On Why I Work With Family Businesses

In my book, “The Lawyer’s Guide to Family Business Succession Planning” (American Bar Association, (June) 2020), I wrote about why lawyers should choose to work with family businesses, but I did not write about why I, personally, choose to work with family businesses.  This is what I would have written…

My family did not own a business, but our recent ancestors had.  They had owned a bakery.  As I grew up, my family always spoke of that bakery with reverence, but also with regret that it was no longer in the family.  Early on, therefore, I associated respect and opportunity with family business.

In my teens, I learned that a distant branch of the family owned a wine and cheese retailer, and I envied those distant cousins.  I wondered how many times they were removed from me, in genealogy, and in opportunity.

I was born in 1963.  My father worked for Miller Brewing Company.  According to Wikipedia, Miller was founded by Frederick Miller in 1855, and “it remained in the family until 1966.”  It was a quintessential American family business success story, and it was still a family business when my father started working there.

While I was growing up, my family lived in an apartment that was part of portfolio of real properties owned by the family of one of my classmates. Their business paid me for doing some small jobs around the apartment complex, the first work I ever did for compensation.

By far, the biggest family business influence on me was Reiman Publications, which was founded by Roy Reiman in the 1970s and located in the suburb of Milwaukee where I grew up.  Reiman Publications was another of those American success stories, started at a kitchen table and then grown to become a valuable resource for the family.  Reiman Publications produced great products, provided a great place to work, and generously gave back to the community over and over.

I was friends with a couple of Mr. Reiman’s children, and I spent many enjoyable times during my teen years as a guest at the Reiman home.  Mr. and Mrs. Reiman were happy, kind, and optimistic people. In particular, Mr. Reiman had a keen appreciation for humor, and he truly enjoyed his work.  Mr. Reiman made real for me the ideal of family business success—a thriving business, a beneficial presence in the community, and a happy home.

When I went to college at the University of Wisconsin, my full tuition was paid by a scholarship I got through my father’s employment at Miller Brewing Company.  (Frederick Miller’s old family business came through for me again.)  In order to earn my living expenses in college, I worked at the Ovens of Brittany restaurant, part of a closely-held business whose owners included a brother and sister. The Ovens of Brittany restaurants (now closed) are still legendary in Madison.

My first job out of college was at a family business, “The Kitemakers of San Francisco.”  The owners ran the company out of their residence, so the literal line between the family and the business was one wall.

Then I worked for another family business, “Alison’s Wonderland,” in Honolulu. The owners’ main business was groceries in the Midwest, but they opened a toy store, named after their daughter, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.  The owners took my wife and me out to dinner every Friday night, and we truly enjoyed that friendship.

After that, I worked as an associate editor and writer at a magazine for business owners, published out of Milwaukee, and then I worked as a legislative aide in Madison for a legislator who was on the Assembly’s small business committee.

In summary, throughout my life, family businesses have given me a home, an education, employment, friendship, great products, and a model for ethical business behavior.  Therefore, when I became a lawyer in 1993, with all these family business impressions and experiences behind me, it simply seemed natural that I would work with family businesses.  Although I did not have my own family business, I could help other people’s family businesses reach their potential to benefit the families that owned them, but also to benefit their employees, their customers, their business partners, and their communities.  That’s what I have been trying to do as a lawyer for the last 27 years.

That’s why I choose to work with family businesses.