Ask Ira: Advice Column

“Dear Ira” Fresh Air and Cold Water for the Perplexed Family Business

  • Do your kids want your business for nothing, but encourage you to enjoy your retirement in high style?
  • Did Mom always like you best, and now your siblings aren’t speaking to you, and worse, not doing what you tell them to?
  • Are your family members charging their vacations to the company card?
  • Are you having trouble building a board because nobody wants to give you advice they know you won’t follow?


That’s where this column might come in handy. Ira Bryck, director of the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley, will attempt to lend you some perspective and a fresh outlook on your family business problems. Simply email him, your question, at

PLEASE NOTE: Your identity will not be disclosed, and Ira reserves the right to edit the question for clarity and some degree of general relevance. The Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley, Ira Bryck, and the center’s directors and members, will be saved harmless from any reader’s claim that their understanding or implementation of the advice in this column had an adverse effect. The column is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended as legal, accounting or psychological advice. Accordingly, readers should not act upon information in this column without seeking professional advice.
© 2002-2018 Ira Bryck – no reproduction or use without prior written consent

    Dear Ira

I began working at my parent’s 40 year old cabinet design business when I was 24 in 2009.  I attended training seminars when I was first starting out and learned how to use a CAD drafting program and have refined my skills over the last nine years.  When I first started working at the business I was being paid $500 when we sold a job and a bonus when that order didn’t have any errors.  In 2012 I married my husband and he started working for my parents business as well.  After about three years of working for them he was really unhappy about his wages and his relationship with my mother started to deteriorate.  He has told me on several occasions that he hates her and that she uses people.  Around 2013 my father became extremely sick and a lot of money from the business was being used to pay for his health care.  In 2015 he was unable to take care of himself and was no longer able to come in to work.  I just stopped getting my pay and I never really asked for it, I would give everything I had to keep his health care going.  My dad passed away last year, but during those last three years or so my mother paid my sister $10 an hour to take care of him.  Last winter I spoke to my mother about the fact that I needed to be making money for my future so she started paying me by commission again depending on the size of the contract.  Some other background information; after we married Chris (my husband) moved in with me, we live on my parents land and pay no rent or utilities, while we were both working for my parents we both have had health insurance and a gas card, and she reimbursed me for groceries as I was cooking for the three of us (Mom, Chris, and me).  A few years ago my parents purchased a used car for me to drive to work after my mom took over my older car.  After my dad passed my moms car engine blew up and I gave her my car, she assured me that she was wanting to purchase another car and I have never once asked her to have the car back.  Now my husband and I share a car and a work truck he used when he worked for my parents.  I have never built credit because I have never had any substantial amount of money to buy anything, I feel as though I’ve been crippled, she basically forbid me to open a credit card account.  She never paid my husband and I on the books so now his credit is garbage and he has no employment history.  I had a second weekend job most of last year but I couldn’t keep up with it and I didn’t even make enough to owe taxes.  He quit earlier this year and started a new job and constantly reminds me that I don’t contribute to our bank account because I don’t make a weekly paycheck.  We want to move out and have our own space and live our lives but it seems like she can’t let go.  We even had a few disagreements in the past few months about it and she’s admits that she needs to let me go.  At my job I provide sales, customer service, CAD drafting, project supervision, coordinate trades, schedule deliveries, create orders, website design and maintenance, maintain a company blog, and countless other tasks.  Last November she purchased a food trailer for $16,000 and since then has employed a chef for $750 a week to prepare the truck to begin taking it out and selling food and his wife for $10 an hour to do general yard work.  Last month she named me the president of the company and I couldn’t be more sad.  I am a signer on the bank account, but I have no access to any other funds as she uses our funds as her personal bank.  I feel as though I have this weight on me and that she wants to give me the business or at least tells me that but honesty I don’t think I would take it.  I want independence, I want my own space, I want to travel.  I don’t mind hard work, I’m in at 8AM and out around 5 or 5:30.  I rarely take sick time, I work from home if I feel too sick.  I know that I make this business money and I don’t feel like I benefit adequately from it.  The sad part is that I feel tremendous guilt over writing any of this after my parents have monetarily supported me my entire life.  My mom wrote me this long card at Christmas about how she was planning to turn the business over to me, replace a broken appliance we have in our place, put a screened patio on my back deck, and pay me for my job.  I know that she is a big talker and my husband has tried telling me over and over constantly she is manipulating me and I just keep telling him I agree, but I don’t do anything besides just occasionally telling her we need to be a two
income household to be able to move out.  I love my mom, I like my job, my husband is miserable.  I’ve made $8000 in commission this year already that’s what I would typically make in an entire year the past three years.  Even if we double our sales this year that it’s below poverty level.  My mother and I are the only employees, she keeps the books and writes the contracts, and I do everything else.  I’m just tired of feeling like I’ve given up control of my life to keep my family responsibility.  My dad was always the more generous one family wise, he always paid me extra.  My mom is externally generous to others, and I don’t disagree that she’s been extremely generous to me my whole life.  But as a 33 year old woman living in a converted garage apartment I feel like I’m sinking in quick sand and have no lifeline.  My husband and mother do not speak, she has also directly attacked him while speaking to me and I have told her that she needs to respectfully stay out of my marriage.  I can’t do this forever.  I won’t.  I’m just not sure I’ll ever do anything about it, I just want to close my eyes and not wake up some days.   Not even sure this is going to go to anyone or anyone is going to read this.


