Interview with Eva Fischer Hansen, Family Business Adviser and Founder of Balance2Perform
The reasons families choose to sell their businesses vary, but the subsequent, often distressing, process of moving on and navigating the unknown is an experience every former family business owner will inevitability face. For Eva Fischer Hansen, the strain of selling her family’s firm was so great that it left her incapacitated and in debilitating pain.
Eva hadn’t originally intended to join Brunata, her family’s intelligent energy metering solutions enterprise, but she found herself stepping into a key leadership role to save the business after her brother’s sudden departure. Serving as board chair, Eva helped her family turn the firm around and oversaw its successful sale, but the mental and physical toll had a profound effect on her well-being. After a period of recovery and reflection, Eva established her own consulting business to help other family-owned companies confront the unique challenges they face while staying true to their core values. She has since also founded Balance2Perform, a school for holistic body therapy that places great emphasis on psychological strength and mental well-being.
In this episode, Eva Fischer Hansen shares the personal and professional hurdles she overcame to safeguard the future of her family’s business, even after the decision to sell had been finalised. She also talks about the values instilled by her father that continue to guide her business decisions, and emphasises how focusing on a family member’s shortcomings rather than their role within the family unit may indicate that it is time to sell the business.
- When Eva joined her family firm, she uncovered failings in accountability and structure that eventually led to the decision to sell. The situation highlighted the importance of having strong governance frameworks and well-defined roles in a family business. Failure to do so can put the entire organisation in jeopardy as a result of the departure of a single family member, which was the case with Brunata.
- Eva received push-back from more experienced family members in the company when she tried to address quality control issues. Her determination resulted in a conflict that strained her relationship with her brother, Brunata’s CEO. The ongoing friction eventually helped solidify Eva’s decision to ultimately leave the firm.
- For many family business members, the prospect of selling can seem tantamount to losing their identity and may evoke feelings of failure, even in the case of a successful sale. It can be beneficial for family members to draw inspiration from their family’s business legacy as they rebuild themselves for their next professional chapter.
- Following the sale of her family’s business, Eva realised she would not find personal or professional fulfilment in an investor capacity and decided to navigate a new path for herself. This led to her participating in coaching experiences with individuals who were similarly grappling with their futures, eventually resulting in the decision to establish her consulting firm, as well as found Balance2Perform.
Ramia: Welcome everyone to another episode on Women in Family Business. I am so delighted to welcome my guest, Eva Fisher. Eva, welcome to WIFB.
Eva: Thank you very much. I’m very happy to be here as well.
Ramia: Eva, you and I are going to have a conversation about strategies to move on and also strategies to exit successfully and strategies to make, like I would say, like safeguard the family, even if the business has to evolve. And I think this is really a beautiful subject. It’s a subject that tends to be a little bit taboo in the family business space. We’d like to think that everything should last forever. We’d like to think that everything should be, you know, maintained and kept, et cetera. But we know that legacy doesn’t work like that. Legacy has to take different shapes. It has to evolve. And that’s what we’re here to talk to you about today, Eva. And your story is so interesting to me for so many different reasons. But I think we always need to start with what I like to call the origin story of the superhero I have in front of me. And so would you mind telling us a little bit more about growing up with the awareness that you’re part of a family business and how that shaped and influenced your life growing up?
Eva: I think basically the awareness was more that the business was very, very much in our life. When I was a kid, it was like we were being there with dad and sometimes we were doing work at home when some machines broke down and we had to do things manually.
Then we and the children from the street was collected and we were working back home. So I find that it was more feeling of maybe having another sibling or, yeah, taking quite a lot of space, but in a positive way. And of course we were doing heat-cursed allocation and putting the awareness of how to use less heat in houses.
So we were also very much involved in how you could do that and how you could calculate and how the meters was working. And yeah, so I think that growing up with a family business who is actively working and affecting the way you’re thinking, how you become a nerd in some specific, quite weird things, which is also very interesting. So it’s still like, even that the family business is not in our family anymore. I still, when I go to a restaurant or an office, see that, okay, they doesn’t have the meters from our. Yeah.
