With all the attention paid to Wall Street banks these days it is easy to forget that the true motor that moves this nation’s economy are family-owned businesses. In fact, according to statistics from The Family Firm Institute in Boston, nearly 90 percent of all businesses in America are either family owned or affiliated with a family business. Historically it was the sons that were the heir apparent to family businesses, often groomed from an early age to work side by side with fathers until they can take over. Pop culture has reinforced that manly message in everything from Hollywood’s “The Godfather” trilogy to television’s infamous Ewing clan.
But in truth, those who study the dynamics of family businesses say often the most successful pairings are fathers and daughters.
There is typically less conflict in father-daughter partnerships compared with those of fathers and sons. “Daughters generally do not feel or act upon any sense of competition with their fathers. Rather they want to help, partner with or protect their fathers,” says Joseph Astrachan, executive director of Cox Family Enterprise Center at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta.
There are no statistics to the number of father-daughter teams in this country but experts say they are seeing an increase in virtually every field. And while it can be tricky mixing generations and gender those who do say the rewards are worth it. Here are the stories of three successful Denver fathers and daughters who wouldn’t do it any other way:
Tom Johnson and Kamala Madden
CHP Design Group
When Kamala Madden was a little girl she would pad into her father’s office at night and sit next to his drawing board watching him sketch floor plans. She would pepper him with questions: “What is that for? Why did you do that?” By the time she was 8 she had her first job folding binder strips onto blueprints. He paid her $1 for every box of bound plans. “I was excited that I was working for the company,” Madden, now 44, remembers. Besides, it beat washing dishes.
“I was tickled to death she was interested,” says Tom Johnson, 72. “All I ever wanted to do was be an architect.”
As a teenager in Virginia he was a gifted musician, playing saxophone on the blues circuit with the likes of Ray Charles. But money was tight so to make ends meet he worked construction. Before long his boss realized Johnson could also draw plans. Soon Johnson was making money in both framework and sketch work. By the time his daughter was born he gave up music for good and concentrated on home building and design. He worked on job sites by day and took architecture classes at night. In 1969 he opened Continental Home Plans, a company that for four decades has been specializing in residential architectural design. Today he calls it simply CHP. His daughter told him initials are more hip.
Madden hadn’t planned on joining her father’s business but fate and a bad case of the flu intervened. After high school she got a job working for a mall jewelry store. In 1983 when she tried to call in sick she was fired. She asked her father if she could get a job at his company. Secretly he was thrilled but cut her no slack. At age 18 she started at the bottom, emptying trash cans and running errands. Still, because she had been around construction and architecture her entire life she slowly began to advance. “I made it hard on her,” Johnson said of his only child. He wanted her to truly learn the skills of his trade not just dabble in them.
Madden dug in and persevered. “I think for the first five years I cried every day,” she says now.
Then, over time, something remarkable happened. She no longer was working for her father but started working with him. “For the last 10 years she’s been the backbone of the company,” Johnson says with no small amount of parental pride. They both say they bring different strengths to the table. “He’s the sticks and bricks guy and I’m more the decorator,” she says. He gives her credit for keeping him organized. She defers to his experience, he to her knowledge of technology. She laughs at the memory of years ago fighting her father to get a newfangled piece of office equipment called a fax machine. He said it was foolish and a waste of money. She won and within days he wondered how they could have ever gotten along without one. There have been few conflicts in their working relationship. There is no pulling rank anymore. They are peers. In one recent project Madden took the lead, meticulously designing a state of the art kitchen for a local chef. Once she was done her father designed the rest of the house around the kitchen. In such a male dominated field Madden continues to fight sexism. She still gets the catcalls from construction workers when she goes to a job site. She is not shy at putting them in their place. Sometimes, though, she can’t resist having a little fun playing the gender card. Once when shopping for a drill, a male sales clerk dripped with patronization. She sweetly asked if any of the drills came in pink.
Johnson is proud that his daughter holds her own. “I think it’s funny. There’s not a person on the job who knows more than she does.” He has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to gender equality. In fact he was once fired from a job back in the 1950s when his supervisor asked him to nominate a worker for a promotion and he suggested a woman. Johnson has no plans to retire anytime soon. He jokes he will “die at the plow.” He would, however, have no problem turning over the reins to his daughter. They already are co-owners. And she can’t imagine letting go of a business he has worked so hard to build. “When you work in a family business,” she says turning the tables on the cliché, “It’s not just business. It’s personal.”
Frank S. Schneider and Kim Schneider Malek
The Schneider Consulting Group
It’s one thing for Frank Schneider and his daughter, Kim Schneider Malek, to talk the talk but if they don’t walk the walk, too, it’s bad for business.
