Women in Business: All in the family

How three companies have reaped the rewards and navigated the challenges of running a family business

WithinUs Natural Health CEO and co-founder Tami Nasu (centre) has three nieces on staff along with others who are “like family”: from left, niece Jenna Laurita; Tracy Dillon; Emily Nakajima; Tagnéa Grant; Julia Shibazaki; and nieces Nicole Larsen and Chiara Guzzo. At front left, Tag the labradoodle keeps everyone in line | Chung Chow

There was a time when independent bookstores were a mainstay across B.C. They started to vanish when national book chains arrived, cutting prices and offering more selection. Then came ebooks, and many bookstores disappeared.

Yet Black Bond Books not only has survived, but thrives, with seven stores throughout the Lower Mainland. What makes this success story stand out is that the bookstore was started in 1963 by Madeline Neill and is still powered by women in the family.

At the helm of Black Bond Books is Neill’s daughter, CEO Cathy Jesson. Jesson’s daughter, Caitlin Jesson, manages the new arm of the business, the Book Warehouse on Broadway.

Black Bond Books’ Cathy Jesson (right) and Caitlin Jesson represent the second and third of three generations of women to run the independent bookstore | SubmittedBlack Bond Books’ Cathy Jesson (right) and Caitlin Jesson represent the second and third of three generations of women to run the independent bookstore | Submitted

“When I first took over as CEO in 1998, my brother and sister were working for the company,” says the elder Jesson. “I found it especially difficult working with my siblings because we all had different management styles, which didn’t work well together.”

Although there have been times when it has been tough to weather the storm of change, this CEO says they have done so by sticking to what they know best – understanding their customers.

“One of Caitlin’s strengths is bringing fresh new ideas to the company and knowing what the younger generations want,” Cathy Jesson notes.

According to PwC Canada’s 2016 Global Family Business Survey, approximately 80 per cent of all businesses in Canada are family-owned and are responsible for about 60 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product per year. Yet more than one family business has been brought down when control passed to children or grandchildren who lacked the smarts or instincts to run a big enterprise.

Relationships between mothers and daughters can be complicated. But, somehow, both Jessons say working together is easy.

“First off, I don’t work in the same location as my mom,” the younger Jesson quips. “Having said that, we communicate really well and bounce ideas off each other all the time.”

“I mentored Caitlin, just like my mother mentored me,” says Cathy Jesson. “A big advantage to having a family member work for you is the trust factor.”

Ratana Stephens (left) and daughter Jyoti Stephens of Nature’s Path Foods | Noel HendricksonRatana Stephens (left) and daughter Jyoti Stephens of Nature’s Path Foods | Noel Hendrickson

Family affair

In addition to trust, a shared passion makes things easier. That is also the case for the mother-daughter duo at Nature’s Path Foods Inc.

Long before “organic” and “sustainability” were buzzwords, Arran Stephens and his wife, Ratana Stephens, founded Nature’s Path in 1985. Headquartered in Richmond, the profitable manufacturer of organic breakfast foods has a team of more than 650 employees and operates four facilities.

Named one of Canada’s Greenest Employers by the Canada’s Top 100 Employers project, Nature’s Path is a true family affair. Besides Arran Stephens and son Arjan Stephens, who is executive vice-president of sales and marketing, the company is driven by Ratana Stephens, co-CEO and chief operations officer, and daughter Jyoti Stephens, director of human resources and sustainability.

“A family business often breeds a warm and welcoming culture that is less impersonal than other work environments,” Ratana Stephens explains. “Working with my family and watching them learn, succeed and even fail has been extremely rewarding. When we do have disagreements or make mistakes, we have learned to apologize, let go and move on.”

Jyoti Stephens agrees. “How one creates an enriching work experience doesn’t really change, even [when] those on the team are also family members. We each have clearly defined roles, responsibilities and goals – and are held accountable for our performance in relation to these.”


Growing together

Tami Nasu, CEO and co-founder of WithinUs Natural Health, also stresses the importance of accountability. Her staff of 12 includes three nieces and others who are “like family.”

