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When worlds (almost) collide

Recently, my work-life and social-life intersected in a surprising way.

As an American in London, I am part of a rather transient ex-pat community. Just a few weeks ago, two friends of mine, Lori and Matt, told me that they were being transferred back to the US after only a year here. The move was being made because Matt was promoted and his new post required him to be in New York. Like many ex-pat spouses, Lori had given up her job to follow Matt to London and had to search for a job when she got here. It took awhile, but she finally found something about six months ago. So, needless to say, she wasn't too thrilled to have to start the process all over again upon touchdown at JFK.

At their Bon Voyage party, Lori told me that instead of pounding the pavement in New York, she was seriously considering opening a business with her sister. And she wondered if I'd like to be their ­business partner. It took me a minute to realise the full significance of this proposal. I had the chance to become part of a family business!

Lori's proposition set me thinking. The old saying, "You never make any money working for someone else", was certainly rattling around in my head. And wouldn't it be fun to start your own business and run it the way you want to? But working with two sisters? Certainly there would be elements of sibling rivalry – what two ­sisters don't fight? And how could I make sure my voice was heard as the lone 'outsider' in the company? And what happens if one of them decided it wasn't their 'cup of tea' – where would that leave me? In other words, I started thinking about all of the issues that are unique to families in business.

With these thoughts in mind, I turned to this issue of Families in Business, where we encounter three successful Swiss family businesses that involve sibling partnerships. World-famous chocolate maker Sprüngli is presently run by brothers Milan and Tomas Prenosil. Number two Swiss soft-drink maker ­Rivella was started by Robert Barth and his brother. And Henniez, the second most consumed brand of water in Switzerland is under the leadership of brothers Nicolas and Pascal Rouge. How did, and do, these siblings continue to make their businesses work?

In the case of Sprüngli, when Tomas and Milan Prenosil took over, they developed a rota with the non-family CFO, which allowed them all to take turns at the directorship. This had the effect of giving the brothers the space they needed to develop their own style of business, but under the guidance of a long-time employee.

But for Rivella, the Barth brothers ­didn't have anyone in place to turn to for guidance, as they were building the ­company from scratch. Still, they knew they couldn't go it alone, and brought in outsiders from the start. Today, the company takes the same frank approach to things: because there are only three ­siblings in the present generation, they "naturally need to bring in outsiders".

For Henniez, the Rouge brothers seemed to find their niches quite easily, which seems to have the effect of smooth sailing for the business. Engineer Pascal takes care of production, technical operations and R&D; Nicolas, with his interest in marketing, is CEO and in charge of ­commercial operations.

But what if you these decisions don't come naturally to a family business? Where can they turn? This issue of FIB also looks at the issue of human capital and how the different types of consultants can help family businesses. The field is growing and there now seems to be a ­different type of trained consultant whatever your family business needs.

Lori just phoned me to tell me that she landed a job in two days, so I don't think I will get the chance to start building a family business. It's just as well. The commute would have been a bit tough from London.

ex-pat, henniez, r&d, rouge, sprungli, Comment
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