Family business report: Smooth waters

Clearly defined roles help keep relationships on even keel

Rafting pioneer Bernie Fandrich has seen a lot of changes in the four decades since he launched the groundbreaking Kumsheen Rafting Resort near Lytton, B.C.

What started as a small retreat in 1973 has grown into a sprawling, well-known resort featuring various overnight accommodations options – teepees, furnished canvas cabins and spots for tents and RVs – a pool, a spa, even an on-site mountain bike course.

But beyond the expansion of Kumsheen resort's grounds and services, Bernie said he's also watched another, decidedly more personal development occur at his business over the years – the integration of his family in the day-to-day operations, first with his wife Lorna in the late '70s and more recently with his three children Braden, Andrew and Meghan.

"The family aspect started early," said Bernie, 67, who has been working part-time since 2008 mentoring his son Braden in the marketing aspects of the business.

"I actually met my wife Lorna on a rafting trip in 1978 – it started then. I'd say working with family presents both benefits and special challenges."

One immediate advantage, said Bernie, is that you can get a lot more work done when you have some help. But when two people spend the majority of their time mulling, discussing and planning the minutiae of a business, differences in opinion are bound to happen, he added.

In the early years, for example, the challenge was balancing financial concerns with the desire to offer every possible service to their guests, he said.

"I would always look at things from a business perspective," said Bernie, who taught B.C.'s first rafting guide course at Kumsheen in 1973. "But Lorna, she would take a 'How can we best improve the experience?' perspective."

Lorna echoed Bernie's sentiments, but added their different interests often resulted in a compromise with which both were comfortable.

"It worked out quite well," she said. "We ended up with something in the middle."

What kept the couple from letting their professional lives – and professional differences – affect their home life was drawing clear boundaries between work-related and family decisions.

By being clear about those limits, even a work issue discussed at the kitchen table could be kept from negatively influencing family time.

That division between work and family concerns became even more important as the couple's three children began assuming more important roles in the business. Currently, the Fandriches' eldest son, 32-year-old Braden, is CEO of the resort. Andrew Fandrich, the 29-year-old younger brother, is operations manager.

Having the kids in such prominent positions, said Bernie, has required the family to be even more rigorous about defining the difference between family and business issues because the children are now making important decisions – ones that Bernie and Lorna may disagree with from time to time.

"We really decided from the outset what were business decisions and what were family decisions and we kept them separate," said Bernie.

"But as our children began taking over, it meant discussing who has what responsibility, and making sure that that was clearly defined helped keep that line between business and family. In my mind, that's the most important thing."

And Lorna agrees, although she admits she has to remind herself from time to time to let the kids "make their own way."

"Now, I see myself as a mentor because I'm still there on a day-to-day basis," said Lorna.

"But you have to give them space to do well and space to learn."

While each different family presents its own unique set of challenges when running a business, there some golden rules that everyone can follow, said Jennifer Halyk of the Business Family Centre, a resource and education facility at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.

Halyk said enterprise families – those running businesses – should set regular meetings to talk through issues at the company and "establish clear channels" between each of the family members. By meeting in a routine, formal setting, a well-defined governance structure can be established.

And once that structure has become the norm, discussing issues such as succession planning, an often divisive topic, Halyk said, or plans to expand the business can be done in a respectful fashion.

"For every enterprise family, there is a unique family business. But clear governance is really important to facilitate decision-making," said Halyk. "The meetings can really help."

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