Running a business together has unique challenges—but plentiful rewards, too. Three mother-daughter teams reveal what it takes to thrive.
Just For Kix owner Cindy Clough clearly remembers the day that her daughter, Ali Geraets, then a child, asked her parents if they always had to be talking about work. Now, many years later, Geraets has changed her tune: She and her mother talk shop almost constantly, as Geraets has become a leader in her parents’ multifaceted dance business.
Working with family is more common than you might think: 85 percent of all businesses are family businesses, says Lauri Union, the executive director of Babson College’s Bertarelli Institute for Family Entrepreneurship. And while there’s less data on mother–daughter business partnerships specifically, it’s safe to say that in the dance world, where women-owned businesses are the majority, there are plenty of women following in their mothers’ footsteps into dance studios, boutiques and beyond.
Union—who, early in her career, worked with her own mother at her family’s manufacturing company—says that mother–daughter business teams have a unique opportunity to shape their business with their family’s values, which, if done successfully, can result in strong workplace culture and customer satisfaction. But on the flip side, Union says, anything that’s happening within the family relationship is likely to show up in the work relationship, and some businesses run by family members struggle with communication, or with power struggles between generations.
So what does it take to thrive as a mother–daughter business team? According to Union, one key is having frank conversations about each family member’s strengths, weaknesses, goals and interests.
Dance Business Weekly spoke to three mother–daughter pairs about how they make it work, and the challenges and rewards of running a business together.
Cindy Clough and Ali Geraets
Just For Kix
It’s hard for Ali Geraets to remember a time when she wasn’t involved in Just For Kix, the sprawling dance business founded by her parents that sells costumes and dancewear, runs camps and competitions, trains coaches and teachers, and more. After high school, she trained in patterning and costume design, which she focused on for several years within the company, but now she is involved in managing almost every part of the business, working closely under her mother’s leadership.
The double-edged sword of being comfortable: Clough and Geraets say that since they know each other so well, they can voice their opinions freely, which often results in sounder, more creative business decisions. On the other hand, Geraets says, she occasionally feels too comfortable: For instance, while she’s typically a deadline-driven person, she sometimes takes longer on a project for her mom because she knows she can.
The challenge of being “the boss’s daughter”: The pair say they’ve generally managed to avoid any tension with other staff. But in their early years of working together, fear that people would attribute Geraets’ success to her relationship with her mother sometimes resulted in Clough holding her daughter to an exceptionally high standard, which occasionally created conflict.
Creating a family culture: Most Just For Kix customers don’t know that it’s a family-run business, says Clough, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel it. For Geraets, her familial connection to the business means that she cares about it far more than a typical job. This level of dedication has permeated the rest of the company’s employees, and translates into providing clients with a highly personal experience, she says.
Gabie Ross and Amy Manning
Newmarket and Barrie, Ontario
Gabie Ross had a rule about her two daughters’ involvement in her dancewear boutique: “I don’t want you here if you don’t want to be here.” In other words: A position at her store couldn’t be a safety net between other jobs, or to fill a gap left by another staff member’s sudden departure—they had to really want it. After exploring a few other career paths, Ross’ daughter Amy Manning realized that she did really want it. Manning has grown to run most aspects of the business, leading an addition to the existing boutique and an expansion to a new location. Ross, who plans to retire in the next few years (at which point Manning will buy her out), still manages the store’s books, among other back-end tasks. It’s been a full-circle experience for Ross, who opened the store 43 years ago with her mother.
Building a strong foundation: “I really credit my mom with how she brought me into the business, because I don’t know if I would be able to give up as much control as I now know that she gave up,” says Manning. “She let me make mistakes, and it was never like my mom was scolding me—it was my boss saying, ‘OK, this was a mistake, but let’s grow from it.’”
Setting boundaries: Ross and Manning are intentional about leaving personal matters outside of work, particularly when other staff members are around. Another practice they’ve found helps maintain professionalism: Manning calls her mother “Gabie” at work, rather than “mom.”
Navigating personal feelings with business: Manning says that as her mom has approached retirement, she’s become hesitant to burden her with business crises in a way that she wouldn’t be with a nonfamily partner. “I know she wants to be kept in the loop,” Manning says. “But sometimes I don’t want to put it on her—I don’t like adding stress to her life.”
Melanie Boniszewski and Kelsey Griffin
Tonawanda Dance Arts, Boppin Babies Dance
Tonawanda, New York
Kelsey Griffin grew up dancing at her mom’s studio, and after earning her MBA, she returned to apply her business smarts as Tonawanda Dance Arts’ associate director. Griffin handles the nitty-gritty operations, such as staffing and HR, while Boniszewski works on bigger-picture issues and runs the studio’s finances. Eventually, their roles will switch: Griffin will buy out her mother and become the director, and Boniszewski will stay on as a consultant. Recently, Boniszewski and Griffin started another business which they co-own: Boppin Babies Dance, a curriculum for teaching babies and toddlers.
Keeping business and family separate: Boniszewski and Griffin make an effort not to talk about work during family time. They’ve also found that using different methods of communication for business and personal talk is a helpful boundary: They use the studio’s Slack for work conversations, and they text for personal conversations.
Setting the stage for transition: “A lot of the employees are a similar age to her, and one’s older than her,” Boniszewski says of her daughter. “So when we do make that flip of her being the owner, I want to make sure that those employees respect her.” For this reason, Boniszewski has Griffin take on tasks that will establish her as the studio’s leader, such as running staff meetings.
Including staff: To avoid employees feeling left out, Griffin “tries to involve them in decision-making as much as possible,” she says, delegating important tasks such as scheduling. “They feel involved and important and know their opinions matter.”
Lauren Wingenroth is a New York City–based writer and a former editor of Dance Business Weekly.