• Mary Lilja

Family business reflections and a new guidebook: “The Soul of Family Business”


I grew up in a family business, so it’s in my blood, and I’m proud to announce a new guidebook for family business is now in print: “The Soul of Family Business: A Practical Guide to Family Business Success and a Loving Family,” by family business expert Tom Hubler (Lilja Press).

The book contains more than three decades of Tom’s unique wisdom from working with more than 500 family businesses – including ours. All of us at Lilja are very proud to publish this essential guide for people involved in family enterprises, filled with case studies from real-life family businesses that ring true.

Working on the book has caused me to reflect on my own experience growing up in a family business, as well as my own entrepreneurial journey. My father’s manufacturing business was like the fifth sibling around the dinner table each evening while I was growing up, where the ups and downs of my father’s business life were regular topics of conversation, along with our schoolwork.

All of us worked summer stints in the business, either in the shop, stamping out expanded metal or assembling cash drawers, or in the office, typing invoices and paychecks and handling basic filing. Though I thought it boring at the time, I used the same basic filing and bookkeeping system to set up my own small business when the entrepreneurial bug bit me at age 32.

I know my father was proud of me, even though he never exactly understood what I did: he manufactured products; I consulted using my public relations expertise, often to family owned businesses. I was fiercely independent and he kept a respectful distance. I did ask him for advice a couple of times, and he gave it: little gems of wisdom that I followed to solve what seemed to be at the time insurmountable problems.

Dad died before I could absorb more of his accumulated wisdom, and 20 years have now passed. Though I wish I’d spent more time with him on business, I realize now how powerful his example of honesty, integrity and a commitment to business and family life were (see Advice from My Father below).

Dad was an unabashed booster of small business, telling me on more than one occasion, “Running your own business is the way that people were intended to live… Sure, you will have lots of problems such as sales, personnel and finance; but the results of building a successful business greatly outweigh any of the negatives.”

After 30 years of owning my own company, I know that this has been true for me. It has been a great gig – wisdom that I’m happy to pass along to the next generation in our family.

That’s why I’m so proud to publish “The Soul of Family Business,” which contains the secret sauce of family business success: grounding it in love and family values that create the soul of a closely held enterprise.

I don’t need to tell anyone how much that quality is needed in today’s world.

For more information on “The Soul of Family Business,” visit Tom’s website, or order it on Barnes & Noble.

Business Advice from My Father

Toward the end of his life, I asked Dad, a lifelong entrepreneur, to write up the secrets of his success. His advice may seem quaint in today’s terms, but I’ve run my own business now for three decades – long enough to know that Dad’s old-fashioned advice is still germane.

Run your business with honesty and integrity. I remember all of the times Dad would praise a businessperson he knew, saying, “His word is as good as gold!” I thought: so what? Now I know better: if you really want to know someone’s true character, just do business with him or her.

Plan your work and work your plan. Dad was a master at this, including staying in close touch with his banker, which he considered his most important business relationship.

Apply “financial common sense.” This innate quality means you can see the story your numbers are telling you today, and you have the ability to project forward what an investment in machinery or people will yield. It also means managing your business conservatively and meeting your obligations.

Do your own thing and you will be successful. Dad didn’t think it was productive to pay attention to his competitors. Instead, he chose to focus on his own product and do his best, and he encouraged his people to do the same.

Good business is nothing more than good people. He told me more than once to hire good people and let them do their best. At age 19, I was opposed to a proposed change in his office one summer, and Dad listened as I made my case. “But you are missing the point,” he said. “I gave this assignment to ‘Joe’ and he is making the decision; I’m not going to undermine him.” Lesson learned.

Balance business, family and community commitments. My father had strong feelings that business was one part of life; family and community were important, too. There was no honor in building a business if a marriage suffered, or the entrepreneur became selfish and didn’t give back to the community. Dad was admirably present throughout our childhoods – not only to us, but also to our mother, and to the community at large.

Thanks, Dad, for the lessons you’ve shared. I know they will inspire our next generation, no matter what path they choose. Or it may motivate others who not only want to do their own thing, but recognize how old-fashioned business values still matter – now more than ever.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Minnesota Business. ​


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