Episode 80: Daughters in Charge (re-release)

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show…traditionally it’s been men who follow their fathers into a family business. But more and more daughters are taking this route. I wanted to look into what kinds of challenges they face that their brothers don’t.  For one thing, what happens when YOU are your brothers’ boss?

“I’ve never actually asked them and my father has never told them they should report to the president. So my guess is they would have difficulty doing that.”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

Marty Betagole is from Cincinnati, Ohio. She graduated from college in the ‘70s and she went back to Cincinnati, where her dad owned a vehicle-leasing business. Now she wasn’t that interested in joining the business. She’d worked there one summer, and it was fine, but she still didn’t think about it as a possible career, and her dad wasn’t trying to pull her on board. But a few years after graduating she was working for another company as a personnel manager, as they called them in those days. And one day she got a call…

“I knew our comptroller at the family company and she was somewhat difficult to work for and she reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be her assistant. She made the offer, my dad did not make the offer.”

So Marty started working at her dad’s company as assistant comptroller. But not long after she’d been hired, Marty’s boss – who she says was a brilliant woman – she got sick. She smoked three packs a day. It was the seventies after all. It turned out she had lung cancer. She died soon afterwards. Marty took over her role, and the company became her career. In 2000 she became president.  To this day, the firm is very much a family affair.

“My dad is, uh, still the CEO and then I have two brothers who have been involved with the business. And we’re all the sibs in the family.”

Her father is now in his mid-80s and he lives in Florida most of the year. Marty runs things. Which sounds pretty good. And it is…but there are certain things that keep niggling at her even after all her years with the company. I’m going to play you a piece of tape she left me as a message right before we did our interview. I’d asked her to test the iPhone technology we used to tape her half of the conversation. 

“Hi Ashley this is Marty Betagole…voice memo’s test…I shared with you that my dad has always recognized all of his children at the same level. I can’t tell you whether that’s because of the way that my dad is or because I’m the daughter, but I can tell you it has undermined my confidence. And I think a lot of how much I could have accomplished faster if I had had that confidence.”

Marty’s dad may have named her president…but for years, there was never a proper organizational chart showing specifically who did what and who reported to whom. She says things were old-fashioned, they continued the way her dad had always done them in part because he was still involved. But he never explicitly stated who was boss. Even though you might think that was obvious.

And her brothers?

“My feeling is that they really wouldn’t want to report to me. One of my brothers, we have another business, and one of my brothers is in charge of that business, he would be the president of that business. I…I just think they would have…I’ve never actually asked them and my father has never told them they should report to the president. So my guess is they would have difficulty doing that.”

It’s bugged her over the years. But during our interview she’s quick to say she doesn’t think this is gender-related. She says her dad wants to treat all his children equally, that’s all. And if two of his children had to report to another, that might create a difficult family situation.

She says what has helped her a lot over the years is finding mentors outside the company. She thinks it’s vital for women in family businesses to do this – to seek mentors who have a different perspective from the one you’re surrounded by all day.  

I asked if her dad was a mentor.

“He was…sure…of course he was a mentor to a certain extent. But that’s just one opinion, and I think that you need more opinions.  And then when you’re working for a family business….you know you don’t know if they’re just being nice to you because your name’s on the smokestack of if people are treating you and giving you the responsibility that you’re getting because you really have earned it.”

She says maybe it’s just her generation of women, but even though they graduated at a time when women were told they could do everything, women like Marty hadn’t exactly been raised to be working women – she says her mum probably expected her to stay home, just like she had. So she’s always felt she’s had to find her way in the workplace. Something her dad never had to do.

AM-T: Is he proud of you?

“Um…I don’t know.”

She says her brothers would answer exactly the same way. Their dad is just not the demonstrative type.

And over the years Marty says things at the company have got a lot easier. Efficient systems have been put in place, new people have joined…

“I’m happier now, because I think we have transitioned to a professionally managed corporation, because I feel like I have a nice team, a good team, a capable team…of people who are good at what they do. But I guess you could attribute that back to…I feel like there’s always somebody who could do the job better than me.”

That lack of confidence still haunts her, and she thinks she’s pretty much stuck with that mindset. She hopes young women joining family businesses today will have alot more self-assurance.

