Business Essentials: Are there too many cooks at the firm that Mama made?

Kate Hilpern reports from the cookery school where relative values are clashing
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The Independent Online

"When I graduated from Warwick Business School, I was dying to go into a sales/ marketing role in a big corporate," says Letizia. "But after I'd worked for [the drugs company] Pfizer for three years, I realised I didn't want my boss's job or my boss's boss's job.

"Instead, I wanted to work in a small business, and I thought about starting one up with a friend. But then the penny dropped. My mum had a fantastic small business that really needed a push forwards."

Her mother's firm, Italian Secrets, started out in 1995 as a cookery school and catering business. It has now expanded to the point where more than half its activity involves providing corporate team-building opportunities in a £140,000 state-of-the-art kitchen in Wandsworth, south London.

"When I asked her if I could join her, she said no way," recalls Letizia. "But after two months, she agreed we had a great mixture of skills. We decided I'd focus on marketing and business development."

But working together has proved difficult, Letizia admits. "The business was my mum's baby, and for me to come in and suggest changes has been tough for her. I think maybe if I weren't family, she'd take it more easily, but in our family, we just come out and say things as they are. Our relationship is the same as it's always been when we get together socially, but it's been a challenge at work."

Mother and daughter have considered abandoning their business partnership altogether. "We asked my stepdad, who's a management consultant, for advice," says Letizia. "He did some tests on us and it turns out that at least half our character traits are exactly the same. So while it's good that we are on the same level, it also means we often clash and are both stubborn and strong-willed."

Letizia's mother, Anna, thinks part of the problem is that, until her daughter joined the firm, she saw Italian Secrets as a hobby. "I'd been in advertising and PR all my life, and when my father died and I came into a bit of money, I thought I'd try something different," she says. "When Letizia suggested working for me, my first thought was, 'This isn't going to be just fun any more.' After all, it's a serious responsibility to provide an income for a daughter who is giving up a profitable job."

Nevertheless, she was thrilled when Letizia joined. "From day one, she brought really good ideas and fresh new energy into the business. But I admit that I'm used to being in charge of everything myself."

Anna empathises with her daughter's frustrations. "It's hard. We respect each other a lot, and Letizia is very clever. But there are times when I just don't want to do what she wants."

Mother and daughter want to know whether they should work together at all, and if the answer is yes, what they could do to smooth the process. "Would it help to define our roles more?" asks Letizia. "Perhaps we should use a different business model? We really want to know."


Ben Williams, chartered psychologist

"Letizia says that both she and her mother exhibit similar traits. The danger here is twofold. When they agree, this could lead to 'group think', which is like tunnel vision; and when they don't agree, there could be 'impasse', resulting in stagnation and even loss of business. They've coped uncomfortably so far, and selecting another working model or redefining their roles and responsibilities may have only limited benefit because they are strong characters and too alike.

"Should Letizia join a friend in business, similar issues might arise. I'd advise her to find a small or medium-sized company where she can develop her management experience. It's better for her to learn with an organisation that can afford to offer her professional guidance.

"Anna should resume her lifestyle company. She may wish Letizia to succeed her. Her daughter would then have the business experience and freedom to develop Italian Secrets to its full potential. Relatives can make successful business teams, but there can only be one boss."

Virginia Ironside, agony aunt for The Independent

"I'm surprised that Letizia suggests 'defining our roles' as a possible solution, because it's surely something she and Anna should have done from the beginning. They should certainly get clear who is doing what - and perhaps have a twice-weekly meeting so they can talk over what's been done and what's being planned.

"But it sounds to me as if they're doing very well so far. It would be impossible for Letizia to come into her mum's business without there being a few misunderstandings and rows. They've only been working together for a little over a year, and have brilliantly overcome a couple of stormy moments, so the future looks good. Theirs is a kind of marriage, and the first year of a marriage is always the worst.

"Letizia should realise that she can't expect to take over completely - but, for her part, Anna must realise that all businesses need new blood to keep going. If her daughter's in charge, then it could be that when she gets much, much older, she'll probably still be able to keep a minor role in the business - something she wouldn't be able to do if she were to continue on her own."

Rebecca Clake, organisation and resourcing adviser, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

"Anna and Letizia will have a good idea of what each wants from the business, but they must discuss this face to face to fully understand each other's needs. This will help them set realistic goals and objectives.

"It is important to draw up the boundaries before deciding exactly who is responsible for what. Anna and Letizia have different skills, and decisions could be made more easily if each took the lead in her individual area of expertise.

"Inevitably, they will have different views, ideas and opinions, but this can be healthy for the business. It would be better if they worked together to explore the pros and cons of an idea before saying no to something. They should look at their objectives and at all the options available in order to make sure they choose the best possible solution."