Keeping it in the family has advantages, but takes planning

Silicon Valley / San Jose Business Journal – by Becky Bergman

It can be difficult to deal with a co-worker with whom you don’t see eye to eye, but it’s even more challenging when that co-worker shares the same address and last name. “Try pulling rank on your wife,” says Lite for Life president and chief executive officer Chris Bruno. “It’s impossible. Whenever we have an issue, I just walk away and remember… she’s always right.”

Joking aside, Bruno says the advantages of working with family members — his parents, sister and wife work at Lite for Life in Los Altos — outweigh the occasional conflict. “I am surrounded by people that I love and trust,” says Bruno. “No one is going to watch out for my best interests like my family does.”

The company, which promotes stable blood sugar levels, healthy eating habits and an active lifestyle, has 10 locations in northern California and plans to have 250 franchise locations by 2010.

Originally Bruno, 45, had no interest in joining the company that was founded in 1978 by his mother, Maureen Sullivan, who now serves as an adviser to the business with husband Howard. Bruno graduated from Santa Clara University with a bachelor’s degree in English and pursued a high-tech career before launching a telecommunications company in 1994. “I am the last person on earth to do something like this,” says Bruno. “I never thought I would follow my parents into the business.”

Bruno, who has a 16-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter, says he hasn’t talked to his kids about succession planning and doesn’t know if they want to work for the company. He’s not alone. A new study by Seattle-based wealth management firm Laird Norton Tyee found that fewer than 30 percent of the family business owners have succession plans in place.

Retiring baby boomers passing the baton on to their children as well as young families looking to strengthen their connection help fuel the growth of family-owned businesses, according to Mike Gilbert, a business counselor with the Silicon Valley Service Core of Retired Executives.

“In my experience, families with kids are asking themselves what they want,” says Gilbert, who spent 30 years in various senior-level management roles in the valley.

“Small business owners with children can balance career and family a lot easier,” says Gilbert. “Business ownership allows them to have a personal relationship with each other that goes beyond an occasional family event.”

It’s the understanding, trust and mutual respect among the Lite for Life’s five leaders that has helped the company prosper. When Bruno pitched his company’s unique weight-loss strategy to a potential investor a few years back, his wife, Lynn, sealed the funding deal when she handed over “three pounds of paperwork” that outlined the Lite for Life’s standard operating procedures.

“It was a bible of our company’s best practices that she worked on for six months with my mom’s help,” says Bruno. “The investor told me later that was the deciding factor to work with us.”

Gilbert is concerned business owners may wait too long to start planning for the company’s next generation of leadership, thus missing out on a good opportunity to transfer pertinent knowledge. “I think so many of the businesses owned by baby boomers are too late to include the younger generation as part of their succession plans.”

“I haven’t seen a succession plan that required less than five years to complete. The younger generation needs to build an economic stake in the business while the owners wind down their financial dependency,” says Gilbert.