The Joys and Struggles of Running a Family Business

by Hilary Laney Owner and CEO

by Hilary Laney
Owner and CEO

A few weeks ago, I had the honor to be named a Top Family-Owned Business Leader in Washington State by the Puget Sound Business Journal. As part of the awards ceremony, I spoke on a panel with the three other winners (an interesting note: I was the only woman) about the joys and struggles of being in the family business.

You could say this stuff is in my blood, as I’ve been immersed in the work we do since I was thirteen. Evia (which was originally Tri-Digital), was started in 1993 by my dad and his two partners. By the time I came to work here as a project manager in 2004, I was well versed in the event industry landscape and our clients.

Over the next fourteen years, I worked my way up to become President, and eventually, Majority Owner of the company. One thing that was important to me when we negotiated was that my dad continue to maintain a bit of control over the awesome company he built. In that sense, I wanted it to be a true family business, so my dad still calls in to monthly ownership meetings (although he does it from sunny Palm Springs these days).

There was a great question asked by an audience member at the event: how did each of us on the panel refer to our parents at work? The other panel members all answered that they called them by the first name (or in one instance, “Senior”). The question made me laugh because in the beginning, I used to try and call my dad by his first name, Mark, but it felt so awkward because it just didn’t fit our company culture. We are very open and transparent about the fact that this is a family business, and part of what makes us unique is the family-like culture here. So at this point, I just call him “Dad.” I think it humanizes our ownership relationship, and it creates an environment where everyone can be real with one another.

I’ve had a lot of joys in taking over the family business. I’ve made an effort to carry on an environment where family time is respected, vacations are encouraged, and pursuing personal hobbies are celebrated. This helps create a well-rounded team that works hard but avoids burnout. I’m proud that Evia has been ahead of the trends for new parents, rolling out a comprehensive paid paternity leave plan in early 2015, joining our existing maternity leave plan.

There have also been some challenges along the way. In order for us to fully embody the innovative, fun, techy company we had become, we had to change our name. Our customers are tech-savvy and fun, and so are we. But going through a major rebranding after earning such a positive reputation over 23 years as Tri-Digital was not easy. In fact, it was one of the hardest decisions of my career because I felt a lot of pride for the brand my dad and I had built together. Also, my dad didn’t love the idea. He always believed that if a business changed its name, it meant they were having problems that necessitated a new image. It took a lot of honest conversations between him and me - as well as our entire team - to get full buy-in for the idea.

Overall, that’s the real joy in being involved with a family owned business. While we need to be careful to check emotional connections at the door, it allows real and honest dialog. Because, if you can’t be honest with your family, who can you be honest with?