Ramia: From yours, so the ownership, the ownership remains. So that’s interesting though, like that psychological ownership. And so you’re describing it as something that very much was part of your nuclear family’s identity. So you grow up very close to it. You feel, you felt responsible for its success. You felt responsibility for the running of it. How did that translate into adult life for you? Was it automatically also very clear to you that you would work in the family business? Like what were your parents’ attitudes towards that? Was there an expectation towards you to join?
Eva: No, absolutely not. I was working in the business like during the summer holidays but I really didn’t have any dream about starting working there as my, yeah, as the rest of my life thing to do.
Basically, I was educated myself as a sailmaker. And I moved to Norway because in Denmark at that time, it was back in 86. There was no sailmakers in Denmark who wanted to hire women pupils. So, yeah, so then I moved to Norway and I took my education there. And I bought out my boss or the manager of the sail loft and then I took it over and I had that for approximately 15 years before I went into the family business.
Ramia: What was the, did you get a phone call? What happened?
Eva: We had a sales and service company in Norway. It was owned by another person, but my dad, they sold our meters and did our allocation and stuff like that. And my dad asked my husband that if he could take over that company, that office, and I was furious because I was not going to work. No, no, that was okay. I was a sail maker and had my sail loft. Yeah, and also because he was a Brunet guy, he had been working in Brunet and Denmark. But I was furious about having that company into my family in Norway. That was absolutely not a plan. And we already had the sail loft as an independent company. So, and you know, when you’re independent and you have to make your salary every month, you’re often working quite hard. And I was thinking, okay, having one extra independent company in the family was, was not what I wished for. And I didn’t wish for, as I said before, I was definitely not going to work in the family business and then it became closer.
Being a sale maker and having this 24-7 work in a work where more and more the sales were made in the Far East or the Asian companies. So it became harder and harder to make money. And also we had two small kids. Never knowing how much money you could live for every month. And then in Denmark, my three siblings had already started working in Brunneta, in the family business. And one day I was just like, they’re working there, they will get a salary every month, they would be higher than my salary, why don’t I just join them? And then my life would be kind of easier.
So it was, and yeah, I’m telling this also because I think this is the stupidest way to go into a business. But I also think…
Ramia: Okay, well it’s a very practical argument, but maybe when it’s the family business it might be a dangerous way to join us. Maybe yeah.
Eva: Definitely, but I also think it’s quite typical. And I asked my dad, I think, okay, I’m thinking about closing down my sail loft and joining Brunetta. What do you think about that? No, it’s okay. And I asked him, what would you prefer me to do? No, you can choose. Which is also quite, yeah, stupid in a kind of way, but also I think it’s quite typical. Not that, I mean, there’s always a space. Yeah. And it’s quite, I mean, I am working, I have always been very open for my kids, discussing all the issues, but trying not to put the words into that. They have to be independent and take the decisions themselves.
Ramia: Well, it sounds very familiar. It sounds very familiar for sure.
Eva: And today I have started a school for educating body treaters. And my son just started at that school as a pupil. And he asked me the other day, do you expect me to have some work after I finish my education in that school? Because we own it 50%.
And I said, no, I doesn’t have any expectations to you, but definitely it’s a possibility. And then he looked at me and he said, mom, now you said it in the wrong way. Because it’s not just a possibility. I have to have the skills for doing it and I have to, yeah, okay, but it’s…
Ramia: Nice. Well, I mean, he’s OK. He’s educated. That’s OK. Like there’s going to be none of that. Your your children are going to be their own sort of like custodians here and safeguarding the entrance into the family business. What comes next? But so this is but it’s so interesting, like because I do think you’re right. I think you are describing what happens to many of us in the family business.
I think especially when the family business maybe is like second generation or is a certain size, it is very easy for the next generation to start by just going in and helping out for a while and then staying and then also coming in and not really joining with a career path in mind, but like rather you just join, you pick what you want to do and then you do that. And I agree with you, it’s problematic for many different reasons, but then also it… It is a fact that it’s a very common, it’s a very common practice.
You join, so you choose your role, you join. How did your relationship with your family, did your relationship with your family change once you really joined? And did your perception of the business also change once you were actually inside and really were there as a grownup professional, of course, at that point in time.
