Caroline Frank can empathize with the feuding that's going on at Cablevision, where Chief Executive James Dolan is pitted against his dad...

Share story

Caroline Frank can empathize with the feuding that’s going on at Cablevision, where Chief Executive James Dolan is pitted against his dad, Chairman Charles Dolan, over the future of the company.

Frank’s accounting / tax-preparation business may not be the size of Cablevision — she has about 650 clients. And she doesn’t have swanky corporate digs — she and her staff work from her home in Huntington, N.Y.

But she knows what it’s like to work with family members. Her staff of seven includes her son Richard John, 39, processing manager, and daughter-in-law Susan, 44, who last year took over administrative duties from Frank’s mother, Annie Kachura, 86, who still serves as receptionist.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

And, yes, Frank says, friction does arise. Take those times when work differences spill over into family gatherings. She and her son have been known to step into the “conference room” — her pink Italian-tile bathroom on the first floor — to discuss the issues. OK, yell about them.

Sure, she says, there are clashes, but overall, “it’s a lot of fun.”

All in the family

Not all family businesses are of the mom-and-pop variety. Slightly more than one-third of family-owned firms are on the Fortune 500 list of top companies, according to the Cox Family Enterprise Center. And just look at some of the behemoths that are family-run:

Wal-Mart: Discount retail chain

Bentonville, Ark.

Founded: 1962

Ford: Auto manufacturer

Dearborn, Mich.

Founded: 1903

Viacom: Media

and entertainment

New York

Founded: 1954

Loews: Tobacco, hotels, etc.

New York

Founded: 1919

Gap: Apparel stores

San Francisco

Founded: 1969

McGraw-Hill: Publishing, advertising

New York

Founded: 1909

Estée Lauder: Cosmetics

New York

Founded: 1946

Lefrak Organization:

Real estate

Rego Park, N.Y.

Founded: 1905

L.L. Bean:

Sporting goods

Freeport, Maine

Founded: 1912

Source: Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

That’s not always the case, as Cablevision’s family feud aptly demonstrates. In fact, the giant company’s very public fight is typical of what happens all too often in private at many of the nation’s small, family-owned companies. Experts on family businesses say relationships are so fractured by issues such as succession, inheritance and sibling rivalry that most businesses — about 70 percent — never get passed on.

Some people think it’s crazy to work with family members because of all the baggage that’s built up from childhood. Others think it’s crazy not to, because who else can you trust to have your best interests at heart?

Those who get the relationship to work say there certainly is potential for conflict. The key, they say, is to face it from day one — to raise and discuss difficult issues early, such as who’s responsible for what, how compensation is determined and the role of other family members.

“If the right people are talking about the right things at the right time and in the right way, you’ll have harmony,” says Timothy Habbershon, director of the Institute for Family Enterprising at Babson College near Boston.

He also says not to get “too black and white” about keeping business talk out of family life in the hopes of avoiding strife. “When you take away the potential for conflict, you also take away the same potential for advantage. We tell people that healthy families manage the interaction between the family and the business and individual careers — not separate them or pretend they don’t exist.”

Why? Because when owners don’t clarify roles, they might find themselves in the same situation of two brothers in their 70s. During a mediation session Habbershon had to hold one back and Habbershon’s colleague the other to keep them from decking one another over their kids’ roles in their manufacturing business.

It’s important, too, for families to create boundaries between personal and work time. Fredda Herz Brown, a Manhattan consultant who works with families that share assets, tells of one married couple who own a business and drive to work in separate cars. That, she says, gives them time “to get their heads together, to focus on themselves, to shift into another gear.”

It’s an idea Taniella Jo Harrison, 33, and her mother may want to consider. Harrison’s grandmother died unexpectedly three years ago and left her business to her daughter — Harrison’s mother — who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Harrison left her job to come run Tri-County Home Nursing Services in Westbury, N.Y., and so now she reports to her mother, who’s president of the company.

When her mom is in town, she stays at Harrison’s home and they drive to work together. On those days, “it’s Tri-County morning, noon and night. We get up in the morning, come to the office, come home talking about Tri-County.”

Harrison says she feels a strong need to carry on the legacy of her grandmother, who introduced her when she was a child as the “future president” of the company. That led her to see herself as an entrepreneur and go on to get an MBA.

Such early inspiration and preparation help make for smooth sailing down the road. Joseph Astrachan, director of the Cox Family Enterprise Center at Coles College of Business in Kennesaw, Ga., says parents can impart group decision-making skills to their kids early on. Start by telling them you’ll take them out to dinner if they all agree on a place — “otherwise, it’s peanut butter and jelly.” As they grow, toss in questions related to fair ways of running the business.

Parents err, he says, in developing only one-on-one relationships, which leads to competition and potential feuding.

As for Frank, 61, she says that when her son came on board about 11 years ago, “I had to remember I’m his boss, not his mother. I would bite my tongue when I was ready to yell.”

The most important skill, she says, has been learning to really listen to one another. When they do, they usually find middle ground.

When they don’t — or when her mother pops in during a complicated calculation with a client to say that the garbage bags haven’t been picked up and the wind is going to blow — Frank steps away and “I put on my coat and walk around the house three times. … It relieves the tension.”