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Speed Review: Business is Business

Speed Review: Business is Business

Speed Review: Business is Business

Reality Checks for Family-Owned Companies

by Kathy Kolbe & Amy Bruske

Authors Kathy Kolbe and Amy Bruske hone decades of experience helping family businesses thrive — and running their own for more than 30 years — into practical, actionable advice for how to hire family members, how to work with them, and how—when necessary—to fire them. The solutions are not always easy, but understanding the frequent pitfalls of working with family is an investment that could pay back over generations.


Business is business, and family is family, according to Kathy Kolbe and Amy Bruske, co-authors of a new book on family businesses called Business is Business: Reality Checks for Family-Owned Companies. In other words, successful family-owned companies must be able to differentiate between the two sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary priorities of both.

Bruske is Kolbe’s stepdaughter, and the two have worked together in the same business for nearly 20 years. Kolbe Corp., which emerged from a nonprofit founded by Kathy Kolbe in the 1970s, also involves Kolbe’s son, David Kolbe, and her husband, Will Rapp (who is Bruske’s father). Today, Kolbe Corp. is clearly a family-owned business, or FOB, the acronym the authors use throughout their book, along with FMs (family members) and NFMs (non-family members).

In addition to working in an FOB themselves, the authors also consult with other FOBs. This personal and professional experience is evident in Business is Business, a rich and comprehensive guide that helps principals in FOBs avoid many of the mistakes that can sink companies and destroy relationships.

When Hiring a Family Member

The authors hit the ground running. On page 3, readers already receive a gem of a tip: Don’t use family nouns (Mom, Dad, Son, Sis) at work. Next, they lay out the seven principles for success in a family business, declaring that a successful FOB

  • “Honors and maintains the family values.”
  • “Addresses the fears and concerns of FMs and NFMs.”
  • “Manages finances so profits can be distributed for current and future family needs/benefits.”
  • “Deals with the dual relationships that exist between NFMs and FMs in both family and workplace contexts.”
  • “Addresses both personal and business issues with FMs outside the business.”
  • “Establishes proper boundaries so that decisions are ethical, practical and therefore easy to make and to explain.”
  • “Gives all FMs and NFMs the freedom to be themselves.”

A few short pages later, the authors establish a no-nonsense imperative for family-owned companies considering adding family members to the payroll: “There’d better be a good reason to get them involved.” As the authors explain, “Business is Business. When FMs come into a business, they need to be able to add value to it — and the business needs to add value to their lives.” To help businesses determine whether they should hire a family member, the authors suggest that both the company and the family member answer the following questions:

  • Do you have shared values?
  • How will the business benefit from the personal strengths of the FM candidate?
  • Will the owner and other decision makers give the candidate the freedom to act on his or her strengths?
  • How would the FOB benefit from these contributions?
  • How would the FM benefit from joining the team?

Throughout the book, the authors ask the tough questions that too many family-owned businesses avoid, at their peril. Shared values, for example, are essential. “Many families have members who support different political candidates,” the authors write. “But the FMs who join each other in a business need to have common convictions and be willing to take actions that support their beliefs.”

Building on Kolbe’s groundbreaking research on conative strengths — the natural and unchangeable instincts that guide how we act, the authors explore challenges that can undermine an FOB’s success, such as the importance of trust, boundaries and candor; empowering the next generation; and orchestrating the transition when it comes time for a founder or principal to step down. Based on decades of research, Business is Business delivers on its promise to lay out the reality checks that all family business leaders will want to keep nearby.

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