Preserving family culture in the workplace

August 17, 2017 By    
Headshot: Joe Armentano

Joe Armentano

When my father, Pat Armentano, founded Patsems Inc. – which would later become Paraco Gas – in 1968 out of a garage in Mount Vernon, New York, it was the typical mom-and-pop family business.

My father ran the operations, made the sales and took care of customers, while my mother, Rose, did the books. As each of us four boys came along, we “helped out” until we were old enough to do legitimate work. We joined the business full time as soon as we finished school.

The family attitude extended to all of our employees, as well. That’s one reason we have people celebrating 30- and 40-year anniversaries. Business is business, but we’ve worked hard to maintain a culture where business is also family.

The company has come a long way since its origins in a garage. We now have 400 employees and revenues exceeding $150 million. We couldn’t have gotten to this point without the employees, but we also couldn’t have gotten here without the corporate structures that make us fiscally, operationally and legally sound.

There’s a fine line between the grassroots loyalty-based approach my father took when it came to managing his employees and the reporting structure required by a business the size of Paraco. We try not to walk too far on either side of that line. There are a few keys to making that possible.

Relationships rule, but they don’t scale

My father loved one-on-one conversation. He’d sit down with our employees and ask about their lives, their kids and their hobbies. He did this not just because it was good for employee morale, but also because that’s who he was as a person.

Relationships are also important to me. I may not be a “people who needs people” person as much as my father was, but I’m most fulfilled when I’m connected to people.

The company is much larger these days, so I’ve had to develop relationships in different ways. Being present as part of new-employee orientation and safety trainings, for instance, allows me to be part of new hires’ early experiences with Paraco. My relationships with our managers, especially in outlying locations, help me nurture a family culture through the example I set with them. When they treat their people the way my father treated his employees (and several of our managers have been with us 20-plus years and worked with Pat, so they “grew up” in the culture so to speak), we have continuity of culture, even when I can’t have a personal relationship with all of the individuals who make us successful.

Treating your employees like family, and encouraging them to do the same amongst themselves, will help to create a family culture within your business. No matter how large a company gets, relationships are important to its success.

Delegation is a language of trust

I’m more comfortable delegating than my father ever was. The typical entrepreneur, he wanted to touch every part of the business and wear every hat himself.

But I’ve found that being willing to trust someone the way you would a brother or sister, son or daughter, sends a strong message of family inclusion. Showing employees that you trust them with a part of the family business makes them feel as though they are a part of the family.

Of course, part of being good at delegating is having discretion in delegation. Blind trust will backfire on you and the employee. Knowing who you can trust with what sets the employee up for success and is part of creating a family culture.

Everyone is held to the same standard, except family

One of the things my father taught me was the meaning of respect, both in a professional and personal context. He valued respect highly. How you showed others respect and how others showed respect for you was his guiding principle.

It is critical that the family member earns respect from other employees within a business. Respect cannot be given by title or last name. Respect starts with the work ethic that the family member brings to the job and the realization that he or she needs to be held to the highest of standards.

I hold my daughter to a higher expectation than I would any other employee, just as my father expected more of me than he did of anyone else. All employees, whether they are family members or not, should earn their positions based on merit, rather than to whom they are related.

In a family business, nurturing a family culture means that every person has to earn respect and their salary just like anyone else.

Employees should be treated equally, and owners of family businesses should strive to treat their family members just like any other member of the staff. If that is not the case, you won’t have a family culture; you’ll have an entitlement culture where family members believe that because their last name is the same as the owner, they are entitled to an extra benefit, an extra week’s vacation, extra pay or a lack of accountability.

This, again, is something you have to be careful doesn’t happen in your family business. Entitlement breeds resentment; resentment breeds dysfunction; and dysfunction leads to failure. None of that is conducive to a family culture.

Ultimately every business culture is unique; there is no formula for creating or maintaining a family culture in business. But relationships, trust, respect and equality will go a long way toward instilling a sense of family and loyalty in any business culture.

Joseph Armentano is CEO of Paraco Gas Corp., a family business based in Rye Brook, New York. He is the author of an upcoming book chronicling the family legacy of Paraco Gas.

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1 Comment on "Preserving family culture in the workplace"

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  1. paul pagano says:

    As a small business owner with a daughter who’s in the midst of earning her stripes with my company, this was a poignant article.