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Working for Parents:
Sustaining the Industry
from Generation to Generation

By Serena Norr

Talented individuals are sustaining the coffee and tea industry by continuing family dynasties that they have essentially learned about from the roots up.

It has been a tradition for generations in some family businesses to work together. Working for your parents can be anything from one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences to a divisive obstacle - a unique work dynamic that many young people face as they essentially become apprentices and learn the inner workings of the family business. After “earning their stripes” these young people are often groomed for higher positions that can sustain the influx of the family company for generations. The proximity driven by work can bring family members closer together in satisfying relationships, that carries on traditions not just within the context of the family business but the growth of the coffee and tea industry.

Impressions of the Family Business
How the younger generation feels about a family business begins at a very young age. When it comes time to make a career choice, early impressions can have profound results that shape a lifetime career. According to Nikole Kobrick of Kobricks Coffee Co., a fourth generation specialty coffee roaster located in New Jersey, “Occasionally, when I was off from school, my Dad would take me to work with him. It was so awesome to see all the machinery and the process that goes into creating the final product, which would be shipped to hundreds of restaurants, hotels, cafes, etc. I was amazed that my family was responsible for the livelihood of so many employees.”

Lee Kobrick, president of Kobricks Coffee Co., added his own personal anecdote, “I always thought it was cool that my family’s business was coffee. I realized right away that it was more than just a beverage but something special.”

Katy B. Dutt, daughter of David Boyd who works in sales at Boyd’s Coffee Company in Portland, Oregon, recalls, “My dad was very passionate about coffee and the business, my memory is always having different business people come for dinner at our home, although it probably wasn’t as many as I recall. It was always fun, someone visiting from far away - France, Netherlands, etc....” Matthew T. Boyd, son of Richard Boyd who works in operations added, “When I was young, I honestly didn’t think it was a big deal. As I grew older I came to realize how special our company is. I developed a strong respect for my family and for the employees that make this company what it is today.”

Interest in the Family Business
Continuing the family business is a time-honored tradition and many don’t realize the significance of the family name. “I didn’t realize our family name meant so much until my father would tell us anecdotes of his day. I was invigorated by his stories and the pride he had in the company,” stated a tea packer who asked not to be named. Michael C. Boyd, son of David Boyd who works in finance at Boyd’s coffee added, “It was always just there, something that the family did ...it was normal. Other people always made a big deal about it, but to me it was nothing special. It was just what my family did.” Cindi Bigelow, president of Bigelow Tea located in Norwalk, Connecticut had an interest in the company since high school. She loved everything about the company and inherently felt that she wanted to be involved. “It was the right thing to do,” Bigelow stated. It was a part of who she is and took pride in her family heritage.

The history of family businesses follows a rich lineage. The younger generation can follow these steps as they shape the future. “Growing up around a company with a long family history builds a strong sense of tradition. A desire to be a part of that tradition is really what developed my interest in the company. After several years of working away from the company, the desire to be a part of what our family has been building for the last 100-plus years took root. I wanted to be involved in developing that tradition well into the future,” Matthew T. Boyd stated. Kobrick added, “My great grandfather started this company in 1920! Over the years, each generation can be credited with taking the business to the next level. My brother and I are the next and fourth generation. We consider it an honor to have the opportunity to carry on the tradition while adding our own unique creativity and ideas. I am inspired by the popularity of today’s coffee culture and the opportunity to mold our 88-year old company to change with the times.”

The coffee or tea plant in itself can have a profound effect on the younger generations. Kobrick recalls, “I have always been drawn to coffee, since I laid eyes on the process as a little girl. The raw product that arrives lands in cool burlap bags, the roasting process and the attention to detail that goes into it and the final delicious cup that is a common ground for people around the globe. My uncle and our green coffee buyer travel to coffee producing countries to source coffees and meet with the farmers which I hope to get more and more involved with in the future. Coffee is one thing that all countries can share and enjoy. It’s the second largest commodity and a product that’s surrounded by important issues, which have become progressively engrained in our business goals. Our company supports Coffee Kids and offers many Fair Trade certified organic and Rainforest Alliance certified coffees. The idea and potential to be involved in promoting these important changes in the world coffee market is very exciting to us.”

Dutt added, “It seemed I was always involved in some way shape or form. I remember coming to the roastery for a tour when I was in kindergarten and loving it. And coming again for another tour when the company was adding on to what is now the shipping department and food processing areas. I remember standing on the giant scales... what a feeling for a young child!”

