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Mother-Daughter Teams : Communication, Planning Key to Their Success


Picture Mom baking muffins with the berries you picked, typing your term paper, forbidding you to wear that too-short skirt, losing sleep when you stayed out too late.

Now picture your boss. Chances are the two don't look much alike. But for an increasing number of women, the pictures are the same.

Mother-daughter businesses, like any family-owned companies, can be really great or really awful, experts say.

"I don't think there's a middle ground," said Edward Poll, who has instructed entrepreneurs at UCLA Extension for 21 years.

Generally, the rules for success in family business, Poll said, are communication and clear succession planning.

The Pepys family seems to be following that formula. Shirley Pepys, president and founder of NoJo Inc. in Rancho Santa Margarita, started her business with a neighbor 21 years ago. The company, which makes baby clothes and accessories, has grown to 60 employees. Two years ago, Pepys invited her 27-year-old daughter, Renee, to join her in business.

Shirley and Renee, who is sales and marketing manager, and other top executives who are not family members hold weekly staff meetings. The formal setting for business discussions is important. Too often, experts say, family members make assumptions about what the others are thinking.

Shirley Pepys recently hired a general manager to take on some of her responsibilities. She intends for him to run the company for seven or eight years--until Renee or another of her three siblings, who may join the business in the future, is ready to take over.

"Renee was very much involved in this decision, and she's all for it," Shirley Pepys said of the succession plan.

The Pepyses agree that mother and daughter are both strong-willed. That, they say, keeps them from stepping on each other's toes.

"We still have that mother-daughter thing," said Renee, who worked as a sales manager for Robinson's department stores for three years before joining her mother in the family business. "I'm getting married in September, and we were arguing about bridesmaids' dresses. I finally said: 'You pick them out.'

"I'm a pretty assertive, aggressive person. I know what I like and what I don't like. But there's always room for suggestion."

Shirley Pepys said she tries to stay out of her daughter's way at work and is grateful that Renee and she have similar, strong personalities: "It would be frustrating for me to work with someone who was not as assertive, because that's what it takes to stay ahead in business."

Many families that work together are not as fortunate, said Ross Nager, executive director of Arthur Andersen's Center for Family Business in Houston. One indication of how difficult the arrangement can be is that only a third of family businesses survive into the second generation.

He said more mother-daughter pairs are coming in for advice these days, though their numbers are still very small. But he noted that he deals with long-established firms; businesses owned by women are generally newer.

Women today are starting their own companies at twice the rate of men, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, and they now own 28% of the country's businesses. So it's a good bet that, in the future, mom as entrepreneur will become a more frequent American paradigm.

Nager says he does not think that will substantially change the advice he dispenses. "The only benefit I can see to women being involved in business is they are naturally more compassionate, and so the potential for having a better relationship is higher" with a mother-daughter team, he said. "But generalizations are difficult. There are obviously women who are horrible at dealing with people."

UCLA's Poll said women-owned businesses can face added tension because women historically have had less access to capital.

"Women have a harder time getting into business, so when their children come in, they can be more demanding," he said. "They can be less willing to let go of some of the control."

One family drew on savings and refinanced their home after being turned down for both commercial and Small Business Administration loans. Audrey and Vivian Heredia, mother and daughter, teamed up to open the McCharles House restaurant in Tustin seven years ago.

From the start, the two have been co-owners. They say that minimizes the likelihood that the parental and business relationships will get tangled.

"I respect her opinion," said Audrey, 52. "As a parent, I've always listened to what my children had to say. I may not always agree with them. But I've listened, and that is part of our ability to work together."

Their ability to compromise was tested four years ago, when they questioned their decision to close the restaurant to the public to accommodate wedding receptions. Regular customers were walking away disappointed, even though the wedding parties were very lucrative.

Vivian had argued that the restaurant was losing the regular customers who would enable it to stay in business over the long term.

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