How to smooth family business relationships

By Jim Kendall

This column originally appeared in the October 13, 2014 Daily Herald

                 Families can build great businesses – productive, profitable and long-lasting. But family businesses can end badly, too – flaming out in generational issues or other squabbles.

The Mitzens are aiming for productive, long-lasting and profitable.

To that end, the Mitzens have put structural guidelines in place to resolve issues that often arise as family businesses progress. They also have put considerable effort into creating a family mission and values statement intended to guide relationships and decision-making.

For the Mitzens and families in similar situations, “It’s really important to define their personal values” so that different work-related attitudes can align in a smoothly operating business setting, says Gail Sussman-Miller. “The family dynamic is like a jigsaw puzzle. Everyone has a place.”

Chief obstacle buster at Inspired Choice, Chicago, Sussman-Miller worked with the Mitzens as they developed the values and mission that define their approach.

The Mitzens’ business is Northwest Hearing Centers Arlington LLC, a Barrington Hills company with six Zounds Hearing franchise locations. The first opened in Arlington Heights in August; the second is building out in Lombard.

Who are the Mitzens?

* Dad. Andy Mitzen, president and CEO. “I’m more the funder who provides strategic input,” Andy says. “Nick and the family run the business.”

* Mom. Nancy Mitzen. She’s CFO.

* Daughter. Lindsey Mitzen. Her legal background allows Lindsey to handle lease negotiations and insurance. She’s the HR go-to person.

* Son. Nick Mitzen, vice president business development.

* Nick’s fiancée. Agata Przeklasa. A customer service specialist, Przeklasa manages the Arlington Heights store.

It’s the Mitzens’ willingness to talk out values and relationship issues before opening their first store that sets the family apart.

“We spent more than 30 days developing our mission and values,” Andy says. The exercise “gave us insights to each other’s values – and made us realize that someone doesn’t necessarily disagree, just looks at (an issue) differently.”

Among the indications that the values and mission process has taken hold: “I’m not Dad at work,” Andy says. “I’m Andy. If I try to play the Dad card, it doesn’t work. My wife is Nancy, not Mom.”            The first name distinction, a staple of the family’s work culture, helps put everyone on the same level.

Another indication: No business is discussed at dinners or other family gatherings, though Nick admits “Agata and I talk a little.” Instead, there are weekly meetings to discuss business matters.

“Life is about human interactions,” Andy continues. “Our mission and values process has helped. When we run into issues, someone asks, ‘Are we communicating in accordance with our mission and values?’”

Family businesses “are so much about communication,” Sussman-Miller says. “You can’t personalize issues. The emotional reaction comes first, but it’s important to sort out the emotion and get to the facts in a neutral way.

“Create work-free zones in the family structure,” she suggests, “and stop talking about work after hours.”


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