Starting Work
When the younger generation begins work they aren’t given top positions in the family company as some would assume. Hard work and determination have built these luminaries from the ground up. “My parents told me if this is what I wanted to do then I would have to learn the company from the ground up. I thought they were joking when they said I would be working in the mailroom. I knew I wanted to do this but I thought I could just come in and be an assistant to my dad. In hindsight I was very young and dumb and appreciate that I had to earn my current position as anyone would who came to work for us from the outside,” stated a tea packer who asked not to be named.

Family-owned businesses have many levels where the younger generation essentially acts as an apprentice where they learn all facets of the company. According to Kobrick, “I started at 19 where I worked during the summer and all those thereafter until I graduated. Over those summers I explored all the different aspects of Kobricks Coffee. I tried to learn more about the company and each position. I answered phones, filed paperwork, learned the computer system and went out with salespeople to meet customers and potential customers, and finally I started working with my uncle in marketing. I had found my niche.”

Similarly, when Bigelow began at Bigelow Teas, her father had a plan for where she started as a cost accountant. As the years went by she would switch between different roles every three to four years. These positions weren’t automatically handed to her. She would have to sell herself to her parents for new positions where she learned about all facets of the company from the ground up.

With all the facets of the family business it is difficult to decide on a direction to take. Brad Wilson of Cooper Tea Co. in Boulder, Colorado, stated, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I thought I would give tea tasting a shot and found out I was good at it and I liked it. I would help out time-to-time and one day the director of operations asked me if I would like to work part-time. My first position was the low guy on the totem pole, I would have to make sure the warehouse was clean, take out the trash, vacuum and also help my dad out in the lab making blends and getting a feel for the whole tasting thing.”

Dutt added, “My first position was assisting in the opening of what was our 15thstore. I then worked every summer in some capacity at the roastery... everything from food products quality control, to the coffee department, accounting and customer service.” Matthew T. Boyd stated, “My first job was working in the warehouse pulling orders for our local sales reps. I then moved on to cleaning equipment in our food products department (a messy job). After working outside the company for a while I came back and managed one of our retail stores and then ran a local sales route.”

Impressions From Other Employees
If family members get preferential treatment, non-family members will lose their motivation in helping the business develop. “Nepotism is a valid concern in family-run businesses. It is crucial to make non-family members feel that they have the same opportunities as family members and that a double-standard doesn’t exist,” stated a coffee roaster who asked not to be named.

“I was scared to start working for my Dad to be quite honest. I didn’t want the other employees to judge me. I had a genuine love of the tea industry and felt nobody would get that based on my family name. I would just be the ‘bosses son.’ My dad told me you have to earn respect and demonstrate your passion for the industry,” stated a tea-packer who asked not to be named. Michael C. Boyd expounded, “When I first started with the company as a teenager I was definitely seen as the bosses son. However, I worked hard alongside many long-time employees and earned their respect. It also helped that when I joined the company as an adult I had worked and proven myself outside the company in a different industry.”

Matthew Boyd stated, “Most people treat me the same as they do anyone else in the company. When someone comes along that doesn’t, be it good or bad, I try to show that I shouldn’t be any different. However, there are times when we, the fourth generation, get the benefit of a doubt. I am goal driven and work hard everyday to show people that I’m not getting a free ride.”

“To avoid the ‘silver spoon’ perception, it is crucial to take appropriate measures to assess the performance of all your employees (family and non-family). Make it known that promotions and pay raises will be based strictly on merit and maintain written records to support your actions,” stated a coffee roaster who asked not to be named.

Parental Advice Meets Business Advice
With parental experience, the younger generation not only learns life lessons but advice about the core of the family business. Matthew T. Boyd stated, “As you grow up you learn values from your family. Working with family continues that process and enhances it because there are so many opportunities to interact.”

A tea-packer who asked not to be named recalls, “My Dad is a great communicator and always made an effort to maintain a uniform degree of communication with all of the employees. There is a natural tendency for family-run business owners to give family members more access than the rest of their staff. Instead, he fostered an open door policy for everyone in the company.”

“As a kid, my dad would always encourage us to taste - and when we tasted, to think about what we were tasting. So many times people just eat but don’t pay attention to all the flavor components that are in food. I think this has helped me be a better cupper and to train my palate,” stated Dutt.