Sara Corey is one of those women. She’s 24. She’s a generation younger than Marty and already head of agronomy at Daniel Corey Farms in Monticello, Maine.

Now…when she was in college she had no intention of going back to the family farm. She was studying to become a pharmacist. But part way through her college career, she changed her mind. The potato fields called her back. And her dad? She says he’s delighted she’s there.

“He’s just always treated me like I’m of the guys, like, Sara, go jump in one of those farm trucks. Like geez Dad, I don’t know how to drive one of those. Figure it out! Like that’s just how he’s always been, and I can operate anything on the farm. That’s just how he’s raised me.”

Not that every moment of working together is bliss…things can get testy.

“We get in little tiffs sometimes, you know, like a normal father/daughter would and a normal employer/employee would.”

But basically they have a great relationship. When she comes up against any problems being a woman in her business, they’re related to other people. Sara is a member of a young farmer’s group up in Maine. They hold regular meetings.

 “And when I go I’m the only female.”

One girl surrounded by a lot of guys with a lot of attitude…

“And they’re young guys that are trying to make it in the same industry I’m trying to make it in…it’s a little difficult, I feel like it takes longer to earn their respect in a way just ‘cause they look at a female maybe not knowing as much as they know, or not having the experience, and I really have to work for it.”

And she does. She thinks she’s winning people over, gradually. With older men she says it’s less of an issue – maybe because they like and respect her dad. One thing she knows her youth brings to the business?  Her ease with technology. The farm didn’t even have a website until she joined and put something together. She loves her smartphone. She’s downloaded a bunch of apps and she’s making them work for the business.

“And I can see at any given time, anywhere, like when I went to Texas to the Potato Expo, this year, this past January, I could pull up my potato house and see what the temperatures were of the potatoes, what the humidity was.”

Remote potato farming. Her father and his friends were impressed.

“Dad’ll be like, Sara, show ‘em what you got on your phone. And the older guys too, they’ll be like, what is that?”

Like Marty Betagole, Sara has two younger brothers and she thinks they’ll follow her back to the farm.  She says she likes working there a lot more than she thought she would. Every day is different. Recently she’s been shipping potatoes everywhere from South Carolina to Egypt…that kind of responsibility gives her confidence. So do other challenges that crop up.

“We recently had a potato conference of Maine and they asked me to moderate part of the section. And to get up there and like, you’re looking out and you’re introducing these figures and it’s all men looking back at me, it can definitely be intimidating, can definitely be intimidating. I did it.”

Last year the Maine Potato Board awarded Sara the title ‘young farmer of the year’.

As women all over the world become more educated, more of them are going where only their brothers would have gone before. In the US, the number of women joining family businesses is almost five times greater than it was in the late ‘90s. Daphne Halkias is an American academic - she lives in Athens with her husband and kids. She’s been studying women in family businesses for more than ten years.  She first got interested when she was teaching a class of female MBAs in Greece. She says in Greece, the family business is the core of the economy. Many of her class were daughters whose fathers were reluctantly letting them into their companies – but the working relationships were quite tricky.

Daphne’s edited a book on the topic. It’s called Father-Daughter Succession in Family Business – a cross cultural perspective. She says you could be in cultures as different as Canada, Pakistan, and Nigeria… but women joining their fathers at the family firm have a lot in common.

“Across cultures we found that daughters, at first there was some resistance to daughters becoming involved in the family business…and this even goes in developed countries as well, and many times the father would look to…could son in law be in the business, but after a while as daughters worked with the father…then fathers began to recognize what a jewel they had in these prospective daughter successors.”

AM-T: “What sticking points were there for these women, because I know you said in many cases it might not have started out particularly hopefully but then the fathers came to really admire the daughters…”

“I think in all cultures a woman still has to prove herself…a boy will from birth be named CEO of the company some day. And we’ve seen a lot of corporations too, family businesses, excuse me, that have failed in 2nd generation…because a successor was put there only because they were a family remember, successor…and this has happened a lot with boys who were successors, and it brings up a lot of a family conflict and business problems… but girls had to prove themselves…they didn’t succeed into business from day they were born. They had to go and get an MBA, work from the bottom rungs. Many times a male successor won’t be put in front lines to work, they will be brought straight to the leadership office immediately. A woman will have to work her way up. So I would say that’s the biggest sticking point.”

