Business Insight

It’s a family affair

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”…. From a Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

I know you’re thinking, “that’s’ a strange quote to start off an article about family business” But as I have reached the milestone of 15 years in our family business (yes thanks for all the anniversary messages on LinkedIn peeps) I have been reflecting a lot on my time and experiences in a family business.   I think that quote sums up the highs and lows of being in any business!  And I would question anyone who thinks that business, or moreso running a business, will be a bed of roses and amazing all the time.  For the record, in my experience it isn’t.

One of my favourite quotes from a great book is:

“Life is struggle.” I believe that within that quote lies the most important lesson in entrepreneurship: Embrace the struggle.”
― Ben Horowitz, The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers

Now that might sound quite depressing, but in reality it isn’t.  Of course it isn’t the usual “follow your dreams and passion and everything will be great” message that is en vogue right now.  I am an optimist however, and I can see the inherent truth in what Ben Horowitz is saying – “love the journey, not the destination”.

I believe this is really important in the context of family businesses.  I consider myself very fortunate to be part of a family business, and a successful one at that.  Success is such an objective concept and I believe strongly only you can define what success means to you, but I’m extremely proud of what we have achieved over those 15 years as a family and a team as not many family businesses actually make it to their 2nd generation.

I speak to clients who have children and they are downhearted but completely fine with the fact that their children have no interest in following their footsteps.  Despite being good, profitable businesses, they will ultimately cease if it can’t be sold onto someone else, and when these businesses revolve so much around the founders, that can be a challenge.  We have however, helped clients plan for a succession and advised and supported them through the transition, so if done right it can be done and a family business can thrive from that change in structure.

So all this has got me thinking about what I’ve learned in that 15 years and here are my top 5 tips I’d like to impart on operating a family business

  1. Change is constant – accept it
  2. Shared principles are essential
  3. It’s good to be different
  4. Mistakes are to be embraced and learned from
  5. Family business can be a wonderful thing


Change is constant – accept it

When I started 15 years ago, we were doing our workings on paper, hand written and then transferring onto a computer package to produce accounts and tax returns.  Now thanks to Xero and Receipt Bank we can tell a client how their business is doing in real time and we are a virtually paperless business!  So in that time we have undergone huge, seismic changes as a business and as a family too.  Of course from the outside it may not look that way but some of the changes have been – We have had a former partner, Des Lynchehaun retire successfully in 2008

– We rebranded to Malone Accounting last year with a new website, logo, and signage and most importantly vision and purpose

– We won Xero Northern Ireland partner of the Year

– Our eldest sister, Grainne joined the firm and took a long, hard path to becoming a fully qualified Chartered Accountant in March 2019.  We were all so proud of her as it was a fantastic achievement considering it took her 7 ½ years and she has her own family to look after in the meantime!

We are a totally different business in fact to the one I joined in 2004 and my dad is only working around 1 ½ days a week on average now, he comes and goes as he pleases as he likes to keep himself mentally busy!

For any business change is constant no matter what industry you’re in and you have to accept it and try to do your best to continue to evolve and change to survive.

Shared principles are essential

People talk about values, but in the words of Stephen Covey, anyone can have values, a gang of thieves can have shared values for example, but they just happen to be the wrong ones.  I like to think of principles, largely thanks to Mr Covey and his wonderful book – the 7 habits.  Good principles are guiding lights along the way, they are a constant in the swell of business and life.  For family businesses, sharing the same principles is vitally important as they will guide the different family members along the way knowing that everyone will act in the best interests of everyone else.

I’m very fortunate that throughout that time we’ve shared the same principles with my family in business of trust, honesty, hard work, and openness to change, integrity and a commitment to trying to do the right thing.  And that extends to how we treat our team too as we have members of staff who have been here for 40 years.  So for you and your family business or any business, it’s really important to have shared principles that are going to be the bedrock for your business.  If you aren’t sure what those are, why not begin the process of defining and sharing those principles, trust me you won’t regret it.

It’s good to be different

I think one of the reasons we have survived is that we are different and have different skills that we bring to the business.  Equally we have different weaknesses, different views of the world but actually that’s a good thing!

It’s important for your family business that you celebrate the difference everyone brings to the business and try and build on that and the strengths each person has.  That’s how you continue to stay fresh and learn and are able to pivot or change as you continue to try to sustain a profitable business.

Mistakes are to be embraced and learned from

Before we began using Xero, we used Kashflow, another cloud accounting software.  And it was a disaster!  Poorly planned, implemented and delivered to clients, we ran into serious challenges using it with clients.  However, had we not done that we never would have started to use Xero as we looked at other options to switch away from Kashflow and realised Xero was a much stronger and better solution for us to use.  So we moved each client off Kashflow onto Xero in 2013 and never looked back!

For your family business to be successful in the long term, mistakes are inevitable but they are not a source of blame for the family or other team members, they are a source of vital learning.  I believe if you don’t make mistakes you’ll never learn and a business that never learns, I would argue is not going to be able to sustain long term profitability and existence.  When I make a mistake I hold my hands up and explain to the team what happened, why it happened and what I’ve learned from it.  What’s great is they do the same and know that won’t blame them for it but we expect us all to learn from it.  We’ve always taken the attitude with our team that we don’t want to make mistakes of course, but when we do we own up to them and seek to learn from them so they don’t happen again and we can improve.

For your business, how could you benefit from the mistakes you’ve made?

Family business can be a wonderful thing

This one is pretty simple really and goes back to the quote at the very beginning of this article from the maestro Charles Dickens, “it was the best of times”….

I am so grateful for being involved in this family business for so long.  I have learned so much about myself and it has been incredible at times celebrating successes along the way with my family members and our team.  It has allowed me for the last 3 years to take Fridays off to spend with my kids which I am incredibly grateful for and means so much to me as I can’t get that time back later on.

Has it been stressful, challenging, demanding and incredibly difficult at times?  Yes all of the above thanks for asking.  But I’ve enjoyed the “struggle” and it’s important for your family business you do the same as in any other business, celebrate the wins, don’t sweat the small stuff and overall enjoy the journey as it is a wonderful journey to be on.

Would love to hear your own thoughts and experiences on family business?  Please drop me a line or post a comment below.