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The Green Sheet Online Edition

June 07, 2007 • Issue 07:06:01

Home sweet business

Family albums typically contain scenes of togetherness: Thanksgiving meals, special events, vacations. The albums of many payments industry leaders show these familiar scenes : and business milestones, too.

Why? The freedom that makes this industry fertile for people seeking financial abundance also provides an excellent opportunity for families who want to work together. This includes husband-wife, parent-child and extended family teams.

"We are not only a family business, we are a family conglomerate," said George Sarantopoulos, Director of Marketing for Access One ATM Inc. "My fiancée, Heidi Chan, is Vice President, and she runs the office and daily operations.

"My father, Nicholas Sarantopoulos, helps out in the ATM technical department, and Heidi's sister, HeiHei Chan, does compliance and some bookkeeping."

Jared Isaacman has also lured family members into the fold. "I was in the basement no more than a month working on UBC [United Bank Card Inc.] before my father came on to join me full-time as my partner," Isaacman said. "We actually made an incredible tag-team sales force. My mother [joined] the team shortly after as the company bookkeeper."

Isaacman's mother is no longer active in the company, but she attends industry shows and ISO conferences. His sister, Tiffany Caramico, recently returned to the company as Relationship Manager, a position she held when UBC was in its "middle stages."

Isaacman's brothers, Marc Harris and Michael Isaacman, have also sold merchant accounts in their spare time to generate supplemental residual income.

Lisa and Michael Lineback work together at American National Payments. "Recently I took our children, Mac and Diane, to a conference at the new school that our son will be starting in the fall," Lisa said. "I left the kids in the waiting area while I met with the principal. [After the meeting,] I walked in on a conversation that I will never forget.

"Mac (age 7) said, 'Yes, we own American National Payments, and I would be happy to help save this school money on their processing fees.' Diane (age 12) chimed in, 'We also do check processing, too, and do you need an ATM in the cafeteria?'

"I thought I was going to burst out laughing. In our family business, I guess the whole family really does work together."

Risks versus rewards

An estimated 80% to 90% of all U.S. companies are family-owned or controlled : nearly 13 million in total, according to the Family Firm Institute.

Despite the popular perception that family businesses are small, mom-and-pop shops, many well-known giants, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Ford Motor Co., Mars Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., and HP, are family-owned.

But family enterprises can be risky. The business pages are full of stories about clans torn apart by professional differences: the Mondavis, the Pritzkers, the Hafts, the Murdochs, the Gallos, to name just a handful.

According to the FFI, only about 12% of family businesses make it to the third generation. And just 3% make it to the fourth generation –: although not all fail as a result of feuds.

Still, families in the payments industry say that with some care, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

"If you have a family member that shares the same vision, work ethic and general concept for doing business, you probably have a winning partnership for a new venture," Isaacman said. "Working with my father, Donald Isaacman, has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life."

Sarantopoulos said every family member comes to the table with a passion that is hard to find in outsiders. "An employee doesn't have the shared vision ... because he hasn't known you for long," he said. "When you are family, there's no better feeling than working, not only together as a business but as a family together towards a common goal.

"It is tough to do sometimes, like herding cats, but well worth it when you hit that stride. Watch out when we are all on the same page."

Michael Lineback said the best thing about working with family is "you don't have to worry about their loyalty to running the business right because they have a very vested interest in doing the right thing for the customer on a daily basis.

"And you know every day that you have someone you can lean on for support and that they will always be there."

Busy bee families

Don Schwerzler, the founder of the Family Business Institute, said research indicates family businesses tend to be more productive than nonfamily businesses.

"Family businesses create most of the jobs in the U.S., and in the process, they also create wealth for the owners," he said. "There is a higher sense of trust amongst family members, and at the same time, a more forgiving environment when mistakes are made."

Schwerzler added that families in business together "seem to have more tangible evidence of their connection to past generations, more of an appreciation of how the history of the business shaped the family and how the family values shaped the business."

Gary Yen said going into business together can bring family members closer. He works with his wife, Nora, at Money Tree Merchant Services.

"If responsibilities can be dedicated so you'll all work as a team without conflict, your business can grow a lot faster than if you did it yourself," he said. "I enjoy working with Nora. It certainly makes shop talk easier because we both know what we're talking about, without the funny or bored look. It just makes our relationship stronger."

Rocks in the road

Sarantopoulos noted that the same passion family members bring to the table can lead to real conflicts. And unlike regular employees, you can't just walk away.