Eva: Yeah, just when I joined it was fine and I joined the Norwegian office. So I was still far away. But then during the time and I found out that there were some issues. There were some issues being a citizen service company connected to the headquarter where it was not always functioning as it should be. But also, Norway was a very new market. So we did a lot of sales there. We sold a lot of meters. And then quite rapidly, we found out that the meters was not always working. There was some issues with the meters. And…
So we had to change a lot of them, which is, it’s easier to see when you’re a new a newcomer, And so I was starting picking up my, my brother who was the CEO to place that we had some meter issues. But, but I think that looking back on how we were speaking to each other. We were still siblings working together. We were not professionals working together. So he was extremely annoyed with this stupid little sister. How should I know anything about meters and stuff like that? So we didn’t really believe in it and so the issues was not solved and the discussions became more and more aggressive and we really, really started a war. And it became that bad that I actually, I decided not to continue working there. This was after some years, I think I was there for five or six years or something like that. And because we couldn’t talk and the issues was not solved and I didn’t want to put my face in the company where we had to excuse to the customers all the time that, okay, now we’re coming back again. And then I decided to stop working there. So in 2011, I went to Denmark to deliver my work to another person to take over. And the same day, my dad said goodbye to my big brother. So he left the company. I called my husband and told him that I was not sure when I came back to Norway, because we had a quite heavy situation. So we had to, from that day we had to find of course a new management or a new manager, and we had to find out what is the situation of the company, and of course also low practical, of course we had to inform all the employees, the board, the bank, all this kind of basic stuff. But it was quite thrown into a world where I had never been before. Because I was basically a sailmaker, the office in Norway was a very tiny office, we were five people working there. And suddenly I was together with my two other siblings and my dad in charge of this quite big company with 450 employees and a turn around of a bit more than five people who had a turnover with 40 million euro. And we were situated in 10 different countries, I think, and the headquarters in Denmark. So from that day, I started traveling back and forward four days a week.
Ramia: What is the role that you took officially?
Eva: I became a part of the management group and I became a part of the board. But I didn’t have basically a role because when I came to Denmark that day I was going to leave the company. I was going to resign, and then I was going to go back to Norway and start a new life. And then this happened. So it was also quite shocking, but we were, I think me and also my siblings and my dad, we were taking some good choices, even that it was such a stressful situation, but we were totally agreeing that we was going to have a CEO not coming from the family. So that was also a part of what we was going to do. We had to find that person.
Ramia: So that usually is also a moment where you can’t do it anymore the way that you used to, don’t you? Like the moment you get a non-family CEO, that forced governance comes into place. So like, what was that like for you, your dad and the siblings that were there with you? Did you guys call it governance structures at that time already? Were you aware that these were the pieces that were missing or did you intuitively just know we need to professionalize so that we can attract someone with the right talent? Like, what was that conversation like for you?
Eva: Due to the situation in the company, we knew that we had to make some quite big steps to get.
I think it was liquidity. I mean, we didn’t have any cash. We were still doing a plus, but we didn’t have any cash, which was quite critical. And we were very close not to have any agreement with the bank. So there were situations that we were absolutely not aware of.
Ramia: So there have been mismanagement almost and you had to fix all of that. And okay.
Eva: And we had to do it first. So what we said to each other was that we had to think like a private equity fund, but we had to do it in a little slower way than they do, because we were going to invest in the future, we didn’t have any plans of exiting at that moment. So I always say that we had to think like in a private equity, but we had to do it with a slow move.
But I think it was quite important to have that in mind all the time because first we had the CEO coming from the outside in 2011 in November and then two years at that moment we had a family board, my siblings and I and my dad was in the board and we were in the management group. We put a person in between, which we learned from that exercise that it’s not working. I think it would never be working. I have tried also later on interviewing people who have been in that position, having the same people in the board as in the management group and you would become like a sandwich and it’s… I think you can’t work professionally if you’re always a little bit afraid of that, you will be kicked out. So then in 2013 when we changed also the board, we took in three members from outside the family and then I continued in the board together with my dad and left the management group and my siblings left the board. So we didn’t have any bridges. And I think that was one of the most important steps that we made.
Ramia: So your siblings stayed in operational roles? They stayed in the, they just left the board, but they stayed in, so you chose basically like you either or you were on the board or you were in an operational role. I see.
