Sarah Grace Mohr is the VP of Operations and Communication for Mackey Advisors, a Kentucky-based business consulting firm started by her mother. Mohr describes herself as a ‘Jill-of-all-trades’, with a background in interior design, strategy, project management, marketing, customer service, and leadership. But when Sarah Grace Mohr joined her mother’s business the first time round, things didn’t exactly work out. It took her return for a second chance a few years later for mother and daughter to find the right balance.
Amy Katz from Daughters in Charge and Ramia El Agamy from WIFB sat down with Sarah Grace Mohr to discuss her long and often turbulent journey in creating a successful mother-daughter family business.
This episode of Conversations with Women in Family Business is co-produced with Amy Katz, founder of coaching-business Daughters in Charge.
An Interview with Sarah Grace Mohr
Ramia: Sarah, tell us a little bit more about yourself and your family business situation.
Sarah: We were founded the year before I was born so I always know how old the company is because it’s a year older than me. We were founded almost 36 years ago when my mother was looking for part-time options for a job. She was an accountant and she was going to have me, and she didn’t want to work full time and there was nothing available like that in the 1980s. So, she decided as a true entrepreneur to figure it out herself. She started out as just an outsourced controller for small businesses going in for month-end close, and helping with audits and stuff like that. When I was three, as the story goes, my dad walked in the house and said I quit my job today and I don’t think I want to go back to work. Being the crazy, amazing person she is, my mom said ‘Okay I guess I’m going to do this for real’. So she purchased a tax practice and went from there.
The story is the acquisition was awful, but she learned a lot. We still have clients from that acquisition, crazily enough. So, it wasn’t all bad. She spent the next 10 years building one of the largest CPA firms, and women-owned businesses in Greater Cincinnati. We were a very traditional CPA firm, compliance, audit, tax. In 1995, at the peak of my mother’s career, my father committed suicide. That sent both of our worlds into a tailspin, and I would say we’re both still recovering. We have lots of battle scars from that. But it made my mom to look at her life and say I’m doing something I really hate doing and is that worth it? Is it worth it going in and working 60 hours a week and stressing out and doing something that I’m really not passionate about. So, she decided to sell off most of the business. She spent the next decade coming up with one of our two products which is the Prosperity Experience. It’s a holistic financial planning process. I say we’re the dirty hippies of the financial world. It’s all done with our planners one-on-one with clients in the room. So, we talk about money as the tool and the goal is your life.
Then she got bored like entrepreneurs do because it was running so smoothly. She was like I think we can make this into a process for small business owners in their business. We’re helping them get the lives they want, let’s help them get the businesses they want. So about seven to ten years ago, we created what is now known as the Prosperity Experience for Business. It’s a financial Operating system for small businesses. It comes with a financial coach and outsourced CFO monthly. There’s monthly meetings, homework in between, so really, we’re an accountability partner, a butt kicker, and a transparency advocate. We love it, it is incredibly stressful work but really rewarding. It’s great to see these business owners transform in front of your eyes. It’s great to see personal clients transform in front of our eyes.
What I do here is none of that. Don’t ask me about anything financial. I do everything but the work. Anyone in a small business knows that’s a lot when you’re small. So, I’m HR and I’m marketing and I’m PR and I’m financial management and I run our small business services division right now. Which is interesting having a non-technical person trying to manage technical people. That has been a very big learning experience. Let’s just say that. I love it, every day is different. I started in 2009 as the marketing assistant and when the office manager left, I thought I can do that. And then I just started picking stuff up. I’d see holes and I’m like that could be better. So I just started fixing things, making things better.
Amy: Sarah, if you would, talk a little bit about how you created the setting around you for this particular business.
Sarah: When I came back to the firm in 2009, it was right in the middle of the recession and being the fiscal conservatives we are, we had cash. It was a great time to buy a building and make it our own and really plant our stake in the ground rather than just renting something and moving. We had a Goldilocks adventure around Northern Kentucky where we’re located. Most things we saw were way too large and we were going to have to have tenants. Or they were way too small, and we would outgrow them in a year or two. Eventually, we found the perfect space and it was the ugliest building in Bellevue, that’s where we’re located. It was a really seedy liquor store.
Ramia: I love it because you see a liquor store and you think financial planning, this is how it goes. The two come hand-in-hand clearly.
Sarah: We walked in and all the windows had bars, the floor was black because they smoked in the space. I was like this is a great space, we should buy this building! Mackie was like, are you kidding me, this is awful. But she trusted me, and she bought the building. We made it into what it is now which I call my 6,000 square foot baby. It was my first baby. I have a background in interior design, so I was the lead designer on it and project manager. I got it in under budget, which never happens. It was only $150 under budget but damn it, it was under budget and on time.
Ramia: Unheard of. Unheard of in that category.
Sarah: Six years later, I still pat myself on the back for that one. It’s one of the things I actually gloat a little bit about. We can have up to 30 people in this office. We moved in with about seven full-timers and we now have about 14 staff. It’s just really nice, it fits our brand, you won’t see any crown molding you won’t see any dark wood. There are no steps to get in, it’s all about being accessible, being open, transparent. When you walk in our door you understand who we are.
