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Mother-Daughter Team Serves Up Unusual Example of Family Business

Executive dining firm overcomes challenges of control, competition that confront moms working with female offspring.

April 28, 1999|CYNDIA ZWAHLEN

Liliana Wilkerson spent her nights on a cot at work because she was too busy with her executive-dining business in its early days to go home. Desperate for help, she turned to her college-age daughter, Charmaine.

"I begged her to be with me for one year," Wilkerson said. "She was the proper person and I never, never, never regretted [the decision] one-tenth of a second."

Nine years later, the plea for help has evolved into a long-term partnership. Charmaine, now in her early 30s, has built the infrastructure of And Here's Lily, expanded into event management and diversified the customer base. Sales have increased fourfold to $1 million last year.

The Wilkersons' successful mother-daughter team is uncommon in the world of family business, where female family members usually hold part-time jobs and Dad runs the show.

Moms and daughters who work together can build an especially close bond, but they also face some unique challenges, according to family business consultants. Mothers can be overly protective of daughters in a way they aren't with their sons. That doesn't translate well in the workplace.

Also, the normal but bumpy process of independence that allows a daughter to craft an identity separate from her mother can be short-circuited if the two are working side by side on Mom's dream of building her business. And same-gender competition between parent and child for credit and respect can be intense though unspoken, according to Leslie Dashew of the Aspen Family Business Program, a coalition of family business experts based around the country.

Charmaine Wilkerson understands that for many women, the thought of working for their mothers sends chills down their spines.

"When they say, 'Oh my God, I could never work for my mother,' they are probably thinking of the nagging. This is different," Charmaine said. "I guess you have to meet her to understand, but Lily is just a very professional businesswoman. . . . She takes her job very, very seriously."

Dashew expects more mother-daughter business teams to emerge as women increase their presence in family businesses. Currently, fewer than one in five family members employed full time by family businesses are women, according to a 1997 family business survey by Arthur Andersen and MassMutual. But more businesses are being started by women than men these days, increasing the odds for mother-daughter duos.

Most of the potential struggles of mother-daughter businesses involve the same issues that apply to any business, and which are critical when family members work together.

Mutual respect, power sharing and clear roles are the underpinnings of business relationships, according to Dashew.

Liliana Wilkerson's professionalism, experience and round-the-clock devotion to her business have earned the respect of her clients and her daughter, said Charmaine.

In turn, Liliana values her daughter's ease with math and figures, her people skills and her profit-first orientation. Over the years, while her mother concentrated on the elegant food and protocol demanded by key client Arco's international guest lists, Charmaine has taken over the business side as well as managing outside events.

"When she came aboard, she came with fresh ideas," said Liliana, adding that her husband, while not involved in the business, has always been supportive. "To this day I don't know what I would do without her."

Charmaine, who earned an undergraduate degree in Spanish, had abandoned law school after one year and was preparing to earn a master's degree in education when her mother called for help during summer break in 1990.

The women have worked through some of the problems specific to mother-daughter duos.

"How do you separate and become your own person? It's hard to do that with your mother if you are female," said Dashew. Respect and the freedom to shape their respective areas of the company help with that, and the potential competition problem, said Dashew, who holds an annual conference for women in family businesses.

"Parents who are secure are delighted to see their children gain recognition because it's an affirmation of themselves. Others who are less secure feel jealous of the attention," she said.

That hasn't been an issue at And Here's Lily. Her mother has allowed her to pursue her own dreams for the business, Charmaine said, an important component of her satisfaction with the job and excitement about the future.

Even though she respects her daughter's opinions and has allowed her to control large parts of the business, the two don't always agree on business issues, said Liliana, who was recently nominated for the Latin Business Assn.'s annual Latin Business Woman of the Year award.

"Of course, we have many disagreements," she said. "But usually we throw on the table our opinions and, more importantly, solutions. What's best for the client is our common goal."

The women try to set aside their roles as mother and daughter: No pulling rank, and no whining or sniping when it comes to business.

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