It’s a Trap

 It’s a Trap

Dear Trapped,

I feel for everyone in this family business dilemma. Your parents may have done their best, with noble intentions, but kept you in a situation where you couldn’t support yourself, your marriage suffered, you (and your sister and husband) were forced to dedicate yourselves to care for your parents more than you could afford to. You may have talent and passion for your jobs, but they don’t pay enough to live. And you don’t want to neglect your mother, even though continuing as you all have is unlikely to improve conditions for anyone involved.

I suggest to you that large changes are required, the sooner the better. If this company could possibly make you and your husband a living, you need to own and operate it outright, and plug the holes immediately that let anyone’s personal expenses be paid from it. This business needs your respect, no more treating it like a family piggy bank. Explore all other options for your mother’s care and feeding, including public assistance, and dedicate the time to her that a busy adult child can afford to give, keeping your own head above water. Your mother needs to figure out how to get along with the amount of time that you can afford to give, understanding that you sound like a dutiful daughter.

Your mother and your husband do not need to be friends, but you can insist that they be cordial, and not working together will result in less salt in the wound. You and your husband, if business partners, need to then figure out good boundaries with each other, ie: work schedules, date night, who gives and gets what, so the two of you don’t end up in a situation where you are feeling trapped together in a tiny cage.

If this business cannot provide a good living for you both, or for one of you, you may need to put it out of its misery, and get other jobs. With the skills you are describing, you will probably make more than $15, with none of the agita.

Write this plan down, with specific who, what, why, when, where; and list the best and worse case scenarios. This is a road map for you to refer to. Make an appointment with the (free) Small Business Development Center in your area (usually found at the state university), for their help in writing a lean and mean business plan; or simpler, ask them about Lean Launchpad (a more no frills business plan).

Good luck with this all. I hope that your bravery will increase with the hope that your stress could alleviate over the next year or two, if you make a go of this.


 Dear Ira

    I’m glad to have the chance to write you, to see if you have an opinion that could break the stalemate between my parents, my siblings and myself, in our 3rd generation precision machine shop.

    The predicament is this: none of the 5 of us made a conscious choice to join this company. My grandfather became ill, and my father and his brother stepped in to keep things running. My father and uncle never got along, but tolerated each other for the good of all. When my grandfather died, my uncle split, and started a company, competing with my father. My father was a musician, and never wanted to run a factory, and hoped to leave when his father died, but now he was locked in a race to the bottom with his brother. My father triumphed, and learned nothing, as he eventually guilted me and my brothers to join him after college. We have been chained at the hip, each making identical salaries (no matter that we benefit the business very differently); and we are each convinced that we are the best of the 3, and the other 2 should go find happiness elsewhere. My father would like to retire, have the 3 of us buy him out, and brag to his friends about how the whole family business thing worked out marvelously. What to do?!

  1 of 3 unhappy musketeers

Dear Unhappy Musketeer,

The real musketeers had an expression: “all for one, one for all.” If that’s not happening, you have a competitive disadvantage that will make you all even more unhappy. And life is too short to do something that is not your unique ability, and even if it is, to do it with people who you don’t align with well. I think this is a case of honesty is the best policy; but best if you all hire a facilitator that can be neutral, can keep your conversation as sane as possible, and detoxify as much as possible. You are all feeling the pain, and need to put your heads together to identify all the options, and score and measure them all, to find what it best for each and all of you. Maybe you can continue in business together, and figure out which of you will lead, or if you can have some kind of co-leadership. Maybe it’s a case where you could split the company into divisions, and each heads one, and you do business together, as appropriate; and with others, as appropriate. Maybe you figure out what else you could each do, and who will buy the others out. Imagine if your uncle bought out your father, and he could be the musician he wanted to be. And maybe you’d all get along better as family, if not oppressed by your business conflicts. The first task is to approach your siblings and say “can we all acknowledge that we have a problem that needs to be solved? Can we identify a facilitator who we all trust? Can we agree that we will behave ourselves in conversations about our options, being vulnerable enough, honest enough, real enough, and open enough?” Good luck! I’d be glad to speak with you more.