Family Business

Much progress has been made for women in family businesses

June 10, 2012 

The Los Angeles Times headline read: “Marines to make room for women on front line.” Clearly the dial is moving in the quest for equality for women. When it comes to family businesses, women are also viewed as integral to the success of the enterprise, but this has not always been the case.

We know that historically, women have not been valued in the workplace. Indeed, at my family’s business, Olan Mills, my grandparents had two sons and two daughters. My two uncles joined and eventually ran the business; my mother and aunt were never even considered. We have all heard similar stories.

I had a client in a very male-dominated commodities business. The daughter never considered joining as it was understood that it would not be a good fit. However, she did find herself working in another very similar industry. Having risen to vice president while still in her 20s, with her siblings not stepping up to take over the family business, guess who the obvious successor became?

Much progress has been made for women in business, especially through the 2008 bust in the male-dominated housing industry and the increased demand in the health care industry. In 2010, the overall unemployment rate for women was 8.6 percent, compared with 10.5 percent for men. Indeed, women made up over 58 percent of the workforce in 2010. Similarly, women account for the majority of all workers in the financial services industry, in education, and in health care. And while women do continue to be underpaid, 29 percent of working women in 2009 had more income than their husbands, compared with only 18 percent in 1987. Certainly more needs to be done here.

Turning the tables

But women are progressing at light speed in family business leadership as compared to corporate America. According to the American Family Business Survey published by Mass Mutual, women made up 24 percent of presidents and CEOs in family businesses in 2007, compared with only 5 percent in 1997. But when weighed against the 2.5 percent of women in the top job at a Fortune 500 company in 2007, the difference is stark.

Paige Carter Blair, the vice president of Financial Security Associates in Raleigh, agrees that it can be a tough road. “It was very hard to come into our family business as a young woman, in a male-oriented industry, and for a man, my dad, who is leader in the industry,” she said. “However, conquering these obstacles has now made me respected in the business and in the industry as a high performer.”

Turning the tables, Susan Gravely, CEO of Vietri in Hillsborough, tells a different story. “My mother and sister and I founded the business, but for the next generation, we are looking at my nephew Lee,” she said. “His success in our business has greatly been due to his having worked outside Vietri, gotten an MBA, and then having spent a year on a trial basis in the business to see if it was a good mutual fit. However, what is really interesting is that he is succeeding in a woman-founded business, whose customers are primarily women, and whose employees are 75 percent women.”

Roles have changed

Working for a family business also does have its benefits. Liz Hawley Ennis, who works at her family-owned Eclectic Garden in Raleigh, puts it this way: “Working in a family business with my mother and my sister has been a wonderful experience. Because we all love and trust each other, we know we have each other’s back. So we work effectively together. But at the same time, each of knows that we can take the time outside of work when needed to deal with personal issues. This has been especially helpful raising kids.”

Traditionally in the family business the mother has been referred to as the “CEO,” meaning the chief emotional officer. Mom has had the role of not working at the company, but acting as the loving mediator between the father and children working together in a family business, trying to facilitate and foster good communication. However, that role has greatly changed so that CEO for women in the family business means chief executive officer.

Maybe the Marines should update their slogan to, “We are looking for a few good women.”

Henry Hutcheson is a nationally recognized family business speaker and consultant in Raleigh. Send questions to

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