Ramia: As a daughter, you joined the business that your mother founded. We usually hear the other case scenario much more often where a daughter will join her father’s business. Your mom clearly went through considerable effort to build this and was a one-woman show for a long time, I guess until you officially joined the business. Can you tell me a little bit about that transition time and when it went from her entrepreneurship journey to a multi-generational business?
Sarah: Yeah, it was really messy and it’s still messy. When we were a traditional CPA firm, being a creative type I am I was thinking I would never work in the business. Why would I do that every day, that’s so boring? Lo and behold, I found the thing I love almost as much as my daughter. Like most kids, I was free labour once I had fine motor skills. And it was great because in the summer, I could work when I wanted some cash. It was great to have the flexibility to just do basic admin stuff. I went off into the world thinking that I was going to be an actor or a designer. I really didn’t know what I wanted to be. I ended up actually running a bar which, if you could make money 8 to 5 running a bar, I probably still would because it’s a really fun time.
Ramia: We found the liquor connection now. It’s all coming back, it’s interesting.
Sarah: That bar was actually run by three independent owners who were having a lot of personal issues and the business was really suffering. I just couldn’t be there anymore. My mom said, ‘I really need help with marketing and you get me and nobody else gets me’. We had tried working together with me full-time a couple years prior and it blew up. I mean screaming matches, crying, it was really, really bad. We both decided if it doesn’t work, I’m never coming back again, it’s off the table. This is the last time, either I’m here or I’m not and for both of us, we needed to put that stake in the ground. For her, she needed that comfort in knowing that I was either going to commit or I was going to go away and there was nothing wishy-washy about it. I needed some seriousness about it because I’ve been in and out of it forever. For me, it was just natural to flow in and out but you can’t build a business when somebody you’re relying on his floating in and out.
I came back reluctantly, and our relationship was very different. I couldn’t pinpoint why, I think I had to grow up. I was 26 when I came back. I think we had to get a little farther away from that teenage angst age where it’s like, ‘You don’t understand me and you don’t trust me and you just think I’m awful’ even though they’re standing there telling you how much they love you and appreciate you and think you’re wonderful.
When my father died, it just obliterated our relationship until I was in my twenties. So not only do we have the typical really difficult mother-daughter stuff that everybody struggles with but on top of it, we have all this baggage. I came back, and I realized what she was trying to do. That’s the great thing about speaking Mackie, I can see her vision really clearly. Oh I see, you’re trying to change the world. You’re trying to make it a more peaceful, prosperous place and that’s really cool. I can really get behind that. I think it was having a stronger shared vision and that I could see it so much more clearly that it really made us click as a team.
It still gets messy, there’s still some crying, but it’s not as public. That’s kind of our behaviour too. I have to blow up before I can get clear. It’s definitely been a struggle, but I would never change it. My mom is a force. She walks in a room and you know it. The energy changes.
I really love coming in every day and advocating for her vision. And helping craft it at the same time. She’s a true entrepreneur. What I say is she’s the architect, she can see the plot of land and say I know exactly what goes there. I can’t see it, but she can show me the plans and I’m like ‘Oh I can fill this thing and make it functional and beautiful and on budget. So she’s the architect and I’m the interior designer. I think that speaks to any transition.
Ramia: Amy, in your work with Daughters In Family Business, how often does this timing issue come up? How much importance do you give this situation? Or do you feel at any given time there’s a way of working things out?
Amy: I don’t think there’s one description or one timing. I think it’s really got to do in part with what the experience was like growing up, what the relationship was like, and what the family was like. So if you grew up and really for a long time saw your mother as a strong woman and as someone who was a good model for you, I think eventually there’s a point at which you reach the position that Sarah Grace is in right now which is, okay I like that, I can handle it and I can do something different which is a contribution.
In a way, when an individual has a vision for themselves, I think it’s easier to join someone else’s vision when it’s compatible. And you found the perfect complement to any business relationship, whether it’s a mother or a father or a non-family member. That is that you see your role, you see an opportunity to express your talents, you see something that values you can uphold. I think it’s less the timing and it’s more about as you start to see yourself and craft your own journey, then it’s time to choose. If it’s a parent, father, mother, sibling then I think it works.
Ramia: Sarah, if I understand correctly you have a daughter as well yourself. How did your perception of how you and your mom function together change when you became a mother? Did it influence it? Have you thought about that?
Sarah: Oh my God, every day. Having my daughter, I fawn over her all the time. I think she’s the best thing that’s ever happened. In the delivering room I’m holding her and I’m crying and I’m like I’m so sorry, you love me so much and I didn’t get it. I don’t think you can get how much your mother loves you until you become a mother. I had no idea that a Mom’s love was this intense.
I don’t have lots of memories of my mother when I was little. There were big moments like if she could go on a field trip, I couldn’t believe it. And I would show her off to every person in my class. This is my mom, this is my mom. I remember one year she took half days off on Fridays and we would go to the zoo or we would go to the museum so there are big moments I remember. I also think that made me idealize my mom too. The way it was always talked about was Mom’s making the money and doing a job and running her company. Others in my peer group saw their moms work but I saw my mom as the boss everywhere. I never had that limiting belief that women can’t be bosses or women can’t be leaders, for me that was just my reality.
