Keeping It in the Family

Did you know that nearly two-thirds of the UK’s Small and Medium-sized Enterprises are family run firms, with family businesses accounting for over 30% of GDP?  And they’re not just small businesses either. Associated British Foods (owns Kingsmill, Primark and Twinings amongst other major brands) and steel firm Stemcor made over £15bn between them in 2011 and both are still family-run businesses.

So, what does this have to do with design?  Well, there are many family businesses in the world of design too (the Conran and Missoni families possibly being the biggest) —and Greenwich Design is one of them.  The company was originally set up by my father in 1966 (called Graphex back then).  In truth, as it’s how we’ve evolved over time, I don’t usually think much about it as it is simply how we are, but I was interested to see an article by the Forum of Private Business saying that it believes the country’s economic future is hugely reliant on the success of family businesses, calling them the backbone of GB plc.

It got me to reflect on the pros and cons of keeping things in the family and I thought it might be useful to pass on to other budding design families what we’ve learned during the 40 years or so we’ve been in business.


Carve your own furrow

The big advantage for me, has been that I acquired a great deal of experience and understanding of the process of running a business – from costing a job to client liaison and, of course, the creative side. Many nights we sat in the car in the drive discussing the workings of the business and nowhere else would I have got the same level of insight and experience.  That said, I am glad that I worked at other businesses before joining the family firm and I would recommend other people contemplating a similar move to do the same.  This enabled me to prove myself first as a valuable addition to the team, bringing with me more than just my passion for graphic design and the family name.


Get the family balance right

This is key to making a family business work.  When I first started out at Greenwich Design I don’t think we had this quite right. It felt like a family business with a few other employees involved —particularly as my sister Liz, a fantastic illustrator, took desk space in the office as well. So I made it my goal to get this balanced correctly, turning it into a business that just happened to have family involved. By doing this, what we have found is that it is possible to create a sense of ‘family’ amongst all the staff anyway.


Apply the same rules across the whole business

It is important to ensure that family members and the rest of the staff all work to the same set of rules.  No special dispensation, freebies or seniority based on family.  Let the personalities, experience and skills of all the staff be the determinant of position and influence within the business.


The family factor

If you get on well, there are undoubtedly some real benefits to working with your family.  It’s easy to discuss and develop ideas with family members as finding the best ones is more important than trying to impress someone.  Frankly, it’s probably also easier to tell a family member that they’ve got it wrong and in the case of a crisis, you’re more likely to just look for the solution collectively rather than trying to work out who’s to blame. Calling someone up on a Sunday morning to make changes, additions etc can feel less of an issue too. The balance must always be work first, family second.


Taking the long term view

Overall, I think a family business can provide a real sense of stability which comes from the security of knowing you have real trust and loyalty. In my experience, it’s these qualities, combined with creative, intelligent flair and a strong business culture that clients look for.  Indeed, according to a study last year by the Harvard Business Review, family businesses are much more resilient and the odds of survival during difficult times is significantly higher.  We tend to take a much longer view of our business and how to ensure its survival 10-20 years from now.  This makes us quite a different proposition to a company with a CEO looking to make a mark through his or her own performance.


Work at it

As for any business, it’s not going to be 100% perfect all the time— you need to work at it.  It’s probably more important than ever to be clear about the role of each person in the business and what you expect right from the start, with everyone having a contract irrespective of family connections.  You give all your other employees contracts and family members should be no different.  It’s also important to be candid.  If it’s not working, talk about problems openly to see if you can work them out.  If you can’t solve issues, then this is the time to put family first over business.  It is going to be hard to walk away if it comes to that, but you can get a new job.  Getting a new family is considerably harder!


Anyone can have a family business

‘Non-family’ businesses would do well to start to think like a family business if they want to still be flourishing in years to come.  The pitfalls I’ve outlined are relevant to, and worth avoiding by, any organisation—they’re just amplified, somehow, when you’re keeping it in the family.  However, the key benefits of a family business, such as long term thinking, inclusivity, trust and a clear sense of communication and fairness are strong pillars for any design business to be based upon.


About the Author

Simon Wright studied Graphic Design at London College of Printing. Having set up a design studio in Saudi Arabia and agency roles in London, he became Managing Director of Greenwich Design in 1994.

His expertise spans a wide range of disciplines across various design and marketing channels.