6 min read | Jan 2022
Millennial / Progressive / Writer

I’m Leaving the Family Business: This Is Why

Our family's auto business is our legacy. And it's not always pretty.

This Narrative Belongs To:

“Over 90 years being a family-owned, family-run company!” That’s the slogan that appears as a footnote on every social media post my family’s business makes. It sounds nice, doesn’t it? Ninety-plus years in business, building a loyal client base. Ninety-plus years of fathers handing the reins over to their sons (or daughter, in my case, although I’m the first woman in 90-plus years to hold an actual position on both the board and management rather than simply being a silent partner). 

I grew up at my family’s auto businesses: running around the offices, playing hide-and-seek in the repair areas (much to my grandfather’s dismay), hiding toys in the conference room and knowing every single employee’s life story—I grew up with their kids, so in a way, they were like family, too. It sounds idyllic, I know. The truth is, I’m over it. A family business doesn’t get to be almost 100 years old without its fair share of drama and heartache. 


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A Booming Business Creates Family Business Disputes

Back in the late 1920s, my great-grandfather bought a gas pump, a few tires and some spare car parts and went around the city helping drivers change their broken tires and refill their empty tanks. Eventually, he saved enough money to establish a small auto repair shop downtown, where all the legitimate businesses were. He secured an exclusive distribution deal with one of the biggest names in the tire industry. His business grew from one store to two, and when the opportunity to add car dealerships came along, he took it without hesitation, and the business kept growing. 

His sons—my grandfather and great-uncle—joined the company a few decades later. Together, they expanded it into other cities. Business boomed under their leadership, but their sibling relationship quickly deteriorated. Still, they kept going. Their sons—my father and uncles—joined the company in the ’80s and added hotels to the company’s portfolio. Once again, business was great, but family relations were always tense, to say the least. Although none of them were ever the closest of siblings, the brothers’ relationship, once cordial and somewhat friendly, quickly worsened. Typical sibling rivalry was darkened by jealousy and anger over how the business was managed, creating an irreparable rift in the family.

A man and his sons running the family mechanic business.

Family Business Fighting Has Created a Rift Between Multiple Generations of Siblings

In the early 2000s, the first big rupture happened. My grandpa and his brother could no longer handle working together. They split the business into two different companies and rarely spoke after that. History then repeated itself almost a decade later, in the mid-2010s, when my father and his brothers were forced to split the company once again. To this day, they can barely stand to be in the same room as each other.

I joined the company a few years after the second split, being the first (and only) one of my generation to work in the business that we had grown up in, that put us through school and had helped us become the people we are today. It was a role that I originally took with pride—I was continuing my father’s, grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s legacies. But I soon discovered how exhausting and emotionally draining living up to nine decades of history actually is. It took me all of three years to realize I wanted out.

There Are Advantages and Disadvantages of Working in a Family Business

It's nice being part of my family's legacy. But there’s a darker side to it that most people don’t know about, one that is not spoken of nearly enough. We like to pretend we get along, that siblings haven’t directly had a hand in making each other’s lives more difficult (and maybe insulting each other’s spouses and children, or lack thereof). We act like things are fine, mostly for the sake of my grandmother, who wants her family to “get along peacefully,” but has never taken the steps to ensure every family member feels heard, included and loved the same.

In the rare instance that any of this drama or concern is brought up, it ends up badly, with words like “betrayal,” “ungrateful” and “disloyal” thrown around in anger. Family businesses can be extremely toxic and detrimental to one’s mental health and even tear those families apart if they’re not handled with extreme care. I’ve seen it firsthand.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the freedom that being “the owner’s kid” offers me. I get to make my own schedule, and it can be as flexible as I need it to be. I can take holidays off (the Jewish ones, at least) with no consequences, and I get as many paid days off as I ask for (just as long as I check in a few times a week when I’m out of office). 

I also like being known by our longtime customers. That’s opened a lot of doors for me, work-wise—“You know, your grandfather sold me my first car; of course, I’ll listen to your business pitch!” On the other hand, I wish people would take me seriously for my own achievements rather than assume it’s all just because of who my dad is. I’m nearly 30 years old, and when we meet with vendors and big clients, my co-workers will still introduce me as “the owner’s kid.” Pretty much every comment or decision I make at work is followed by, “What does your father think of this? Is he okay with it?”

Being "the owner's kid" has benefits when meeting with clients.

There Is Never a Break: A Toxic Family Business Follows You Home

One would think that when the whole C-suite of a company all lives under the same roof, a lot of shit would get done. And it does, but it’s a ticking time bomb, too. When you work with family, work never really ends. Sunday barbecues turn into brainstorm sessions. Daily family lunches turn into heated briefings on what happened at the office that day. Post-dinner drinks with your co-workers and boss happen in the kitchen of your home. We always have our laptops, tablets or phones ready to run numbers on any new idea someone comes up with, even if this happens in the middle of the Pesach Seder or requires one of us to get out of the shower to talk something over. (Yes, both of these things have actually happened.) The boundaries are easily blurred, and it’s way too easy to get lost in a toxic hustle culture because “this is our legacy, and it’s what puts food on our table.” 

When I talk with my father, I wonder to myself, am I talking to my dad or to my boss right now? If things go wrong at work— as they tend to do sometimes —the criticism will inevitably include my personal life. Arguments and anxieties spill over from the office to the home and vice versa. It's a never-ending, vicious cycle of anxiety and madness. Working in the family business has put a big strain on my relationship with my parents, especially with my father. It’s not uncommon for the first thing he says to me when he gets home to be, “How did we do today?” instead of “hello.” Business takes precedence over family relationships. It’s a lot to handle, and I’m most definitely not cut out for this life.

An old man seething with anger over his family's business decisions.

I’m Thankful and Proud of Our Legacy, but I’m Tired of Working for Family

I’m proud to be part of my family’s legacy, I really am. I will always be thankful for the opportunities it has given me, both personal and professional, but ultimately, it’s not for me. It’s not something I want to be a part of for much longer or something that I want to bring my future children into. I’m a creative person. I went to design school but ended up majoring in business as well because of family obligations. Despite the many liberties and economic security that working in my family’s business has given me through the years, I can't ignore how much it's taken from me, too.

I’m a writer, a stylist, an illustrator. I’m whatever I feel like being. I want to explore the creative side of my abilities and use them to build the life I’ve dreamed of for myself—not the one that was planned for me even before I was born.

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