Linda Gibson didn’t feel destined to start a family business.
“It was a shock,” she said about the day more than two decades ago when the idea for her family’s business, Airlie Moon, was hatched.
Her husband, Floyd “Mac” Gibson, had decided to retire early from his job as an executive in the dental supplies and equipment industry, and their daughter, Julie Robinson, was home for Thanksgiving when he asked her what she might want to do next in her career.
Robinson, who had worked in retail since age 14, responded that she’d like to open a gift shop.
“It evolved from there,” Linda Gibson said. “We opened the next November.”
That was in 1994, when Airlie Moon began welcoming customers to its store at Plaza East, a shopping center that was replaced by Lumina Commons. The family moved the gift and home décor business to Lumina Station around 2003.
These days, Airlie Moon is in its 24th year, and Julie Robinson is in charge of the accounting jobs her father used to do before he died in 2010 and still going on buying trips with her mom.
Across all industries, there are more than 1 million family-owned firms in the United States that have paid employees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 Survey of Entrepreneurs. But just as a large percentage of small businesses fail during their first years, not every family business fares as well as Airlie Moon, and not every family member decides to become involved.
That can be particularly true when a parent and child are in business together.
“Anytime you have a parent and child in the business together, I think you lose some of what you had. So you’ve got a parent-child relationship, which has been there for a long time, and then when you have this initially employer-employee relationship, it affects that. So you have to work through that, and it can be hard sometimes. Obviously, some people don’t make it,” said James “Jim” E. Moore Jr., (pictured below) president of James E. Moore Insurance.
Moore’s daughter, Adrienne, (pictured right) in 2009 joined the company her father purchased from his parents, who started it in 1954. But Adrienne Moore didn’t immediately join her father’s firm until after she had worked at other companies.
“We’ve always agreed that it’s best to go out, experience the real corporate world, have different bosses because I think it makes you more valuable when you come back because you have had some experience and you have some different ways of thinking,” Adrienne Moore said.
Her father added, “I think it makes you more valuable and more appreciative, and you understand what you have to compare it to and also you didn’t just take the path of least resistance.”
Nicholas Silivanch also went to work for a different company before starting to work with his parents in 2008.
The Silivanches opened Eastern Carolinas Commercial Real Estate in Wilmington in 2014. But before going into real estate, Nicholas Silivanch’s parents, Bernadette and Garry Silivanch, had a company in New York called Global Data Services.
“We had our own company for 25-odd years, and [Nick] was in the office and he was seeing what was going on and he was learning. He did an internship with Garry when he was going through college, and then he went off on his own,” said Bernadette Silivanch, who also has a master’s degree in psychology in addition to running ECCRE’s operations.
Her advice: “Don’t start working at a family business immediately after you finish school … go out and prove things to yourself. See what you can accomplish. See what you can do and then make your decision.”
Wes Carter, president of Atlantic Packaging, a Wilmington-headquartered firm that has 1,000 employees at facilities throughout the U.S., said he knew he at least wanted to try working in the family business.
“I think initially it was one of those things where I knew it was a pretty fantastic opportunity. I knew that my father had built a really dynamic and special organization, and I always sort of considered, ‘Hey, if for some reason I do this, and it doesn’t work out, I can always do something else, but it would be foolish not to at least investigate it, try it,’” he said. “And, you know, what I figured out pretty quickly was I really like the work, but more than anything I just really like the people and the culture of the company.”
Atlantic Packaging evolved from the Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly newspaper, The Tabor City Tribune, that was started by Wes Carter’s grandfather, W. Horace Carter, in 1946.
In the 1950s and ’60s, textile companies were moving south from the Northeastern U.S., and they needed paperboard inserts for their products. Because of the newspaper, W. Horace Carter had the machines needed to make the inserts.
After that, companies started coming to him for more, asking him if he also had tape or bags or other items they needed.
Wes Carter’s father, current CEO Rusty Carter, took over the business in the 1970s, and though the firm retains ownership of the newspaper, Rusty Carter’s focus was on packaging for several different industries.
Today the family culture the Carters have built has numerous advantages, Wes Carter said.
“We don’t have a lot of red tape. We don’t have lots of layers of management. You don’t have to have lots of signatures on stuff to get things done. It allows us to be lean. It allows us to be efficient. It gives us an edge in the marketplace,” he said.
Carter, the Moores, the Silvanches and Linda Gibson and Julie Robinson all find that flexibility is important and that owning a family business has allowed them to create a family atmosphere for all of their employees.
“Everybody that works here I would consider family,” said Julie Robinson of Airlie Moon. “Some of them have been with us since the very beginning.”
Wes Carter said Atlantic Packaging employees are told, “This is a marriage, and we don’t like to get divorced. If you come to work at Atlantic, we hope you retire here, and lots of people do.”
Bernadette Silivanch said she thinks the family feel to ECCRE “is what really keeps everybody going.”
Challenges and benefits
One of the drawbacks to a family business, says Garry Silivanch, is “You’re working all the time. I wake up in the morning, and my wife’s asking me questions about property management and bookkeeping, and my son’s ringing my phone at 7:30 in the morning telling me we have meetings … But it’s also why we do so well.”
It’s important to take a time-out, Bernadette Silivanch said.
“You can get really annoyed. You have to make sure it doesn’t translate in the home environment … There’s a point where you just have to blow the whistle and say, ‘OK, fine, let’s table this until we’re in that environment,” she said.
In general, family businesses might have to be careful as they grow from one or two starting the business to more and more family members having a stake in a firm, Wes Carter said.
“It’s really, really important that as companies evolve past the first and second generation that they’re cognizant of that. We’ve always said if you’re going to earn a paycheck at Atlantic Packaging as a member of the Carter family or a close relative to the Carter family, you have got to work there, you have got to contribute, and that’s been a really good thing for us,” he said.
The relationship has its advantages too.
Kelly Silivanch, Nicholas Silivanch’s wife and office manager at ECCRE, said when she worked at a law firm, she was scared to go to anyone with any problems.
In a family business, “it’s easier to handle because you’re more comfortable to tell them how you feel versus bottling it up,” she said.
When a family member has started a business, it can be easier to break into being part of a business of your own versus buying from a stranger or starting from scratch, James “Jim” E. Moore Jr. said.
“I think anybody who’s born into a family that has a good business that is open to them is fortunate whether they take advantage of it or not,” he said. “It’s a good option to have.”