"You have to work double hard to resolve conflicts because you are seeing these people: your family –: after work and during the weekend," he said. "Nobody in their old age on their death bed wished they had spent more time at the office. It's about family and taking care of and nurturing that family."

Isaacman said that, in general, working with family can have great benefits and some unfortunate drawbacks. "It can be challenging sometimes to live the differences between being both family and co-workers," he said.

Schwerzler believes that lack of a shared vision is a major reason why family businesses falter.

"There are those who see the family business as a business-first family," he said. "The other side of the divide are those ... who see the family business as a family-first business. Each side will recognize and attack a problem, but the solution to the problem can be worlds apart."

Some family businesses start out with everyone sharing the same perspective, but the situation may change over time.

"When the siblings marry, new and different value systems are brought into the equation," Schwerzler said. "That is when it gets tough, as the siblings can be inclined to seek solutions to problems that appease their spouses but are divisive for other members of the family business."

Schwerzler suggested that a family's personal planning process should drive business planning. "If you are going to create a mission statement for the business, first a mission statement should be developed for the family," he said. "If a strategic plan is going to be developed for the business, first they should develop a strategic plan for the family.

"If a succession plan is to be developed for the business, first a succession plan should be developed for the family. ... Most family businesses do not follow this protocol."

Beauty in boundaries

Rachael and Joel Rydbeck work together at Nubrek Inc. "We make sure that if we are talking about business after hours and just shooting the breeze about our day that the other person doesn't feel like they need to solve a problem," Rachael said.

"In my past jobs, I could mention a problem, and Joel never felt like he was going to be part of the solution," she added. "Now we have to clearly state, 'Hey, I just need to chew this one over out loud, don't feel like you need to fix it.'"

Another flash point for family businesses gone bad are unclear roles or expectations.

"You have to have respect for each other," Jon Perry said. He works with his wife, Vanessa Lang, at the company 888Quikrate.com Merchant Services. "We matched our strengths - not our egos - up against the things that each of us was best suited [for]."

Vanessa agreed. "We complement each other well," she said. "Jon and I are like yin and yang."

For the Linebacks, working together is a natural fit because they know their individual strengths and weaknesses. "Michael has more banking knowledge and payment processing industry experience than I do," Lisa said. "I bring a stronger marketing/PR and training background.

"Michael also took the time to find a partner, Nick Thuston, who has industry knowledge on both the issuing side and the processing side, so we have a solid foundation."

Rachael Rydbeck said she and Joel have great respect for each other as colleagues. "We are fortunate in that our skill sets are very unique," she said. "I focus more on customer relationships, and Joel oversees product development.

"But there was also a point in time where we had to pick one of us to have the last say. We like to come to an agreement on issues, but at the end of the day, one person needs to call the shot."

Family time, company time

All of the payments industry families The Green Sheet interviewed for this article agreed that they talk shop at home. A lot.

Michael Lineback said that because he and Lisa "work together in the same industry, we end up spending all of our time talking about work, and sometimes we have to remind each other to talk about stuff that is not work related.

"You have to schedule time to do stuff that has nothing to do with work, or you will spend all of your time working, which does not make for a healthy relationship. You need to agree what is work time and what is personal time and try your best to stick to it."

Yen believes it is essential "to leave the business at the office and not take it with you to the barbeque. Both Nora and I love to take a ride on my motorcycle on the weekends, which takes our minds away from the stress of work.

"I think it's important to have a hobby that we both enjoy to relieve any tensions that might crop up during the work week."

Isaacman said in his family "it's sometimes hard not to talk shop. For my father and I, this has been our life for the last eight years."

Rachael Rydbeck said she and Joel invite friends along when they go out of town "just so that we don't end up talking about work all night."

But combining personal and business time has its perks.

"We do talk shop a lot at home," Lang said. "One of the wonderful things about working together is that whenever you come up with a great idea for the business, you can discuss it."

Perry concurred. "If you have a healthy business, there is no separation between family and business," he said. "Our livelihood is linked together. It's like a tight weave - you can't really distinguish one color strand from another; you see the entire cloth.

"That's what is great about running your own family business - your life is not controlled by 9 to 5 or by someone else. Your life is what you decide it is. We probably wouldn't be as successful as we've been if we weren't doing it together."

So, next time you're looking for a way to grow your company, why not take a good look at the people sitting at your dinner table? end of article

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