We are family

John Scarrott

Family businesses can be fantastically rewarding to work for, offering a compelling combination of heritage and passion on which to apply your creative thinking. But, what about entering into a relationship with a family business? Is it the same as for other businesses or are there unique nuances to be aware of? I asked Leo Turner of Downey and Co, a family printing business established in 1903 and one of the DBA’s supporters to share his perspective.

Leo and Joe Turner are the third generation of the family that own Downey, which has been running for more than 100 years. The company started off hand-engraving copper plates for printing and Bill Turner, Leo’s Grandad, was a master engraver. Bill joined the business as an apprentice but went on to buy the company. Leo’s dad Grahame and his brother Barry both joined and became his apprentices. In the 1970s they started to print with the plates they engraved. Chris Turner was the youngest of the 3 brothers to get involved. He established the Norfolk-based print factory. As a business they are now 30-35 people.

Leo has spent his life surrounded by the business with it running ‘in his blood’ and says, ‘Fundamentally, family businesses are just the same as other businesses, but with a few small differences.’ The differences might be few in number but they can pack a real punch. And that’s the interesting thing. If you can understand, adapt and embrace these, your relationship will not only benefit, you’ll be treated like one of the family.

Here’s what Leo thinks those differences are:

Family pride: ‘You have a real heritage to hang onto. You want to maintain standards and pass them on. Things like a higher attention to detail, higher levels of quality checking and standards. Its like the staff are family as well, which creates a really strong work ethic. If the chips are down and there’s a problem with a job, even if it takes all night to fix it, you do it.’

Passion and enjoyment: ‘We get such a high level of enjoyment from what we do. We’ve been involved in it all of our lives. You see it not as a job or work. It’s fun. I would not have done it for so long if I did not enjoy it. Barry has just retired after 53 years at work, but he wants to come back. You never stop being curious or involved. Job satisfaction is brilliant. You make money and the family benefits. You know you’re doing your ancestors proud. You feel echoes from the past every time you do something.’

Looking ahead: ‘Our passion for what we do makes it important to look ahead. Family businesses that don’t do that, fail. We’ve had to learn how to re-evolve and take things to the next stage. If you stay focused on the day-to-day you risk losing track of important things like contracts and customers. We’ve come close to problems here. Recessions in the past have not been easy. Through sheer hard work and family pulling together you come out the other side.’

Change is hard: ‘This is a fact for our business. There is a way that things have been done in the past. The wheels of change move slowly for internal aspects in an old fashioned way. Some aspects we embrace quickly, like acid-etched engraving for example and digital technology. But changing an office layout would be down the list. The pace of change of our brand has also been slow, rebranding every 20 years. It can feel like an attack on the past. You’re pulled between nostalgia and realism. But if the past doesn’t release you, you’re in danger of being locked in by it. So we have to watch that. If your environment changes you have to change with it, move with the times, without losing heritage. You can be an old classic in a modern way. Stay current, be innovative and not afraid to try something different.’

So what do you need to bear in mind to create successful relationships with family businesses?

• Family businesses rely on a clear succession plan for their continuity. This is true for all areas including brand design.

• Each family member has a rounded knowledge of the business. As a result of this they’re likely to be able to see each element in relation to the bigger  picture for the business.

• Appreciate what they’ve been through to get to where they are. Especially true of multigenerational businesses. And also where future generations are going.

• Understand the pace of change for a family business and be patient. It can take a while to get things approved.

• And above all, share their passion and drive for their business.

John Scarrott is membership director at the Design Business Association. His DBA blog, Conversations With, is here.

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