Bridging the Family Business Gap

Article by:

Kristin Elliott
EO San Diego
Kristin Elliott - EO San Diego

Growing up in an entrepreneurial family has many challenges and rewards. While other people’s parents had mainstream jobs, my dad was an inventor, engineer and a trailblazer. In 1982, he launched Precision Measurement Engineering (PME), a premier manufacturer of fresh water and oceanographic monitoring devices. The company has since evolved from a one-man operation to a million-dollar corporation with more than 10 employees and devices all over the world. I was groomed to inherit my father’s vision and follow in his footsteps, whether or not I realized it.

In the early years, the company was run out of our family home. When I was nine, my sister and I had jobs spray-painting oceanographic floats in the backyard; manufacturing was in the garage, and the office management was in our home office. The business did not make a lot of money for many years. My parents withdrew a small salary to pay essential bills, but we spent summers at home and occasionally took a quick camping trip. We were loved, taught to work hard and the family business was ingrained in all we did. In 2005, several years after I graduated from college, my father offered me a full-time job to overhaul the company website. By then, PME was grossing US$200,000 a year in a 1,300-square-foot commercial suite. My first week on the job, my dad walked up to me and said, “After you complete the website, I’m not sure we’ll have enough work for you.”

Ten years later, I am the CEO of PME, and we are grossing close to US$1.3 million a year. Today, new processes and systems are in place, and we are actively emphasizing strategy, growth and focus. We are tracking time, managing product efficiencies, broadening our outreach, forming new partnerships, and developing unique and innovative products. We have renewed energy, new employees and a deep desire to not only grow business revenue and profits, but to grow our team, customer satisfaction and brand. But getting to this point wasn’t easy. I had to learn how to bridge the gap between first- and second-generation business owners, which was a unique and rewarding exercise.

It was challenging trying to unite two generations who have very different ideas regarding management to align our visions and goals. It took time and results before my parents began to fully trust my ideas. Things that seemed basic to me, like building employee morale through lunches and baseball games, were foreign to my parents. They couldn’t understand the need for time management or the value of hiring a salesperson. They slowly realized how labor time per product could be calculated and that the management systems I was implementing filtered to the bottom line, which had been negative for so many years. We now have 70% gross margins and 30% profit margins, which helped convince my parents to relinquish control and have faith in my plans. The whole process made me feel empowered and emboldened me to continue moving forward.

I am extremely proud of what my dad accomplished, and I feel fortunate to continue his legacy. Looking back, my journey has afforded me various lessons learned. For starters, don’t give up on yourself. Find your voice and assert new ideas, because progress never happens when things stay the same. Also, have empathy. The family business is held close to the hearts of both generations, and even though you may feel unheard, it is more about fear; fear of not being in control, the unknown and losing your identity. Communication is also important. Constantly share your feelings, wants and needs. Be open about your vision and goals, and understand that they may not necessarily align with those of the first generation. Finally, leave the business at work and focus on family at home. This can be difficult, but I’ve learned it is essential to maintaining the core family dynamic and relationships.

Kristin Elliott is an EO San Diego member and the CEO of Precision Measurement Engineering, a pioneer in crafting environmental monitoring instruments. Contact Kristin at kristinhead@pme.com. Photo credit: Tim Yargeau (Streamline Media)​​​​​​​​​​​

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