I think that’s why my mom had to be so strong for me. While I love that, and I really appreciate it, I think if there had been a little more vulnerability between us, it would have been different. But she didn’t want to share her hurt with me. Which completely makes sense, but I think if you want to create a well-rounded human being, we have to be well-rounded human beings. We can’t be superheroes. so that’s the thing that I’m trying to do different and I’m trying to be really purposeful. My mom didn’t have the option of not working 60 hours a week. I have an established business that I’m running with a team that’s really good, so I do have the luxury of being able to stop at 5:30 and go home most nights. But I’m trying to be really conscious of when I’m home, I am home. I am with Etta, that is non-negotiable time. I think it’s always going to be a struggle but those are the two things that I’m doing differently. I think is just is a changing culture to in terms of trying to be. This is the first time that that’s acceptable being vulnerable with your kids.
Ramia: If you were to look back, what would be your number one piece of advice to a younger version of yourself or another girl who’s about to join her mother’s business in the near future? What would you say just think about these things ahead of time before joining? How would you advise them to prepare themselves mentally for what they’re about to enter?
Sarah: I think first is assume good intent always. They’re your parents, they’re also your boss so the delivery might suck, but always assume good intent. And to look at yourself through a real lens, not your rose-coloured glasses and not your sad-sack perspective because I think people can go to both. You have to say, I know I’m not a hundred percent good, I know I’m not 100% bad. I can then take the critiques and whatever comes along. Your boss telling you one thing is totally different than your boss/parent telling you with something. Your boss/parent telling you that you need to work on your communication skills is so much bigger than just your boss telling you. You are seeking so much more approval and so many other ways.
Maybe that’s the third one is when you’re at work, be at work. I call my mother Mackie. When I’m talking about her at business. I’ll switch in the break room I’ll be, ‘Mackie would like you to do this’ and then ‘Oh yeah, I went to my mom’s today’. It kind of gives the staff whiplash but for me it helps my mind have a barrier. Come to work and be an employee and respect your boss. You’re never going to be 100 percent at that, you’re always going to fail at it but if you come in without as your goal, I think it would work a lot better.
Ramia: Amy, from your experience, do you have anything that you would add to someone who’s about to join the business to avoid the pitfalls that Sarah faced?
Amy: I was thinking about idolizing your mother, Sarah Grace, and I think that’s something that you have to watch for in yourself. Just recognize that, as you say, your mother is vulnerable, she has had struggles and she has managed them very well just as you have. So the advice would just be that capacity to appreciate your mother and also know that your mother is invested in your success and not managing you is challenging for her too. Just keep in mind that that Mom/boss dynamic is something that you will work on and it sounds like it’s working out beautifully for both of you.
Ramia: I think it’s great to have a realistic assessment of something that is obviously going to be an ongoing struggle for a balanced. There’s no romantic side to being in a family business. I think yeah maybe when we have an anniversary everybody gets a little gooey but let’s face it, it’s harsh. It’s fun but it’s harsh. So maybe as a final look into your future, what is on the horizon for you guys at Mack advisors? Where would you like to take this business in the next few years, aside from into the third generation of course? What’s on the horizon for you?
Sarah: We’re coming up on a succession in the next three to seven-year timeframe. We’ve been transparent with our clients and our employees that we just don’t know the plan. We have ideas when we know concrete things we will tell you, but we don’t want to freak you out with all of our mind-jumble. I just moved into the big office, we only have one big office and our space, and I just moved into it. I have resisted it for a while. I thought it was going to be an awkward transition but it’s going well in that direction. We’ve been working really hard at holding our processes and getting our two core services functioning well. Now I think it’s about spreading the word. I would say the next three to five years are really getting in front of our market more and engaging with clients that are and honing-in on who we want to work with. We work with a lot of different industries, so it doesn’t have to be industry-specific but really honing with who do we do the most impactful work for and let’s work with them
When I think about who we are and what you have to do to show up every day, that’s what matters to us. It’s so dorky and so lame but I want to change the world. And we’re going to do that. It may only be one client at a time. It may be only by providing peace and comfort and a clear vision for one client at a time, but each of those clients is going to make a ripple effect and the way they shift their energy is the way that will change the world.
Ramia: I think we can fully subscribe to dorky and lame if it takes that shape. Sarah Grace, thank you for such a lovely and inspiring an honest conversation on women in family business with Daughters in Charge Amy Katz, thank you. I hope we can check in with you again in the future and see how things are going for you.
Sarah: Yeah, thank you! I love it. You guys gave me an opportunity to talk about the thing I love most which is me and my business. So, I really appreciate it so thank you for taking the time.
About Amy Katz and Daughters in Charge:
Amy Katz is an executive coach and social psychologist whose business, Daughters in Charge, focuses exclusively on supporting women in family businesses. She is the author of Daughters in Charge: Learning to Lead in Your Family’s Business.
Featured Picture Courtesy of Mackey Advisors.