“My grandfather started the business in 1968, and it’s been a family business ever since.” Taylor White, Director of Ken White Construction of Carp, Ontario, Canada, says his grandfather valued family and made sure the business bearing his name reflected those values. Taylor is the third generation in the business and, since 2018, has been moving into taking over operations. His wife, two cousins, and his dad also work for the company. As of the date of our interview, Taylor, age 28, and his wife have a 3-year-old daughter and a 3-week-old son. “I want to build something permanent for them.” That’s a goal shared by many family business owners, but how does one accomplish that?
A different childhood
“My dad and I didn’t do the usual father-and-son stuff,” says Taylor. “No hunting or fishing or camping. No throwing the football around. I spent my youth watching him from the passenger seat of the truck.” His father’s tutelage of Taylor did not involve formal instruction; no sit-downs to go over business management strategies. His father simply led by example. It worked well. Under Taylor’s guidance, field staff have increased from 3 to 23 in the past four years. And whereas his dad did everything, Taylor worked with his dad to bring in an estimator and then a project manager; soon the company was buying more equipment to meet the increased demand for their services.
Taylor’s early involvement with Ken White Construction was mostly grunt work, and he intends the same path for his kids. “As soon as they’re old enough to hold a broom, they’ll be sweeping.” This accomplishes two things. First, it thwarts any resentment of the boss’s kid getting preferential treatment. Second, it gives the child appreciation for and familiarity with every aspect of the business as they move into other tasks and greater responsibility.
“Some parents send their kids to college and give them an office job when they graduate,” he says. “I don’t think that’s the right way to groom kids for the business. There’s nothing wrong with formal education but it cannot take the place of on-the-job training.”
Attitudes are contagious
That phrase is an old one, but well worth keeping in mind. “Always make sure you bring home the joy of the job,” says Taylor. “Have love and enthusiasm for what you do and share that with your kids.” Don’t mope around on Monday mornings saying, “Well, I guess I gotta go to work again. I can’t wait ‘til this week’s over.”
Time away from the family business
Before settling down into the Ken White Construction family business, Taylor spent seven months on his own in Alberta. He was suddenly responsible for everything: paying bills, buying groceries, preparing meals, doing dishes and laundry. At the end of this time, things were going on with Ken White Construction that made Taylor feel compelled to go home and contribute to the business. “I went home ready to buckle down. The partying days and party friends of high school were put behind me. The time out West catapulted me into adulthood.”
Is a similar experience necessary for every child aspiring to a leadership role in the family business? Was it truly necessary in Taylor’s case? The answer to both is no, but it certainly accelerated his maturation, and will likely do the same for other youths.
Top 3 Tips
Here are Taylor’s top three tips for running a successful family business.
1. Have open, honest, regular communication. At one point Taylor thought he was underpaid and asked his dad for more money (the wage had been meager, partly to negate any “boss’s kid” talk). His dad refused and they came to an impasse. Taylor told his dad, “I have to look out for myself and my family when that time comes. Either pay me more or I’ll go buy equipment and start my own business. We will become competitors.” It wasn’t a threat. There was no animosity. It was an open discussion of facts and objectives built on a history of honest communication. They reconciled their differences.
2. Respect and credibility are earned. If you don’t have them it’s probably because you haven’t earned them. Is there a risk of over-compensating, of being too agreeable to not seem privileged? “No. For me, the line was always quite clear. Generally, I conducted myself as I would if I were just another employee and not a family member.” That said, after more than a decade in the business, Taylor will take vacations and he does have nice things. “But I still work hard. First on-site. Last to leave.” He enjoys the benefits afforded by a good work ethic and encourages his employees to do the same.
3. Always be learning and networking. “It can be viewed as a trite phrase, but I still like it: ‘Keep your finger on the pulse of the industry.’” They do construction-specific events but also regular community events. Community involvement was another of Taylor’s grandfather’s core values. The Carp Agricultural Society is the clearinghouse for the local 4H, an annual fair, tractor pulls, etc. and Ken White Construction is very active there. They awarded a $10,000 scholarship to the winner of their “Student Pursuing the Trades” program to a student seeking to become an electrician. It’s been a challenge for Taylor to be perceived as the owner and manager of a business by people who had always known his father to be in that role, “and social exposure helps overcome that.”
Taylor shares two final thoughts. The first is that “the most valuable thing you can offer is your time,” whether with your family, the business, or the community. The second is that “blue collar is the groundwork of the economy. Make sure your kids take pride in doing work that is fundamental to society.”