The Challenge and Sacrifice of a Family Business

Mar 29th, 2013 | By | Category: Nick Kemper's Blog

At Jerry Bullock’s memorial service last year I ran into Marty Oppenlander of Hillsboro Towing. Marty gave my brother-in-law a job back in the mid-70s, and my older brother went to work for him about a year later. My dad was looking for a way to transition from working for someone else to owning his own business and it corresponded with this time period so he got the idea that owning a tow company was the way to accomplish this.

Of course the transition ended up very different. He had trained personnel to start with, which was a plus. He purchased an existing operation with equipment, which was sort of a plus, and with a facility, which was a plus. Unfortunately there were a lot of unforeseen minuses. Within six months he had laid off my sister, who was running the office, and reduced my brother-in-law to part-time, and shortly thereafter he started covering weekend and evening shifts himself (mostly so my brother could have a few hours off here and there). Within a few years he gave the company and his house to the bank to get out from under the debt. Through it all he kept working his regular job.

I distinctly remember the day we went to my sister’s house to give everyone the news that we were purchasing the company and embarking on the new business venture. They knew something was in the works, but it was still up in the air. My brother-in-law and my brother were both doing well working for Marty. My sister was pregnant I believe. She was obviously anxious about the idea of packing up and moving, as well as changing jobs. I’m sure my brother-in-law, my brother and his girlfriend were anxious as well. My sister, however, was the only one to voice the concern as I recall.

I remember it vividly because my brother-in-law was lying on the floor resting on a couch pillow in their living room. He seemed to do that a lot and I didn’t really understand it as a 12-year-old, but now I see that he did it to give up a chair or a seat on the couch to someone else. I don’t think he found the floor that comfortable. When my sister balked at the idea of them going to work for the family business, he took the pillow and threw it at her and told her to be quiet. It was a tense moment. I don’t think my dad expected anything but excitement. My mom might have been a little more skeptical, but I might be basing that on my memory of her opinion of the venture after it started to go sour.

My brother-in-law had great respect for my dad and I think he felt that he had a solemn responsibility to embrace the opportunity that he was being entrusted to run a business that was an admittedly risky venture. He probably was more worried than anyone, knowing more about what it takes to run a successful towing company than anyone else present in that living room, but he displayed only optimism, even after things starting going south. He later managed two successful tow companies profitably, and he did what he could to help my dad with his business, but it was probably more than any of them could have reasonably overcome.

Family businesses are such a sensitive subject. My youngest son has been watching Man, Woman, Wild, in which a husband and wife are placed out in nature with little resources and survive by their wits. It wouldn’t be such an interesting show without the dynamic of the husband and wife team, which presents all kinds of mini-dramas. If you’ve ever worked with a family member in a business, you know how all of the baggage from the past can be dragged in and spilled all over the present. Looking back at that day in my sister’s living room, I applaud my sister for speaking up and voicing her concerns, I applaud my brother-in-law for being loyal to my dad and I applaud my dad for taking a risk and trying to better everyone’s situation. I’m not saying no one’s blameworthy for the failure of the business. I just think that even more so than a non-family business, a family business presents a best-case scenario that involves sacrifice from almost all involved parties.

I said to Marty at the service that he was basically responsible for me putting 30 years into this industry, to which he responded, “You’re welcome.” He added, “Not such a bad life.” He’s right of course. I suspect he wasn’t talking about just my life, but also about his own as well as anyone else who has made a career in this industry. God knows what he and his wife have had to deal with, employing their kids, siblings, a son-in-law, spouse teams and relatives of other employees. Whatever his formula is, it’s working. I suspect it’s not completely scientific. If you know Marty, you know one of his distinctive features is his laugh, which I think lends credence to the philosophy that you don’t get very far in this business (or other businesses) without a sense of humor.

So thank you, Marty, for giving my brother-in-law that job, and for knocking over that first domino in the line that I’m still following.