The Fun Side of Family Businesses

I’ve seen the ugly side of family businesses. One of the low points was one I’ve mentioned before – when I saw a son pull a large kitchen knife on his mother. And he wasn’t getting ready to slice her a nice piece of pie.

Running a successful family business while keeping peace within the family is a tricky business, and many families fail miserably, resulting in violence, lawsuits and even the complete failure of the business.

Owners of several media companies, the Bingham family was one of the richest in Kentucky. The family became embroiled in family feuds, communicating by memos rather than directly. The late Barry Bingham Jr. said, “The family position has been basically one of not seeing much of each other.”

Tired of the bitter fights between Barry Jr. and his sister, Sallie, Barry Bingham Sr. finally just decided to sell one of his newspapers, The Courier-Journal, to Gannett.

So I thought it would be a good antidote to this negative side of family businesses, which employ 62 percent of the U.S. workforce, to highlight some businesses where the families enjoy each other around the dinner table and the conference table.

• There’s no business like “sno” business for the Backora family in Omaha, NE where for more than 50 years members of the family have been selling cotton candy and snow cones out of the Sno Floss stand at TD Ameritrade baseball park.

The company began with Wayne Madison, nicknamed “Candyman,” and his wife, Marcy. Adam Backora started working when he was 12 and now he’s known as the Candyman, according to a recent article. Life still seems sweet for the third generation of the Backora family, who have the reputation of selling the best cotton candy and snow cones in Omaha.

• Betty Lou and Bill von Rutenberg opened the Nibble Nook restaurant in Madison, WI in 1960 on the shore of one of Madison’s many beautiful lakes. That business expanded to include three restaurants and Betty Lou Cruises, named after their late mother. The three sons, Bill, Jack and Robert, now operate Von Rutenberg Ventures, each running a division of the company and happily ferrying passengers around on the Betty Lou and welcoming them to their family restaurants.

• Everything’s coming up sunflowers for the West family in Rutledge, GA where five generations have lived on and run The Sunflower Farm. W. West and his wife Pauline purchased the property for cotton and hog farming, eventually planting sunflowers that turned into a farm where people can cut their own sunflowers. The farm is now home to a yearly Sunflower Festival July 6 and 7, where guests can enjoy activities on the 15-acre sunflower field.

The Sunflower Farm is thriving, as are the family members. As they say on their website, “We grow family as well as we do our sunflowers.”

Not all families in family businesses can say the same thing. How can your family business be more like the Wests and less like the Binghams?  In my next blog, I’ll offer some tips on how to make a family business successful.

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