“Three of my nieces on staff worked with me part time while they attended university, and I’ve mentored all of them, so trust was there,” Nasu says. “There is no ego or hierarchy at WithinUs, but there is accountability. Mistakes happen, but there’s no fear of losing their jobs because I know how much the company means to all of them.”

Nasu began her Burnaby-based company in 2013 out of her small basement. By 2016, with boxes of products threatening to take over her home, this savvy businesswoman, whose company sells high-grade health products, had moved operations to a larger location.

The popularity of the company’s product, WithinUs TruMarine Collagen – a favourite among celebrities such as actresses Kate Hudson and Debra Messing and Vancouver television personality Jillian Harris – boosted brand recognition across North America to the point that Nasu once again had to relocate.

Family plays a key role in WithinUs’ success.

“My youngest niece has taken over our social media, a key factor in our fast growth,” says Nasu.

With generations working together, generational conflicts can change the dynamics of many family-run businesses. This can create conflicting work styles and expectations that can make or break a family business.

However, Ratana Stephens sees her and her daughter’s differing styles as a positive component in the running of the company.

“Jyoti has a special ability to bring people together by finding common ground and proposing mutually beneficial solutions,” the elder Stephens explains. “She is pragmatic and has developed a strong business acumen. This is very complementary to my style, which could be described as compassionate, intense and passionate.”

Nasu says she hasn’t encountered any real challenges.

“I really lucked out,” she says. “We have 100 per cent respect for each other and collaborate extremely well together.”


Establishing expectations

It’s no surprise that problems can arise when you’re working near people you love. It can be difficult to draw the line between professional and personal relationships, and that can affect your relationships with family members. Somehow, all three of these companies have found ways to make it work.

Nasu believes that when family members each have their own niche, things are likely to function more smoothly. It’s when skill sets overlap that rivalry is likely to become a problem. One of WithinUs’ strong points is that Nasu knew her nieces’ strengths and interests, so she was able to distribute job responsibilities accordingly.

“My niece Jenna has been with me since I started in my basement,” Nasu says of WithinUs’ communications manager, Jenna Laurita. “She took communications at SFU [Simon Fraser University], so she is in charge of communications, marketing and public relations.”

At Nature’s Path, Jyoti Stephens explains, whether it’s a family member or an employee, there are clearly defined expectations for all.

“We have key behaviours we hire based on and that all employees demonstrate, including being performance-driven, always improving, team-focused, honourable and respectful and sustainably and socially conscious,” she says. “We encourage and motivate each other to live into our values and purpose while growing the business.”


Balancing family and workplace life

How do members of family-run businesses keep their sanity at cookouts and holiday parties when the big elephant in the room as far as conversation goes is always the business?

Jyoti Stephens acknowledges that many family dinner conversations naturally revolve around Nature’s Path. “This has always been part of my life, as my parents started the business when I was a little girl,” she says.

“Despite being children, we were asked to weigh in and provide opinions on various business matters. While there certainly were challenges, I do appreciate my upbringing, as it helped develop a native business fluency from a young age.

“That said, I aim to be fully present during the quality time I have outside of work, whether with my daughter and husband or friends. This means disconnecting from technology and allowing myself to enjoy the moment.”

For Nasu, it is important to try to separate the two, although this is often easier said than done.

“Sometimes it is hard to separate the two, but early on we established boundaries,” says Nasu. “We still enjoy each other’s company and often go for dinner or to the spa. It’s more important for me to keep these personal relationships close.”

Meanwhile, Caitlin Jesson says balance between work and family life is not an issue, as she and her mother both share a passion for the book industry.

“Black Bond Books has never been a chore because we both love it so much,” she says. “I see my mother every weekend. The conversation always goes to the subject of books because it is an obsession of sorts for us.”

In the end, all agree that hiring relatives isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. Working with family members can blur the lines between personal time and work hours, and it can also make it harder to enforce a chain of authority.

Nevertheless, given the right family dynamics, it offers numerous advantages: more trust and honesty, the dependability of someone who’s invested in his or her own success and yours, and a close bond that can survive the ups and downs often associated with running a business.

“As family, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we genuinely do our best to set each other up for success and growth,” says Ratana Stephens.