Put Your Kids in the Trenches to Get Them Started

By: Henry Hutcheson

From: IGC Retailer, March/April, 2014

Put Your Kids in the Trenches to Get Them Started

As the owner of your garden center, you probably dream about bringing your kids into the business, showing them the ropes, watching them grow and then seeing them take it to the next level. However, as the saying goes, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” This is especially true for kids working at a family business for the first time.

Start Them at Ground Level
When your child first comes to work, I recommend giving him a position at the bottom, reporting to a lower-level employee. The reality is, at 13 or even 22, as a rookie to the business, no one is going to want to follow him. People follow others for three reasons:  they trust the leader, they see the leader lead by example, and they respect the leader. Eliminate any of these three, and the desire to follow quickly falls off.

Starting under another lower-level employee, working diligently, and having to follow the direction of the manager sends a strong message to all the other employees at your garden center: Your son is not looking for any special treatment; people will be judged on their merits, not their connections; and your son is willing to do whatever is necessary for the success of the business. 

This could mean your child is tasked with everything from moving inventory and labeling products to fertilizing and watering. Complex decisions are better made when he truly understands the underlying mechanics of the business.

One week of getting his hands dirty isn’t sufficient. Allow enough time for your child to get into some of the real dirty work, stressful moments and overtime situations. Consider him the “rover,” who fills in if someone is shorthanded. This will allow him to look back and say, “I remember when... .” And it means he earned the right to be in a more advanced position.

I was 13 when I first went to work for my family’s business, Olan Mills Portrait Studios. I was the only family member who was working at the plant, so all eyes were on me. And what prestigious job did I have, given my eminent stature? I was in charge of collecting the empty film canisters, fitting lids on them, boxing them up and shipping them to studios around the country. I reported to a wonderful woman. Even though she knew I was “The Grandson of Mr. Mills,” she couldn’t care less. She managed me like she would any new employee.

Similarly, I had a family jewelry business client whose daughter had graduated college and was working in the business in a variety of roles. When the production manager left to work at the business’ factory in China, she decided she would go along, study Chinese and also work at the factory. After talking it through, we both decided the smart move would be for her to work on the factory floor, alongside the other workers. She reported to the manager of the particular line she was working in. Everyone knew who she was, but they treated her as an equal. When it was time for her to head back to the United States, she had gained the respect of the workers, as well as the managers, at the factory.

The Bigger Picture
Usually, teenagers get their first work experience during the summer, when school is out. Plan to give them an overview of the more complex and “intellectual” sides of your garden center business as summer draws to an end. Have them come to work in office clothes for a day and meet with a number of folks in key functions, including buying, merchandising, marketing, accounting, etc. Ask these people to go through a basic explanation of what they do and why it matters to the garden center. For a 13-year-old, this won’t mean much - but the process will. Encourage them to ask questions. This creates an understanding that there are more complex components to the business.

As the next summers come along, while you’ll want your child to fill in where needed, it’s optimal to rotate him through different departments, regardless of his interests. Have him do a summer in buying, another in accounting and another in general operations, each time working under a different manager.

Your best spot as the owner is to debrief periodically on how it’s going, and then share some of the complex issues, challenges and opportunities. Approaching the teen years in this manner will enable your child to learn the basics, gain a bird’s-eye view of the entire garden center business and learn to work with different people while gaining their respect.

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