“Our relationship is part of our brand,” says Malek, 46. The father and daughter consultant team make a living counseling people how to get along better in a family business. That can mean sorting our power struggles over money, working through a transition of ownership from one generation to the next, or even something as sticky as what family members should call each other in the office. Malek sometimes calls her father “Dad”, sometimes “Frank.” Both father and daughter know when they meet potential clients they are being sized up not only for their credentials and track record but also for the vibe between them. Frank Schneider, now 75, started his professional life in 1958 as a Certified Public Accountant, something he jokes he is now fully recovered from. Still, his years within the corporate hierarchy taught him how businesses and their employees work best. His role in accounting firms became one of management consultant. In 1987 he started his own consulting firm. His area of expertise was working with family businesses, teaching them how to grow and navigate the sometimes emotional minefield of mixing DNA with running a business. In the beginning he was one of the few specialists in the country. To help better understand the dynamics of families he even went back to school to earn a certificate in family therapy.
Malek, as the middle of three children, never dreamed she would one day join her father. Growing up she saw him still as an accountant and she hated numbers. Still, she remembers how she loved to meet him for “business” lunches at the Brown Palace and tag along with him at work. In high school she got a summer job as a “donut getter” in his office. She earned an undergraduate degree in communications and an MBA before starting a career in the cable television industry. In 1997 a serendipitous meeting as she headed for a backpacking trip in Southeast Asia changed her career path. An Aspen man on her flight asked her if she would be interested in helping him and his wife in their video business. She agreed but confessed she had no experience in consulting a family business. She did, however, know someone who did. Her father reluctantly agreed to mentor her. Schneider’s reservations came in part because he was worried he was not qualified to teach his daughter something he himself was still learning. But more than that, he was worried about the toll it might take on their relationship. He had worked with his own father and father-in-law in various enterprises with very mixed results. He remembered the tension between him and his father: “I thought my Dad didn’t know what he was doing.” That was about the time his mother fired him. Schneider’s wife, too, was uneasy about their daughter’s plan. “She did not want to lose family because of business,” Malek says. But after a summer of collaborating on Malek’s video business project, Schneider hired his daughter. So much for his vow to be a solo practioner. His requirement was she had to take the same family therapy courses he did. “I started at the bottom and worked my way up,” Malek said. “Just because I was family did not mean I was excused from hard work.” Sometimes she sensed early on that she was not fully accepted by clients who assumed she had only been hired as a favor. Malek was determined to prove all doubters wrong. After about six years she became a full partner.
Schneider says he first realized how good his daughter was when they began teaching a course together at the University of Denver. He stepped back in wonder as he watched her take command of the classroom. Even though they now meet new clients as equals Malek never forgets the family part of the equation. “The fact of the matter is he is my Dad and I am in this business because I am his daughter.”
Keith Combs and Devon Combs
The Kentwood Company
When Devon Combs announced at dinner two years ago that she wanted to get her real estate license, her father remembers his jaw dropping.
After all it wasn’t all that many years before when his oldest daughter and her brother and sisters would complain mightily when he would stop the car at a property for sale to take a peek. “Not another house,” they would groan.
In reality, though, the real estate business had been part of his children’s lives since birth. Keith Combs remembers stashing Devon in a bassinette under a table during closings with clients. By high school he was paying her $25 to greet people and give tours at open houses.
Once the shock of her announcement wore off Combs realized real estate might be a good fit for his oldest child. She had been bouncing from job to job after leaving college in 2004 without a degree. The 23-year-old had worked at Starbucks and horse ranches and even a Doggy Day Care, from which she still bears the scars after being bitten by one of her charges.
“Well, OK,” he said, his mind already running through his Rolodex wondering who he knew who could help her get a salaried job. Commission work is tough on newcomers in real estate.
But after passing her real estate license exam easily she dropped the second bombshell. “Can I work with you, Dad?”
Combs, now 57, had never had a partner before. Still, he figured, why not? His own career path had been nothing if not unconventional. After college he couldn’t find a job so began tending bar. Shy and introverted he quickly learned the gift of gab. Four years of bartending sharpened his people skills so he made the switch to selling houses, picking a law degree along the way at night school. He has now been in the real estate business for 31 years.
When Devon first asked to join him it was a change that benefitted him as much as her. “I think a couple years ago I was in danger of becoming stale,” he admits. She had youth and a fresh eye; he had experience and contacts that reached back decades.
Today both names are on all listings. They meet every new client as a team. Depending on the rapport, sometimes one generation takes the lead, other times it is the other. Although they are still working out the commission split (he gets more) they consider the other a peer. “He’ll always be my Dad but in a professional setting he is my partner,” Devon Combs says.
The elder Combs marvels at his daughter’s ease with technology. At age 25 she reaches the new generation of first time home buyers through Facebook and MySpace. He pats his leather-bound pocket calendar and announces, “This is my Blackberry.”
Devon Combs can’t quite bring herself to call her father by his first name and he jokes he is trying to avoid the word “sweetie.” In two years of working together they have had virtually no conflicts. Both say that even though they were always close, working professionally together has added a new dimension to their relationship. Their advice to other fathers and daughters considering joining forces is to be honest about expectations and make sure it is something both want. Ideally it should be the daughter’s idea.
Some of her friends are puzzled by Combs’ desire to work with her father. Most people her age are still trying to assert their independence from them parents. She simply shrugs. “I’ve been independent since I was about 12. I’m proud to work with my Dad.”