The perils and joys of a family business


Running a family business presents a unique set of challenges as blood is thicker than water. Clodagh O’Leary reports. 

In a family business, many of your ‘employees’ are literally part of the family. Spanning generations, overcoming conflict and dealing with succession are just some of the issues facing family business owners.

Tomas Conefrey took over Conefrey’s Pharmacy in 1998. His late father Caillin opened the doors on Dublin’s Pearse Street in 1955.

“You’re thrown in at the deep end is the best way to describe it because it’s a family business, there’s no formal initiation, you just show up one day and start from there,” said Tomas.

“I grew up working in the business as a young person. I was in college for a few years and worked in England. When I came back to Ireland, I more or less went straight into the business; it was a very steep learning curve. It took probably about three or four years to relax into it.”

Tomas Conefrey

When Tomas (left) took up the reins there were no direct family business supports available to him. 

“At the time there wasn’t anybody since then I’ve become aware of a lot more groups I could have approached, but at the time, it was literally a case of going in at the deep end, showing up one day and meeting the challenge head-on,” he says.

The level of support for family-owned businesses in Ireland improved dramatically in 2013 with the opening of DCU Centre for Family Business (DCU CFB), which aims to lead national and international research in the area.

In its relatively short history, it has gone from strength-to-strength receiving plaudits for its research work to date. 

It has widened its engagement with businesses considerably, says the director of the centre, Dr Eric Clinton, going from 250 businesses to a total of 1,500 to date.

The centre focuses on three ‘pillars’: research (looking at best practice in management and sustainability of Irish family business and looking at examples in Europe and the US); engagement (the centre holds up to eight events annually featuring academics and successful family business owners); and education.

Managing the family in a family business

“The most interesting thing is families learning from families, for example, a second generation learning from a fourth. There’s very much a learning communication that’s been established. There’s nothing like this in Ireland,” says Clinton. 

“There is support at SME level, but you’d almost be guaranteed to speak with family businesses in Ireland, they’d say ‘yes we are an SME’, but they’d also say they are a family business. So they want to know most about managing the family in a family business, for example, things like succession planning, in-law involvement, preparing the next generation, maintaining the size and the scale as the family gets bigger,” says Clinton, who is also a lecturer in entrepreneurship at DCU’s Business School. He says that 62% of his final year students come from family business backgrounds, which reflects the prevalence in Ireland today.

running a family business

It’s business, not personal 

One of the biggest challenges facing those in a family business is working with their parents or siblings.

Tomas, who works in the pharmacy with his mother Peggy and brother Caillin, said that it took some time to adjust to working with family, particularly in times of disagreement.

“It took me a long time to get my head around that, but now I hopefully have learned to deal with these situations. I suppose when I first came in, maybe it was immaturity; perhaps it was inexperience, but I didn’t know the best way to deal with those situations. It took me a while to realise it was just doing business; it wasn’t personal,” he says.

Now, he says he focuses on the business. “You have to get on and keep the show on the road.”

The raw topics  

Back in DCU, the centre aims to engage and educate with family businesses through their workshops, which are free to attend, and open to all business sizes. They tend to book up quickly.

On a recent roadshow tour of Irish cities, the centre took a unique approach to dealing with more sensitive issues encountered by families in business.

“We had actors to do role plays,” explained Dr Clinton, “we got five raw topics in family business, that nobody wanted to talk about, we had a fictitious company and got actors to role play the scenarios. Everyone in the room had, or has, or will have that experience; it was a safe means to have the conversation,” he says. 

running a family business

Another family member, in a way 

For all of the challenges faced by those running businesses with their families, there are some positives. 

Tomas is currently particularly busy, in the middle of a relaunch of the pharmacy and running the pharmacy’s active social media accounts.

“There’s great support there, especially when it’s hard going, it’s great to have people like that looking out for you. I suppose we have grown up with the business in a way; it’s another family member is probably the best way to describe it,” he says.

To sign up for the Centre for Family Business newsletter or to register for upcoming events, visit its site.