business decision," says Lisa. "If it's a decision about budgets then mum will usually have the final word as she is the finance expert, but if it's about product design then either my dad or Jonathan will be the best person to decide. At the end of the day, it's all about trust."

The final nail in the family business advisor's coffin is applied by Jonathan, who admits that boundaries between the family and the business are non-existent. "Family meals always turn into business meetings," he says, "but I don't know why people say you need to leave your business at the office – you need to live it to make it successful."

While the boundaries between the family and the business are porous, the same cannot be said about their relationships with partners and friends. Both Jonathan and Lisa agree that managing the work-life balance is their biggest challenge in terms of their personal lives.

When it comes to business challenges, Jonathan says the current economic downturn is occupying their minds to a certain extent, although the energy management market is as good a sphere as any to be in at the moment given it has grown by 24% in the past 12 months. "We are in a market that actually saves businesses money, so we are confident we will do well," he predicts.

Instead, Lisa believes the biggest challenge is people related. "We have to keep morale up among our staff as there are worrying stories in the news every day about redundancies," she says.

As a private family-owned business, the pair say its strength lies in the fact that it's solely down to the family to make it work. "It all comes down to finances and because it's our livelihood we're not going to leave when things get tough," says Lisa. "We aim to make t-mac the industry standard and that's not going to happen overnight, so we're in this for the long haul. We want to see the business grow organically."

Indeed the family actively promotes the fact that it is a family business. "When we go to new business meetings people are interested to learn that we are a family business as, in my experience, they think it has more security," says Jonathan. "It's a good talking point and normally starts the relationship off well."

How Jonathan and Lisa came into the business could, in some quarters, be used as a stick to beat them with. However, to counter criticisms of nepotism, Jonathan says they like to demonstrate how non-family staff are promoted, how they are empowered and given the responsibility to make decisions.
"We are very open with our staff so they know where the business is going and we put a lot of effort into making sure they know they are valued and can develop," concurs Lisa. "Ultimately, without them we are nothing."

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding and t-mac is certainly benefitting from the brother and sister leadership team. The business has grown three-fold in the last five years and its success can be demonstrated by some impressive contracts that have been won.

Last November t-mac tied up a deal with HSBC to reduce the energy consumption of the banking giant's retail units by 20% using its advanced mini-building management system.

Furthermore, Jonathan and Lisa were one of 20 winners at the 2008 BT Business Essence of the Entrepreneur awards. The competition celebrates the achievements of businesses that have demonstrated exceptional dedication and have found new directions to succeed in business with the help of technology. The winners were captured by famous portrait and fashion photographer Rankin.

"It's great to have been recognised," says Lisa, "and we really enjoyed the photo shoot. Most importantly though, our clients are proud that we are being successful and hopefully we will get a few more as a result."

So although the brother and sister team appear to have broken almost every family business "rule" in the book, they have proved it is no barrier to a thriving business just yet.

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