In a perfect world, the ideal business partner is someone you can trust, gives you honest, constructive feedback and has your back in any given situation. While that may be a tall order for some, others have had a built-in business partner since they could walk and talk—their sibling.
To get an idea of how siblings can work seamlessly together to successfully operate a family-owned business, FCNews rounded up Christina Smith and Palmer Johnson of Johnson Floor and Home; Kelli Kadlec and Ethan Strauch of Floor Craft; and Dean and Deb DeGraaf, co-owners of DeGraaf Interiors.
Deb and Dean DeGraaf
Deb and Dean DeGraaf, co-owners of DeGraaf Interiors, Grand Rapids Mich., didn’t start working for the family business right out of the gate—over time they joined forces to run the company founded by their father. They started off doing tasks like paperwork and cutting carpet; Deb gravitated to the residential builders side and retail division while Dean took interest in commercial.
“From the very start, we operated in very different arenas but very complementary to one another,” Deb, who recently celebrated 24 years with the company, recalled. “I would say we still do that to this day.”
For the siblings, the flooring business was second nature. As their father was a vice president of another retail floor covering store, Deb and Dean grew up going to flooring stores. In fact, a current and longtime warehouse employee knew them as children growing up and remembers seeing them running around on carpet rolls and pad bins.
What was once a playground for the siblings way back when is now an entity they are in charge of made up of a carefully selected, dedicated team of staff members who share the same values as they do. Deb and Dean pride themselves on balancing each other out and having a high level of trust in one another when it comes to running the business side by side.
“One person working hard or being a little more committed than the other can be an issue in some [family businesses] but for us, we’ve never had that issue,” Dean stated. “Wherever Deb is lacking, I’m pretty solid and wherever I’m lacking, she picks up the space.”
When it comes to separating their work life from family life, despite the two being heavily involved in their business, they are able to turn their brain on and off as necessary. According to Dean, it all comes down to prioritizing what needs to be handled immediately and what can wait while Deb credits the ability to separate work and family to the empowerment given to their leadership team. Over the last year and a half, Deb and Dean did away with micro-managing, which allowed balance to return without feeling like they always had to stay 100% connected 100% of the time.
Deb often says that if she weren’t running this business with her brother, she would lack the passion and grind to get through some of the hardships they’ve had in the past or those unforeseen challenges that lie ahead.
“At the end of the day, there’s just something about your No. 1 partner being your brother that you once pushed down a slide and broke his arm,” Deb recalled. “You’d do anything for that person and you know without question they’d do the same for you.”
Christina Smith and Palmer Johnson
“We were pretty much best friends when we were children,” said Christina Smith, director of outside sales, Johnson Floor & Home, Tulsa, Okla. “We were partners in crime.”
When it comes to being in the family business with her twin brother, Palmer Johnson, vice president, Johnson Floor & Home, recalls the two always working well together. Interestingly, the family business wasn’t either of their day-one plans. Christina “naturally fell into” the company 13 years ago, fresh out of college, after pursuing a short-lived retail career. She started a builder department within the family business to which she immediately loved and continued to grow.
As for Palmer, his journey to Johnson Floor & Home was much different. After practicing law for five years, he had a “stop-and-think” moment when Christina had her first child—which led him to leaving law and working for the family business. “I worked all the time and it felt like all of a sudden I wasn’t seeing anyone,” Palmer explained. “Christina was in labor and during my client meeting, I told my assistant, ‘Here’s my phone. [Christina’s] husband is going to text me when she starts pushing and then I’ll need you to interrupt me because I need to leave.’ And then I drove like a crazy person to get to the hospital thinking it was ludicrous I couldn’t take a day off to be there for my niece’s birth.”
After a year of planning each family member’s role, intentions as well as succession planning, the siblings now each own one-third of Johnson Floor & Home. According to Christina, what made them each successful in business boiled down to reviewing the role for each person, sticking to the expectations associated with that role and staying in their own lanes to avoid overstepping.
“We understand each other’s thought process, and I think that gives us an advantage over somebody who just has a relationship with their business partner,” Christina said. “Knowing someone inside and out allows you to know where their head is—always.”
For Palmer, some of the greatest advantages are the intangible ones. No matter if it’s quality time or time at the office, working with your family means seeing them more often and creating a closer bond.
“When you’re making decisions or you’re doing things, maybe there’s a sense that you’re doing it for the benefit of everybody,” he explained. “Not just yourself or some company that you’re going to work for and just retire from.”
Kelli Kadlec and Ethan Strauch
Both Kelli Kadlec and Ethan Strauch, who work side by side at Floor Craft, Colorado Springs, grew up working in their family business in various capacities. After pursuing entirely different career paths—Ethan worked in finance while Kelli went the pre-med route and was a certified nursing assistant—the two joined forces in the family’s retailer flooring business.
“We were raised our whole childhood with our dad who never once put pressure on us to go into the family business—it just wasn’t a thought,” Kelli recalled.
For both Kelli and Ethan, it was the entrepreneurial aspect and the ability to implement ideas or processes freely that put the siblings on the path to joining the family business. Kelli took an interest in making the “behind-the-scenes” decisions such as purchasing as well as the front end business—including product and color selection, design work, pricing programs, etc. Meanwhile, Ethan does the majority of estimating on the builder accounts and is in charge of implementing new technology and processes to modernize the business. He also runs the field teams with his dad, Mark Strauch, the current owner.
The key to the success of the family business, the siblings say, is sharing common goals. “Going into ownership with a company of our size would be considerably more daunting to do alone, so it’s nice to divide and conquer, have the support and also know there’s a level of commitment since we’re family,” Ethan explained.
Kelli agreed, adding how being close their whole lives allowed working together to feel natural. While they both have fun at the office together, they have also learned how to work through the occasional, harmless sibling tiff. “If we do ever get into it about something, it’s pretty short lived—we just snap at each other and move on,” Kelli quipped.
One of the things Kelli and Ethan say they value most is being a lot more involved in each other’s lives. Despite having offices next to one another, the two said they find themselves calling each other, joking throughout the day about difficulties they’re having and generally keeping it lighthearted to help get through the day.
“Every Monday, we can talk about how our weekend went or what our kids did that morning,” Ethan said. “We’d be in touch even if we didn’t work together but it’s just that much easier when you do.”