Eva: Yeah, yeah. But then at the same time, because I didn’t really have a role in the management group, then I had become like a project worker. So even that I was in the board and not in the management group, I was still doing a lot of work for the company. I was mostly going to our sales and service companies, which was not in Denmark.
Ramia: Putting these structures in place and putting the non-family CEO in place, et cetera. Like how long did it take for you to see an effect on the business itself and on the performance of the business? And did you see an improvement in terms of how the business was run?
Eva: Yeah, definitely. But then becoming more and more professional and having more and more people coming from outside in the management group and in the board. And then we were also forced into the governance and make a strategy to have the budget. We did have the budget, but maybe more into that we were going to have a rolling budget. So we was like, okay, wow, now we have the five years budget and now the five years have gone, we need to make a new one. Now, so, and we could feel that it had a big impact at the company, but also at the employees, because then they were also more safe and okay, what is tomorrow going to be? But we had a big… clean up if you can mention it as that. So we had an indoor production which we took out of the company and make another factory produce our meters. We had a huge stock which we had to reduce.
We had to find the cash so we could pay back loans and stuff like that. And it took actually, I think we were cleaning up for like from 11 to 15 and in 15 we came out with a quite big minus. And even that it was planned because we had, yeah, we reduced the value of some some parts of the company and we have outsourced things and yeah. Yeah. Then the bank didn’t find it very satisfying that we had this great minus. So they put their names on our shares, even though it was still our shares, but then we couldn’t, we couldn’t act in a way and also if we didn’t succeed with our turnaround, we had a risk that the bank would take over. Yeah, so then my siblings became quite nervous about if we wouldn’t succeed, then we would have nothing and they decided that we was going to sell the company. So it was together with this minus and together with the bank and putting the names and the shares that the decision of the sale was taken.
Ramia: I guess, by that time, you had spent many years trying to right a sinking ship, and then you righted it, and then in a way, you didn’t get the chance, I guess, to then go into full recovery. What was that like personally? How did you experience that? Were you relieved or were you more disappointed?
Eva: Luckily, the sale took two and a half years. So we had time to finalize. But I was like, if I had a bag of money, I would put it into Bonata, our company, because I really could see that. It was a great future. Yeah. So I was not agreeing in that we were going to sell the company. But at the other side, the decision was taken. And when you take a decision like that, you’re not very interested in continuing. And as my siblings was also a big part of the company, and they would like to sell the company, then they would not be an active part if you already are deciding that you’re selling the new kind of on your way out. Yeah. So we made some changes again and then my siblings stopped working in the company and I became the chair. I was until that moment the deputy of the board, but I was running the board. But my dad was the chair. So I became the chair and I was responsible for selling the company and also finalizing the turnaround. And then we had, then it took two and a half year to kind of way be ready to sell the company. And there were some buyers during the time, but it was not really serious. And so we succeeded like finalizing what we started. In the 16 we had a plus and the plus was growing quite rapidly so we could see the result of what we had been doing.
And also we could continue changing the things that we wanted to change. And I think that one of the interesting things is that from the start in 2011, we had questionized all, every year, all the employees was questionized about how they like to work in the company. And every year we could measure that, that they became more and more happy to be there.
And I think that slowly getting all these things in place and also definitely the governance and also changing some of the people working there because they would maybe fit better into other kinds of works. It makes, it was just a happier place to be.
Ramia: But it’s just a double-edged sword though, that kind of a moment, isn’t it? Because in a way, it must have been satisfactory to be able to sell it in that condition, to be able to sell it in a it was in a better place, the business, people were happy. But then is there a twinge of regret in that moment? Because actually you’ve turned the company around and it could have maybe…under your ownership and leadership, it could have continued on in your family. So how did you reconcile that moment psychologically with yourself? Like, was that very hard or had you moved on by that time mentally from this idea of the ownership aspect of it?
Eva: I think during the time from where we decided to sell until we sold, I never worked as if we were going to sell the company. We started up new things and a couple of months ago I had a meeting with our bank contact from that period of time.
