Setting Family Businesses up for Success and Succession

Framework curated by Ameera Ladak and Stefan Palios in partnership with MindFrame Connect.

Natasha Vandenhurk discusses how she built a successful family-run company through innovation and leveraging her family’s skill sets.

Working with family can be rewarding, but it also comes with a unique set of challenges. Natasha Vandenhurk, the founder of family-run company Three Farmers Foods, knows this delicate balance well and has experienced it over the years.

Despite the upsides of working with family, such as embedded trust and loyalty, two main challenges can arise: navigating the messier side of family relationships and growth plus succession planning. Vandenhurk and her family have had to face these challenges head-on and ask themselves questions about keeping the business in the family or looking outside for support.

Ensure you have the right skills in your business

For Vandenhurk, there have been two main steps to ensure her family business had the right skill set to grow.

  1. Remember the value other family members bring to the table. In the middle of running a business and maintaining family ties, Vandenhurk said “people forget the value” other family members can bring to the business. To avoid this trap, she kept everyone’s skillset top of mind and focused on allowing each family member to own what they excelled at. Vandenhurk and her sister have different skill sets, for example, and each focus on their strengths, such as marketing or strategy. Vandenhurk also spoke about knowing her own skill set, while also knowing what each of her family members brought to the table.
  2. Hire for missing skill sets, even if it means going outside the family. Family businesses often evoke a vision of hiring cousins and siblings—all while avoiding anyone outside the group. However, this isn’t fully accurate, even in the most tight-knit family-run businesses. Vandenhurk said that “we’re not afraid to call out if we’re missing a skill set” and discussed that they seek out external talent when needed. Understanding that they won’t have all the necessary skills within their family has helped them ensure their team is well-rounded with different skills.

Five considerations for a successful family business

Vandenhurk shared that running a successful family business comes with unique elements that may or may not apply to all businesses. For her, five considerations helped make her family’s business successful.

1. Understand the nuances of family businesses, and educate external hires on those nuances. Family businesses may have unique ways of working that replicate their family culture, and the whole team must understand these differences.

2. Be authentic, and recruit people who are “just as passionate about the mission” as you and your family members are.

3. Ensure staff understands there is a family dynamic. Family relationships differ from traditional business relationships, and all employees should be aware of those dynamics and how they might come into the workplace.

4. Tackle problems head-on. Vandenhurk emphasized the importance of finding solutions as quickly as possible and said that they “don’t beat around the bush” when it comes to handling problems.

5. Be aware that the personal side will “infiltrate the business,” said Vandenhurk. She mentioned that when a family spends so much time together, inside and outside of work, it is inevitable that the personal side of things will show up at work. It’s important to be aware of that factor.

Getting investors for a family business requires differentiation

Having worked with top investors such as Arlene Dickinson, Vandenhurk shared some advice about gaining investment to grow your business. According to Vandenhurk, there aren’t a lot of venture capitalists in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) space in Canada. With this scarcity of capital in Canada, Vandenhurk’s business had to stand out. Differentiation was a top requirement for investors, and Vandenhurk shared two ways to better differentiate.

1. Be innovative. Three Farmers Foods gained popularity due to its innovative production methods that differed from most competitors. For example, their snacks are air-popped instead of fried, which is the traditional method.

2. Master your home market. Vandenhurk discussed how their “strategy is different.” For example, they focused a lot on the Canadian market instead of expanding outside. She said that they wanted to master their home market before expanding to a larger base, such as the USA.

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