Watch the Woodmans, a third generation business family in the food industry operating Woodman's of Essex based in Massachusetts, USA, with employees in the 5th generation, explain how they are learning to gradually become more efficient at running family business meetings. It may take time before being able to reach an effective family business meeting, however, as the meetings become increasingly productive, so do business operations. Family meetings are an effective way to unite the family, as well as resolve business issues.
Dexter and Ginny always had family dinner. Even in the height of the summer, the 16 weeks, on Sunday you went to family dinner, you left your clam bake whatever it was, everybody had to assemble for this prime rib dinner and you went back to work.
The Woodmans are all very quiet people. Some people think they are shy, some people think they are arrogant, some people think they are obnoxious, some people just do not know. Truly by nature they are the shyest, quietest people I swear if they were on fire they would not tell you, ok? There is not anyone that would not back this up. They have the quiet gene, they do not speak unless spoken to and who knows why that happened. The irony is when they are working and they are the bartender, they are on the other side, they are extremely personable, so maybe they are just exhausted by the end of the day where they go home and they want to be quiet time.
When Dexter passed away and Larry got the ownership, literally at the dining room table at the house, this is how everything happened, everything happened at this dining room table. They did not know what they were going to do, and they started a Thursday family meeting, every Thursday. In the beginning you did not know who was going to the meeting, we all went to the meeting, the wives went, the husbands went, and it was too many people, and it was too much emotion. Again they are grieving their father, you had the responsibility of the mother even though she was still very independent you had a lot of things going on. You had a huge generation gap, you had one sister that was you know, pushing 60, and you had another one that was, you know, Doug was only 30, 29 when his father died. So everyone kind of had to find their way, so these meetings continued and they were difficult. Sometimes you would go nothing was said, sometimes you would go it was said and nobody heard you, sometimes you went and things did not get accomplished. There was never an action plan to match the family business meeting.
We brought in an outside advisor and we had him for quite a while we would meet with him. And he would get the family together, get business people together, to come up with our ideas, our morals, what our goals were, and get us communicating, get us talking together, to see where we wanted to go and how to bring this business forward. My father’s death was sudden, it was thrown onto us really quick, we really were not planning for this to happen right away so having that advisor to bring us through the leadership process of how to go the next step was great.
The 90s and the early 2000s, the revenue that this place brought in in catering, one year we did 100,000 people, in 16 weeks in catering, I mean, we were doing 25 parties a day. So we had business, we had revenue, we had people, but we did not have growth, we were not going on the proper growth. So we started to tighten up the meetings, and the meetings could get ugly, because they were silent, it was not because they were conflict driven, they were silently driven. You either did not want to work, everyone is starting to get older now, everyone is starting to get more tired now, everyone did not want to do more things, but we knew we had to grow the business.
The way that we communicate as a family and as a business, we have weekly meetings that we get together and go over what has happened that week and plan for the future. That meeting is a corporate meeting, is a business meeting, but it is also a family meeting and not all family members you know, come to that.
So we go to the corporate office, which is at our function hall, and it is our only quiet place, where we are safe. We shut the phones off, we go to the agenda, we try to hold the meetings to an hour and a half, and we try to deal with growth, but a lot of times we get stuck with minutia, crisis, problem in front of us.
I am the head of the steering committee right now. Carolyn, who was Larry’s comptroller, and I have taken over this role of leading Dougie and Stevie and trying to help them, so we come to the meetings and present the issues. We just hired ourselves a corporate administrative secretary, this is so exciting for us, so Carolyn and I can go now back to our work and we are not responsible for the action plan. So our goal is to have this woman sit at the family meeting, listen to what is going on, develop the action plan, and then she is going to follow up because it has gotten kind of hard for me to follow up with my husband, his brother, the comptroller, and my sister-in-law, because it is getting a little edgy, because they do not want to be told by me what to do, they know it has to be done.
In order to run a family business, you have to get along. So work ethic helps you get along because if you are not working, you are not going to get along, but also making getting along and working together a priority with your siblings, and with your nieces, and your nephews, and I think that has been key for us.