For almost three decades, central Alabama residents have watched the Wolf family in ads promoting their family furniture business, American Oak and More. Local TV audiences have seen owners Jody and Cothee Wolf’s four boys grow up—and heard it too; their encouragement to not “settle for fake wood” once voiced in a kid’s squeak is now delivered in deeper tones. Through the years, the family has grown to include the sons’ wives, and store’s sales have grown too.
Today, American Oak ads continue to show one big happy family, and according to Cothee, the depiction is true, even if it’s not true all day, every day.
The Good and Bad
Family members operating a business often bring something extra to work each day: personal feelings. This can be a drawback. “The main con of working together as a family is we can get into petty arguments,” Cothee said. Sometimes, the Wolf family also takes extra things when they leave the store, another downside. “Bringing work home can be a challenge, too,” she said.
But some “extras” can also prove to be pros. Strong family values like loyalty and honesty can become positive company core values. Cothee named “working with people you trust” one of the top rewards of running her business with loved ones, followed by the flexibility to close down and take a family vacation and spending lots of time together. And the secret to managing any issue? “We’re an awesome family that loves each other very much.”
Listening to each other is key in a family business. Being receptive to the on-the-job experience and earned wisdom of older generations while staying open to the fresh ideas and different perspectives of younger generations is key, says Cothee. “When working with family, you must respect each other and trust each other’s decisions. You must also be able to admit when you are wrong,” she said. “In the end, working with family is a blessing, and I love doing it every day.”
According to the Small Business Administration, 47 percent of family business owners expecting to retire in the next five years don’t have a successor, and 30 percent of all family businesses never make it to second-generation ownership. That number gets smaller with each generation.
So far, American Oak is on the other side of these statistics. Cothee and Jody have taken care to pass on the ins and outs of their operation and prepare their kids to take over by having them involved at an early age, an advantage Cothee stressed is another pro of a family business.“ Because I work with my family, I can teach them on the job what I have learned over the last 30 years,” she said. “I hope they have learned a lot and can run with it. And I think with all the boys in the business now and the passion they have for it, it will stay in the family.”
Cothee’s also currently putting together a formal succession plan, an essential item for a family business that’s looking to not just survive but thrive after the transition to the next generation.