Being married to someone who is part of a family business is not always easy. The fact is that family business members bring their problems and worries home and tend to try and find solace in their partners when things get complicated. Being at the receiving end of this relationship can be a daunting task for two main reasons: There is often very little the significant other can do to mitigate the situation inside the family business, and secondly, many family firms omit to provide a clear definition of the role of spouses in the business.
The Alfagres Group has been manufacturing wall and floor coverings for over 52 years. Their product range includes ceramic tiles, quarry tiles, carpet, terrazzo tiles, cement pavers, paint, marble tiles and slabs. The family commercialises its products in Colombia, South, Central and North America, the Caribbean and Asia.
Ana Maria Matallana is the wife of a shareholder and second generation member of the Alfagres Group. She holds a Systems Analysis and Managements Science degree, and is currently undergoing a Master degree in Non- Profit Management in Kelogg Northwestern University. She started working with her husband’s family business part time in 2009. She is moreover involved in the non profit foundation, Fundacion La Cayena; which helps vulnerable communities around Alfagres manufacturing plants to improve children’s education, and providing a special program to give stay-at-home mothers a sustainable work alternative at home. Ana Maria has a passion about Social Responsability and Share Value within the private sector, so she dedicates part of her time in developing programs to fight extreeme poverty in her beloved Colombia.
Her main role is to be her husband’s significant other and mother to their three sons, the third generation in line to take over the family business when they grow up. Ana Maria gives a candid insight into what it was like for her to become part of her husband’s family business, how she started to understand the implications it had on her own little family, and how family businesses can leverage on the commitment of the significant others.
How it all started…
When I got married, I was 23 years old and I had just graduated from university. We were living in Italy and my husband was not working for the family business yet. He was a strategic consultant in Milan, and I got my first job offer at a consulting company in Turin. When I got married, I did not understand that I was also entering into the complexities that come with being part of a business-owning family.
As my husband became involved with the family business, I also was affected on a daily basis, by both work problems, and issues with other family members. Even though I was always there to listen to him, I felt my views were not really taken into consideration. My husband is part of the second generation of his family business; he is the youngest and only male. Although his two sisters work for the business as well, his father and family have high expectations of him. This adds to the pressure that was already there. Because I am very close to my husband, it was very hard to help him make wise decisions while I felt uncomfortable with the business, and saw it as a source of problems for my immediate family and me.
The family business…
My father in law is not active in the business anymore due to health issues. The family members are all shareholders but the CEO is a non-family member. In 2006, the second generation, my husband and his two sisters, started working on the family protocol.
Understanding my role within the complex dynamics between the family and the business was probably my biggest difficulty. In many of their discussions, I felt like a stranger. However, I also realised that without spouses the family would not grow and eventually disappear; therefore, the role of the significant other should be an important one. I strongly questioned what part I was to play in this complex environment. I understood I had to keep a positive view, since my attitude would influence both my husband and his family. Moreover, I have a crucial influence on educating my three children, which will become the future owners of the business and possibly its leaders. If I had retained negative feelings about the business and the family, it is probable that I would have transmitted these subconsciously to my children, creating problems for them and their relationship with the rest of the family in the future.
When we started working on the family protocol, I understood that if I do not understand how the family business really works, my marriage would probably fail and I would not be able to teach my children (the third generation) to appreciate the company. It became clear to me that I had a big responsibility towards my husband’s family and to the other 3000 families that work with and depend on the family business. Therefore, I decided to accompany my husband to an MBA that focuses on family businesses. One of the good things about the program was that partners were allowed to participate in all the lectures. I had the opportunity to meet many family owners, hear their issues and share experiences. Significant others were constantly involved throughout the course, and to my surprise, I was encouraged to participate and discuss what I felt. It was very sad to see, that there were just a few spouses interested in participating in the program, and that the other students would even prefer for their spouses not to be there.
It was a long process; I started learning how to deal with the other family members, and how to make an effort to learn about the business just for the sake of my relationship with my husband. This experience really changed my marriage, and my relationships with the other family members.
What significant others and family firms can do…
I do not think it is a matter of obligation for the spouses of family members to get involved in the business. However, I also believe that as a spouse to an active member of a family business you automatically become engaged in the businesses complex workings whether you like it or not. Therefore, understanding your role within the family becomes important since your attitude and actions will have consequences for generations to come, particularly when it comes to the values that are transmitted to the children. So, educating spouses about the family business can only have a positive influence on all family and business relationships. It is crucial that they understand what a family business is, and that the family encourages them to be part of it. I am not saying that they have to work for the business, but to let them be involved in the decision-making process can be helpful.
Based on my own experience, my view is that it is positive for the business families to let spouses know how they can support the business, and give them the opportunity to learn why certain rules are made, and how they will protect the family, the company and the people who work for the business. This is a crucial decision a family business makes when they deal with family members and their spouses. Many times they believe that involving the significant other will bring more difficulties than advantages, but I believe they do not understand the role partners have inside the whole picture and above all in the education of the future generations.
The family protocol can help define rules that determine how the partners of family members are involved. It is important for them to understand why the rules are there. For example, if a family business decides that in-laws cannot be in the business you have to let them know why and not let them speculate on reasons. Explain it to them so they get a chance to understand the underlying motives. It is encouraging when these things are reiterated during family reunions and gives these gatherings a clear purpose.
The family business does not only belong to the family but also to its employees and therefore its sustainability affects more than one family. You have to work hard to make the transfer from one generation to the next work out. My children do not yet understand that the business is something that will enable their future ambitions; they think of it as a present benefit and do not yet understand the responsibility that comes with it, therefore, they have to be educated systematically.
Ultimately, it is the family’s choice to decide how to involve the significant others. But whatever they decide to do, I am convinced that it would be beneficial to involve the partners of family members. The education for significant others should be at the forefront of the development of the family business. If the spouses of family members do not love the company it is unlikely that they will be able to transfer any passion for it to their children, hence, endangering the continuity of the family firm legacy.