And he said that he was quite fascinated about how we were doing because we really did things which wouldn’t have any impact on the price we could sell the company from. But it had an impact on the future of the company. So I knew all the time that we were going to sell the company, but also I didn’t, that was not what I was working for. I was working to do the cleanup. I was working to make a company which was functioning. And I think that was also, even that I didn’t have that in mind at that time, but if the sale of the company had failed, then we had a very, very good running company. So then I’m in. But I haven’t, I think it was sad that we was going to sell the company, but I don’t miss working with my family. I don’t miss all this. I mean, I was this traveling back and forward… I think that’s also quite interesting because I would presume that I would miss it. But what I had felt after, when we sold in 18, I think I signed the last contract in December 18, and in February 19, I became really sick due to stress. And I just couldn’t move. I was just laying on the couch and I was totally, I was in quite high pain. So I started another journey, kind of being coached and getting my body back in some kind of way and getting my head back.
And during that time, I didn’t have any kind of contact with the money that we gained when we sold the company or anything like that. It was just in the bank. And suddenly I woke up, yeah, I just left it there. And suddenly after one year or something like that, I woke up quite stressed when I said, wow, the bank is, my money is in the bank and it’s a minus. At that moment, you got a minus from the bank if you had money there. So it was quite like, well, I have to do something. And then I started educating me and my kids in how you place money. And I also started to put words on the responsibility that you have, both if you have a family business, but also if you have a certain amount of money. And what you can do by building up new companies. And then the next part, it was like, then I started building up the school, as I told about before.
And then I had to refind me, because I couldn’t accept, I couldn’t accept just to be an investor. That’s, that was for me like the worst thing you could be, like it’s close to nothing. I have to be actively involved, yeah. And I had…quite big discussions about that. And it took a while before I felt safe in finding my new way. And I think that kind, that feeling, I think when you sell your family business, there will, a lot of former owners is struggling about that. Because it’s, you’re grown up with it and suddenly it’s gone.
Ramia: What I find really fascinating about this is that so you’re talking about it and you do this incredible thing… your siblings decide to sell. You didn’t necessarily want to sell. You didn’t continue on like building the business as if it’s yours until the very point of sale. But for all intents and purposes, you ethically really do the right thing. But then there’s also a profound sense of relief once it’s over and almost to the point where there’s a total breakdown of the system, which I can, so I think anyone can relate to when they hear what you’ve been through and everything. So, and then you talk about rebuilding that identity without the family business, but it’s of course, it’s always there, isn’t it? Like, because it is part of like, we are having this, you are on this podcast as well, because you have this story to share about the family business. So how did you reintegrate the family business into your own identity without being an owner? Like, how did you make it part of your story without it maybe being too painful or without associating it necessarily with a loss, but rather something that, you know, has gotten you where you are. How did you reconcile that situation?
Eva: I think that finding out all the possibilities that I have. Because what I bring from the family business that we have into the family business that I’m building now with my kids, it’s the same… We really share the same values. And I put that into whatever I do. So when I, I mean, one of the biggest, one of the most important values in Brunet was fairness. It came from my dad.
when I started the school of educating people treating, I think that the ethic and the value is the same of having a high quality of whatever we are doing. So if we are educating people in that school, we need to be sure that when they finalise and they get their exam, they have a really high level of being treaters or coaches.
And also the ethical understanding of what is, how far can you go and when should I invite other people in to help. And I think basically it’s the same when I do, I also have my own business doing coaching family businesses. And also there I think it’s extremely important to tell, okay, now there’s an issue. I’m not the person who or able to solve that, I have to bring in another one.
Ramia: Did you associate the loss of the business also, do you feel like you lost your family to a certain extent or like what happened to the relationship with your siblings and what was that like for you?
Eva: I lost my big brother. I mean, we don’t have any contact anymore. And I have contact with the other siblings. But I think that the problem about the situation the company were in when we started transforming it. If we hadn’t acted at that moment, we would have lost the family and the business. So I think that’s quite, I think that’s important to have in mind when you see situations like that, what is the result of your actions, and what is the result of if it doesn’t act. I think that… When we, because the shape of the company was very good when we sold it, but I think it was still now a good idea that we sold it because it had been very heavy years for the family. And I think that we couldn’t, it would be harder and harder every year to continue as a good family if we had kept the company, even that the company was in a good condition.