Kobrick learned that, “Attention to detail in every aspect of our business as well as every step in the coffee production process is important. We can roast and sell a customer the freshest and best quality coffee but if it’s not brewed correctly the quality will be lost so we work very hard to support our customers with training.” Adding, “I’ve also learned how important it is to treat all customers with the highest level of care, whether it’s a small cafe' to a large multi-unit restaurant chain. At my company, if a customer needs coffee we will do whatever it takes, even if it means making emergency deliveries ourselves on our way home, to get it to them ASAP. This is one of the traditions that was passed down from my great grandfather and that we pride ourselves on.”

Matthew Boyd stated, “I don’t know if this came through advice or through example. Our parents taught us that our company is where it is today because of the passion our family and our employees have for our products and services. That might sound like a canned answer but it’s the truth.”

Mistakes on the Job
In a family business, one would assume that the standard is often to forgive a family member when they make a mistake. In contrast, mistakes in business are not easily forgiven. Accordingly, a family business must lay down clear guidelines where the family members are held accountable for their actions, just as employees are accountable for theirs.

“I made a lot of mistakes when I started. Well, I still do but when I first started my Dad treated me like any other employee and was really upset at me for an order I messed up. At work he is my boss, at home he’s Dad. You have to separate the two for a successful family-operation,” stated a coffee roaster who asked not to be named. Matthew Boyd added, “If we step out of line in the work environment, they treat us like employees first and family second, which isn’t fair, because they treat everyone else like family first and employees second.”

Separating Work and Family
One of the best things family businesses can do to maintain a harmonious working environment is to leave family-related issues at home. “It is often difficult to separate family issues from the workplace. No matter how hard you try, sibling rivalries, marital disagreements and family crises will inevitably trickle into the office,” stated a tea packer who asked not to be named. Adding, “It’s smart to distinguish between family discussions and business discussions and keep those conversations separate. Don’t have

business meetings at the house, and don’t have family meetings at the business. Mixing the two together all the time is a recipe for disaster. The business, the family or both may fail as a result.” Michael C. Boyd expounded, “Not that we always follow this, but when at work most conversations are about the business and when outside of the roastery most conversations are family related. I think you just have to learn to switch back and forth. Relationships are personal; business isn’t. It’s the same whether it’s family or friendship.”

“Nonetheless, you need to diligently attempt to minimize the influence of family issues on your small business. A workplace dominated by family-related problems can potentially lead to high turnover in non-family employees because of the sense of uneasiness it creates. Worse yet, it will distract all of your employees from their primary task - achieving a profitable bottom line for your company,” stated a coffee roaster who asked not to be named. Wilson added, “It’s really hard, I’m not sure if you ever really do.”

What It’s Really Like
Working for your families can involve a delicate balance between personal and professional relationships. “I never look at it like I am working for my parents. I separate them as my bosses now,” stated a roaster who asked not to be named.

“My dad is a great teacher and I’ve learned a lot from him. Most people learn to taste either teas or herbs, but we do both and we do them very well! The other side is no matter what you do, you’re always going to be looked at differently because at the end of the day you’re still the boss’ son,” Wilson said.

Michael C. Boyd stated, “It is feels normal to me. It’s nice seeing my Dad and other family members almost everyday.” He added, “It’s great! How many people get to share their work, both successes and opportunities, with family on a daily basis.”

Bigelow loves working for her family company. She feels her experience in working for the family as been developed from pure love and passion that was able to transition from her parents and get more involved as the years went on, which reflects the same passion her grandmother had when she started the company in 1945. She now wants to take the company to the future so her children can have career options available if they show the same passion she had.

While some may advise against hiring family members, that sacrifices one of the great benefits for the business. Countless businesses in the industry would never have flourished without the hard work and dedication of family members. “I have learned everything in the tea industry from my Dad. I think this has helped me develop a true love for my job,” stated a tea-packer who asked not to be named. Wilson added, “I’ve learned that if you work really hard and treat people fairly and with respect you will be successful in life and business.”

Family-operated businesses are a time-honored tradition that should be treated as such. Michael C. Boyd stated, “Working in a competitive industry is tough and working in a competitive industry for your Dad is tougher...but well worth it.” Cindi Bigelow stated it best, “Develop who you are before going into the family business. Make commanding decisions. Know your core and realize that you aren’t anything special.” She believes people who have family businesses should know that it is truly a gift and that it should be treated as such everyday.

Serena Norr is a freelance writer based in New York. As a former editor at Tea and Coffee Trade Journal she enjoys writing about the industry.

Tea & Coffee - June, 2008
Modern Process Equipment

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