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There is No Time for Excuses
A No-Nonsense Approach to Running a Great Family Business
For me, born and raised in a yard was the norm. My dad started A-Reliable Auto Parts, just south of Chicago, when I was in my mother’s womb when she was 16 years old. So, growing up at the yard was second nature for me. Over the years I have had just about every job within the salvage business.

Overall, sales were my passion for the longest time, until I really grew up and realized that I needed to know the entire business to take it to the next level.

After spending 15 years at our family business, A-Reliable, we sold to LKQ Corporation in 2005. At that point, we had one full-service, and three self-service yards, all within the greater Chicago area. We had about 150 employees and had been in business for just over 30 years. Most of our staff was family, or friends of family.

We then ventured out to Indianapolis and Phoenix (Indy Pic-A-Part and Phoenix Pull-A-Part) and had two large self-service operations that we sold in 2012 to David Joseph Company.

I have spent the last eight years or so as CEO of our family operations. As such, I have compiled a few things that I have learned within all our family-owned businesses that may help you raise the bar on your own operations.

1. Make decisions without feelings involved.

When you take the emotions out of a relationship, is it really that hard to overcome them? No.

I have trained myself and have worked very hard at making decisions based on fact and reality than over feelings and emotions.

I know that sounds easier than it really is, but consider this: How many times have you wanted to fire someone, or reprimand them, and they were family?

In business, does it really matter if they are family? At the end of the day, the job still needs to get done, or the customer still needs to be taken care of, so why does it matter if they are family?

We have all been there. Hiring or firing family is some of the hardest times at work I have ever encountered.

When we take the feelings out of the situation, it makes it clear what needs to be done. And that is what I try to do, just think clearly about this, and not get caught up in the emotion of the decision.

So, when hiring or firing, think about the reality and the facts of why you are making the decision.

2. Set boundaries. Nobody is family on the clock.

It is oh-so-easy to become friends with your family members, and treat them as friends. But we have to remember that we are also co-workers. We have to remember, that the job needs to get done, and the customer needs taken care of.

I am sure that most of you in family-owned business have experienced this. When is the only time this is a problem? When things aren’t going well. When you have to sit them down for an exit meeting or explain to them that their position is in danger. Otherwise, being friends on the job is no big deal. But don’t put yourself in that position.

If you always, treat your staff with the same management style, family should not be a problem.
Also, remember this when you have family members in management. Don’t allow them to treat other family members different than the other staff. 

Rule of thumb: When we punch the clock, we are all part of the same business team, not privileged family.

3. Define roles based on performance.

I can’t tell you how many times we have put someone into a position for the wrong reason. Again, we get involved in the emotional side of things and we lose sight of the reality. Ask yourself: Is this person fit for this position? Do they meet the performance goals? Have they earned this position or are we simply putting them there because of who they are?

I know we are all guilty of this, but try to look at the performance of a person. We can go on about justifying the right person for the right job – all I am saying is don’t assume they deserve the position, because they are you’re brother-in-law. Employees know who deserves a promotion, and who gets favoritism, which affects morale.

4. Keep your personal life personal!

I have witnessed this first-hand so many times.  Once again, we assume cause they are family, that we should invite them into our personal/business circle.

How often does this work out? Never. The minute that we become successful, the jealousy starts. They automatically assume that their position with the company should pay twice as much.

We treat all of our staff as family. We have family picnics, kids day’s, luncheons, dinners, etc. for the entire staff, and we keep a close-knit atmosphere. But, when we start to include these people in our personal life is when the challenge starts. Inviting them to your home, your summer home, or whatever it is. This opens up a whole new level of judgmental animosity within the work place.

I don’t recall very many of these situations ever turning out for the good.

I can sit and write for hours on end about family-owned business, because that is what I have been involved in for over 20 years. But here is what is the most important thing that I have learned after working with my father all my life: Learn to respect each other.

I can clearly remember my dad and I arguing day in and day out about who knew more. I guess being the younger generation, I would remind him that I could turn on a computer and run circles around his pen and paper. He always reminded me that he forgot more in this business than I could ever remember.

But the minute that we both learned to respect that we together were a good team, and we each had something different to add to the business, is when we really became successful in my eyes.

Sherri Heckenast has been working with her father, Frank Heckenast, for over 20 years in the family’s auto recycling businesses that he started in 1975. Together they have owned and operated A-Reliable Auto Parts and three u-pull-it facilities in the Chicago area, and managed 150 employees, until they sold the businesses in 2005. In 2007, they started Indy Pic-A-Part and Phoenix Pull-A-Part– both were sold in 2012. Sherri is CEO of SDF Property Management Inc., which owns all of the family businesses, and they are currently opening St. Louis U-Pic-A-Part. She has done every job in the business, and selling parts is her favorite. She is the President of Top Notch Events-Racing, a promoting business, and President of Top Notch Vending. She is also an accomplished and avid race car driver.

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