Five Tips to Managing Family Relationships in your Lingerie Business

By Libby Dowd

Running a business—no matter its size—is a huge undertaking. Having family members join the corporate team can be a relief to professionals with a lot on their plates, but relatives who share the boardroom also face many challenges. The lines between work and home blur and emotions can often get in the way.

Run your family business as a meritocracy and you’ll succeed, says Ira Bryck, director of the UMass Amherst Family Business Center. “A meritocracy is an organization where you’re paid according to what you bring to the bottom line and promoted based on performance,” he says. “And in a meritocracy there are pathways to the top for non-family members.” Bryck not only consults family companies—helping them to find solutions in the areas of management, law, accounting, psychology and banking, but he also grew up working in his family’s retail store in Long Island, NY. The Lingerie Journal spoke to him, and other intimate apparel professionals who have successfully built brands with the help of their parents, siblings and children to learn the best practices for managing a family business.

Tip # 1: Always be conscious of your role.

When you work with family members, you’ll find yourself wearing many different hats at the same time. “It’s easy to forget which one you have on,” says Bryck. “You can’t be ignorant of what hat you are wearing when you speak.”

The Cosabella FamilyGuido Campello of Cosabella has been working with his family professionally for the last eight years. He serves the company not only as its vice president of sales, branding and innovation, but also as a brother (his sister Silvia is vice president of operations and his younger brother Stefano works in graphics) and son (his parents Ugo and Valeria founded the company in 1983). Campello manages these relationships by staying true to himself. “I’m only one person,” he says. “I never speak to my father differently, whether he’s being my dad or the VP of design. I always talk to him straight and that’s been very constructive.”

Bryck suggests being clear about your ideas and preface conversations with phrases like, “Speaking as a family member,” or “speaking as a business partner.” It also helps to bring in a mutual mediator. “People can get so wrapped up in the issues and it helps to have someone who can take a step back,” he says.

Tip #2: Don’t give too much, or too little, credit where it’s due.

Employers are often accused of giving family special treatment. To compensate, managers can be harder on family members. Neither is a good position to be in, says Bryck. “Growing up, my dad had an expression. He’d say, ‘If this is your business you need to be twice as good to get half the credit,’ and that’s not right. Every employee should be on equal footing.”

Mike and David Savage of Fantasy LingerieMike Savage, owner of Fantasy lingerie hired his son David after he graduated and David admits that there’s extra pressure on him because he is the boss’ son. “There are more eyes on me,” he says. “Everyone is using me as an example.”

To cope, David turns the extra pressure into positive motivation. “It forces me to serve as a role model and help set the standard for the office and daily business procedures,” he says. “It influences me to work for the betterment of myself and the company combined.”

Having an employee that considers the company first, like David, is what makes this family business relationship work. “I have someone I know is 100 percent passionate about the company,” adds Mike Savage. “And it also gives other employees someone to talk to. Sometimes talking to the owner of a company can be intimidating.”

Tip #3: Practice good values

Demonstrating good values makes family business relationships successful. “Family-ness is important,” Bryck says, “It means a family business is able to function as a business, making sound decisions and not giving the inside track to family members.”

Teamwork, tenacity and “a lot of forgiveness,” are the values that help make the Campello family successful. “We all work together to make the family look good,” says Guido Campello. “I know my work is not just a reflection of me, but a reflection of the whole family.” And as for the forgiveness, Campello credits his family’s Italian heritage for their passionate exchanges. “We can be really emotional people, and want to express ourselves in every color imaginable,” he says. “But at the end of the day we still have to be able to pick up the phone and talk to each other like nothing happened.”

“The values you practice as a family sends a message to your employees about what type of business you are. This message is just as important as the one you send to customers” – Ira Bryck, director of the UMass Amherst Family Business Center

Carol and Laura Ruggeri of Boudoir Bandit AustraliaCarol and Laura Ruggeri, a mother-daughter team who run the online retail store, Boudoir Bandit in Australia, add diplomacy to the list of family values that keep their business running. “We demonstrate this in our communication, our decision making and our sharing of the workload,” Carol says.

The values you practice as a family sends a message to your employees about what type of business you are, and according to Bryck, this message is just as important as the one you send to customers. Cosabella, for example, operates under a non-corporate business structure. “Sometimes decisions could come from a simple conversation,” says Campello. “Our family is good at scotch-taping things, but sometimes it’s hard for other employees to understand how we do it.” Campello and his sister are conscious of this, and are working to instill more organization in the company. Weekly meetings and constant communication have helped thus far, he adds.

Tip # 4: Let new family employees climb the ranks

When Mike Savage hired his son, David, he started him out in the warehouse. After a while he was moved to customers service, and it wasn’t until he got a real handle on the business that he was promoted to sales. “He got to know the business from the bottom, up,” says Savage. Allowing his son to learn the business was important to Savage, and one of the best things he did for his family and his business. “The relationships that prove the most successful are the ones where the parent gradually lets the child earn his or her stripes,” he says. “If you hire your kid and toss them into big role without experience, they will flounder.”

Tip #5: Don’t get chained to a job you don’t want

Not all family business relationships are a perfect fit. And determining whether the job is right for you is something everyone should consider before signing on. “When I came into my family business as a young adult, I told my parents, ‘I’m here on probation, I want to see if it works for you and if it works for me,’” says Bryck. Similarly, Campello advised his younger brother, Stefano, to test the waters before jumping in full-time. “I told him to try out every part of the company—get to know it inside out,” he says. “If there isn’t anything you love in the company, you won’t be able to show dedication and that’s required for family company.”

“If you hire your kid and toss them into big role without experience, they will flounder.”

Compensation is often the reason why some family business relationships don’t work out, says Bryck. “If you want to be making $100,000 a year, and the company can only afford to pay you $60,000, this is not the right fit,” he says. “Business is not just about family—banks, supplies and vendors are all involved. There are lots of people depending on you. You have to understand what your obligations are. It’s not just working for mom and dad—you’re part of a larger system.”

2 Comments on “Five Tips to Managing Family Relationships in your Lingerie Business

  1. Avatar Anton Leyrer says:

    Very true what You published, don’t show this to my son and daughter!

    Regards from Austria

    Anton Leyrer

  2. One thing I would add to the article (which was excellent and very true) , it get away together, but not all the time. We have a history of family businesses, vacationing together really strengthen relationships that were a little weather worn by the business.

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