AM-T: But you’ve also said…and this is really interesting for someone based in the US where there is so much angst about childcare…this family situation is an advantage, isn’t it?

Oh yes. That’s another key thing we saw in the developing world or in nations where extended family is very strong. In nations, which is most of the world, you know, where the extended family is very strong , families all tend to live in the same neighborhood or same building…across Med or Middle East, patriarch or matriarch will build an apartment building with six or seven apartments and all their children or grandchildren will live in one building, no matter what social strata you come from. This, as they say in the Mediterranean, many hands makes a mother’s work more pleasant.”

Quite. And that topic of motherhood…it’s a big deal for women in parts of the world where you don’t necessarily have extended family around the corner.

Amy Katz runs an online community called Daughters in Charge.  She’s worked with lots of family businesses during her consulting career. She gradually became convinced women joining family firms needed a group they could turn to, to share their experiences and seek advice or mentorship.

She says one issue that crops up a lot in small family businesses in the US – maternity leave policies. Or rather, the lack thereof. She’s found that pregnancies among team members are often a first at family companies. She knows one family…

“Siblings who are all working in the business and who are all owners. And when the women decide to have children and want to work out a flexible schedule, the men feel that that isn’t fair. They’re not typically at a point where the men would think of taking time off themselves.”

After all, no man ever had before. She says women in these firms are often pioneers. They may come from a job on the outside and have the task of bringing new knowledge to a company set in its ways…they may be not taken seriously by older male employees. Another thing she points out though is that family firms are increasingly being run by women – so sometimes these days a daughter is joining her mother at the office. And that isn’t always easy either.

“I even received a letter this morning from a young woman saying how difficult it is to work with her mother. And that their relationship has always been strained and now they’re in the business world and it’s becoming even more difficult to have her mother as a manager. On the other hand there are businesses where several daughters are working with their mother and learning not only to have their mother as a manager but to have their sister as a manager.” 

“My name is Jessi Lima Bollin, and I am the director of marketing and communications for Best Upon Request.”

Jessi works for her mother’s company – it provides concierge services to companies that want to provide a bit of extra support to their employees.

She’s 29, married with two little kids, a boy and a girl. She worked for a year or two doing other things after college…but the pull of the family firm didn’t take long to exert itself…

“I was hired as a communications coordinator and then we had some really fast-paced growth years, I ended up creating my own department and getting promoted…because there was that need. I didn’t want anyone to think this was a fast track because I was the boss’s daughter.  That was a huge thing for me. I really wanted to prove myself.”

Jessi has two younger sisters, Natalie and Sophia. They’ve both joined the business too. And when Jessi began working for her mother, she decided to make some relationship tweaks for the office…

“I wanted it to be a professional environment so I decided to call her Tilly and not Mom…my sisters came to work here, it was a challenge for them to get used to… for me it also helps I’m talking to you as my boss, as my mentor, and then I’ll say OK Mom, now I’m talking to you as my mom.”

AM-T: Doesn’t that get tricky sometimes?

“It just kind of works out, and my sister Natalie…she’s three-and-a-half years younger than me, she reports to me, it really works, we really care about the business, we can vent to one another, we talk about what solutions we have…then sometimes it’s like OK, Nat, Natalie, I need to talk to you about like, whatever, and you’re my sister…it helps set boundaries.”

Jessi says basically they’re able to separate their work selves and their home selves. And she has no trouble critiquing her mother at work, because they have a good relationship…which she says other employees might hesitate to do. Although Jessi sometimes wonders if her mum is being hard enough on her…

“There’s been times where I’ve gone to my mom and say…I really appreciate what you said that in the meeting but you’ve said that before and I want to make sure it’s not you saying that as my mom. I so appreciate what you’re praising me about but I want to make sure it’s not the proud momma coming out, I want you to be my boss.”

She says the work relationship is definitely a dance, always a work in progress…but she says she and her sisters all want the company to be successful. And they all look up to their mum – as a boss and a parent.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. You can see a couple of photos and check out the show notes on this episode’s page at The Broad Experience dot com.

You can comment on this episode on the website or on the show’s Facebook page.

Special thanks to Amy Katz this week – the whole idea for this show came from her, and I stole her company’s name as the show’s title.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.