Real Work: Fancy a job, my son?

Most of us would rather skinny-dip with piranhas than work with Dad. But, as ANNABELLE THORPE discovers, keeping it in the family can pay off
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The resignation of Jenny Pitman at Cheltenham last week came as a big surprise to many in racing, but not to her son Mark, who will succeed her. He was part of the reason she chose to give up. "Sometime or other I was going to have to let go and, because Mark has outgrown his place, this was the right thing to do," she said.

For Mrs Pitman's son, years of working for the family firm have paid off - Mark will be managing an extremely successful stable at a relatively young age (he's 32). The same is true of Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert's son, who, aged 27, has just taken up the reins of the New York end of his father's sprawling empire despite the fact that, according to the media commentator Peter Cox, "his qualifications wouldn't get him a media cadetship elsewhere".

For most teenagers the idea of working in their parent's firm - which will usually be less glam than a multi-billion-pound media company or a racing stable - could well seem unappealing: too much world to travel, too many other hi-tech, highly paid jobs to go for. Why, in the Nineties, settle for a Steptoe and Son existence? But could this, in fact, be an easy option compared with the world outside? Is it your best chance of winning a place in the boardroom?

The answer is: not necessarily, according to corporate psychologist Ben Williams. "Working for the family firm is certainly not the easy life many people suppose it to be," he says. "It is often perceived as the hassle-free option: the man at the top knows you already and you are probably quite knowledgeable about the business before you start. Most parents would love their children to take over the family firm, so there is an expectation of fast progress through the company. In smaller firms working for your parents can be extremely positive; in bigger ones it can be more complicated."

At 29, Phil Cooper runs a flourishing joinery firm in the small Sussex town of Rustington. He prides himself on managing an old-fashioned business, staffed by craftsmen who deal with any and all requests for bespoke carpentry - from church doors to staircases to replacing windows in houses built 500 years ago. He runs the business, provides estimates, still does plenty of the jobs himself and charms and chats to the elderly customers who potter into the workshop for offcuts or advice. Phil knows the company inside out. But then he should: Phil started working at his father's firm when he was 14.

"I used to sweep up after school," says Phil, "and I never questioned that I would join the firm after O-levels. The two subjects I was good at were woodwork and art, and I seemed to have a natural affinity for the work that Dad did. I joined as an apprentice at 16 and it was clear from day one that I would get no special treatment. I was under the guidance of the foreman and he was the one who taught me all the skills I needed, praised me when I did well, and ticked me off if I was slacking."

In spite of being treated the same as everyone else, Phil was always aware that he was in a slightly different position to the other staff. "There were only five of us working then and, although we all got on well and there was never any resentment towards me, I did worry that I wouldn't be able to establish myself in my own right. I wanted to be just `Phil' not `Phil - John's son' and at times I wondered if I would ever really achieve that."

For Phil, the decision to go straight from school into the family business proved to be the right one: his relationship with his father was strong and positive enough not to be complicated by their working together. But for others, the combined pressures of parental influence at home and in the workplace can become too much.

"My father runs a small chain of estate agents," says Davina Clore, who worked for her father for three years before going to university, "and it was always assumed that I would go into the firm when I finished school. At 19 I was quite happy to do just that - the lure of a good salary and a car seemed too good to pass up."

At first Davina enjoyed the job, but things changed just after her 20th birthday. "I'd been working for the firm for about eight months, and Dad promoted me to manager of the smallest office. I was delighted at first," she says, "but I soon became aware that the people working for me had a problem with my promotion. It was clear they thought the situation was unfair - even though I had been working Saturdays and school holidays since I was 16 and was clearly up to the job. The atmosphere in the office was horrible and I could feel the resentment towards me."

Davina's relationship with her father also began to falter. "I started to think about leaving for a while and Dad and I began to argue. He thought I was being cowardly and giving in to the people who clearly resented me. But I realised there was a lot of world to see, and I wasn't going to experience much of it stuck in an estate agents."

"Going straight into your parent's firm from school, if it has a relatively large workforce and formal promotion structure, is not always the best idea," says Ben Williams. "It's a far better idea to get out and see a bit of life: gain some work experience in a different company, go travelling, do something different. In order to establish yourself as an independent person - both in your eyes and that of the people you work with, including your parent - you need to get some experience outside the family base. It's like gaining your spurs: once you've proved your worth out in the real world, you'll be able to gain far more respect in your parent's company."

For Davina, the situation became too much and she left to go to university. After three years working in commercial property she returned to her father's firm. "It felt like a different company," she says. "I'd proved myself, gained my own experience and working practices. I went straight back in as manager of the largest office and had no trouble from anyone. Ironically, of course, I would have known how to deal with it by then."

For Phil, leaving the company simply never occurred to him. "I love the job," he says simply, "and I don't feel I've missed out. I think a lot of the reason it's worked so well is because of Dad's attitude. At work we're not father and son, we're friends. Three years ago we set up a partnership and last year we changed it so that we had 50 per cent of the company each, with me running the show."

Although Phil was delighted at the chance to manage the firm, he admits it can feel odd. "Suddenly everything has changed. It's me who tells Dad what to do sometimes. I often discuss things with him, and I don't walk around like the big boss, but my say is final. I've always liked the idea of a traditional business handed down through the family and I'm so proud to be running things, but it has taken a lot of hard work.

"Being Dad's son didn't make things any easier, and it's taken a long time, but people are happy to deal with me now instead of Dad. I'll be walking along the high street and people will stop me and ask some advice, or talk a bit of business. I grew up with my Dad as a well-known figure in the community, and I love the fact that I'm the new Mr Cooper in the village."

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