Ramia: I think there are family businesses today listening to this maybe, or watching this, you know, where you recognize yourself in this situation a little bit. What are for you like, sort of like, when you look at, you know, when you work with families, but also when you think back, like, what do you think are sort of like clear signs that there should be a discussion of, well, you know, if not outright selling, at least really removing the family from day to day or even like, you know, sort of governance roles, like, you know, do you have like these, is it very clear to you now when you also look at other families where you’re like, Ooh, you know, what actually selling or moving on in some shape or form might be better for yourself as a person, but also for the family as a whole, like what are, what are sort of factors that you feel that you recognize?
Eva: I think basically when you start having discussions where you forget to focus on the quality or that the persons from the family have, you’re just picking on the not existing talents… But I think the problem is also in our business or in our family was how we came into the company. So it already started at that moment.
If you don’t have the contract in place where you put in everything of what you’re going to achieve. So if you have some goals to achieve and you achieve them, then you at least know yourself that you’re a success in some kind of way. Because I think basically families is extremely good in asking questions and giving criticism. They’re not honoring you for what you’re doing. And then you have to be able to honor yourself. And you can only honor yourself if you have proof for what you have achieved. And then I also think that you have to make the room where the business are. The business shouldn’t, even that, when I look at my childhood, it was fantastic to have the business as an extra child in the family. The problem is that the day it starts having issues, then it’s not a very good child to have around the table. So I think from a very, very early stage, you have to separate the business and the family. Even that it’s the same persons in both rooms, then you have to be able to be family in one room and then you have to be professionals in the other room. And you have to learn how it is to be professional.
Ramia: We’re also faced with the time where a lot of industries are being entirely disrupted and it might not beup to the family to decide because actually their business is just becoming redundant. How do you deal with that kind of like, do you think like, how is it different dealing with that type of loss of identity, like when it’s being taken away from you almost and do you believe in, because I find it interesting how you and your children are still an enterprising family, right? Like that hasn’t changed. Like you might’ve sold the asset, but you’ve continued being in business as a family at the same time and you think as entrepreneurs together, et cetera. Do you think that’s possible? Also when the situation is really not a choice, but like it’s really something that sort of like happens to you, can a family continue to be an enterprising family in the face of that kind of an identity loss?
Eva: It depends if they also lose all their money. So, yeah. So, but I think it’s a worse way of losing their identity. I use the school as an example again because it’s very new. We have been in the sea for one year in January and of course it’s not a success yet. And the interesting thing is that even that I would not, I mean if it will never be a success, if we have to close it, I will lose some money but I will not be bankrupt, but I will lose some money. But the most important, and I’m really working with that feeling, is that I will feel like I’m a failure. And that’s much worse than just to have, I mean, it’s not a failure to decide to sell the company because of different issues, and especially not when it’s a successful sale, and you have proved that we actually did it, we had the bag on track.
But if you have to close down your family business for other circumstances, I mean, which you maybe can’t do anything about because the world is changing and stuff like that, even that, it’s not your fault. I think the biggest problem is that you will feel like a failure, so you have lost your identity and you are a failure. Then there’s a long way back to be proud again.
Ramia: Even though I guess like best case circumstances, so you sold the business in a good state, you made the money to then do whatever you wanted. You still had to rebuild. You still had to rebuild yourself. You still had to pick yourself up. So I guess like a big conclusion for me is also from your story is that We should not be dismissive of the fact that this is an extremely difficult conversation for a family, and this is very hard to face, but I do think it’s important to raise awareness over the fact that, you know, one can absolutely move on from the family business and one can move on as a family, one can move on as an entrepreneur, one can move on as a professional and rebuild or continue to build on whatever has been the legacy, even if it’s not in ownership anymore. You’ve done this recovery bit, you’ve moved on … Any regrets?
Eva: I think during the Bonetta time changing it, what we could have done differently was to put more focus in having the business room for the family. Because it was a hard time when I was in the company and my siblings was not, because they felt like they was not informed. And I felt like I didn’t have the time for informing them. So I think that’s basically a kind of the only regret that I have. But at the same time, I didn’t have the time for thinking like that at that moment, but yeah.
Ramia: Hmm. Hindsight is 2020, right? So Eva, thank you so much for sharing your story with us on Women in Family Business. We really appreciate it.
Eva: You’re welcome.