WHEN MICHAEL CURCIO , founder of fast-food chain Pyrogrill in Jupiter, Fla., wanted to expand his business, he looked for a partner with complementary skills who he could trust implicitly. The natural choice? His older brother Jason. The next challenge was figuring out how best to work together without squabbling or butting heads.
When you’ve got a shared past, “you kind of handle things like brothers — and that’s not really conducive to good business behavior,” says 30-year-old Curcio, who made his brother, now 37, director of franchising and part owner in 2003. “We had to find a common ground where we can work as professionals.”
Siblings often grow up teasing one another, competing for attention, and fighting over toys or TV time. They can simultaneously be the best of friends and the worst of enemies. And when they run companies together as adults, those longtime conflicts can easily re-emerge, threatening both the business and an otherwise close personal relationship.
At the Family Business Institute in Raleigh, N.C., an advisory firm for family-owned companies, one of the “biggest complaints when people call us is ‘I can’t get along with my brother or sister,'” says president Wayne Rivers. Often, that’s because an irritating situation at work has continued for too long. While nonrelated business colleagues might actively attempt to work out differences, families typically “don’t have the conflict-resolution skills,” he says “They sit there, and they won’t talk, and they stew.”
That’s why sisters Jackie Grabin and Debby Tappan, who run their family’s pest-control business, Arrow Exterminating in Lynbrook, N.Y., made it a pact long ago to resolve differences as soon as they arose. “That’s a policy of ours,” says Tappan. “We don’t let things fester.”
The sisters say coming up with a defined role that each plays in the company has helped reduce tension or disagreements. Grabin, 58, supervises other managers and deals with technicians who are out in the field; Tappan, 53, supervises the office staff and handles employee benefits such as Arrow’s health care and 401(k) programs.
The two, who have served as Arrow’s co-presidents for the past 10 years, say they strive to be seen as a cohesive unit to the company’s 100 or so employees. If you bring in “personal infighting, that makes everyone uncomfortable,” Tappan says.
It’s all about respect, Grabin adds. “Sometimes, people treat family members worse than they treat strangers,” she says. “It’s important to have that professional relationship at work.” The two act more like regular sisters on the weekends, when they shop, go to the movies, exercise together and hang out with each other’s families.
Brothers Michael (left) and Jason (right) Curcio run fast-food chain Pyrogrill, but still cook meals together on the weekends.
Learning to forge a new professional relationship can be tough for sibling business partners, especially at the beginning, says Kathy Marshack, a psychologist and family business coach in Portland, Ore. An older sibling, for instance, might naturally want to boss around a younger brother or sister, even if they are equal partners in the business. And hurt feelings or grievances from years past (even something as seemingly insignificant as a less-than-flattering nickname) can cause trouble, if not addressed. “Anything that’s still there from childhood — and there always is — will be re-enacted in the business,” she says. “You want to take a look at that…and see if you can work through it.”