How I ran my family business aged 19

Running a family business is not easy, but taking it on at the age of 19 is even more challenging. Jacqueline O'Donovan of O'Donovan Waste Disposal shares her story...

When I was just 17, my father passed away suddenly, leaving behind a business that my siblings and I couldn’t bear to see come to nothing. It was for this reason that I abandoned my chosen career path of moving to Germany and becoming a nanny, instead teaming up with my brothers and sister on our quest to ensure the success of my father’s legacy. It started with day-to-day admin, dealing with invoices, phone calls and accounts. My big opportunity came when I was 19, when I was able to take the reins as managing director, with my brothers and sisters working alongside me within the wider management team. It’s been quite a journey and there are a number of lessons I’ve learned along the way – here are some snippets which I hope will help other family businesses in their own ventures.    

Positivity

Entering such a competitive industry and holding the immense responsibility of my family’s way of life at such a young age was my first challenge. Initially we worked in a small office with no phone system, which we all found difficult to work around, yet to this day I still believe it to have been brilliant hands-on experience. I would advise anyone currently involved in or thinking of starting up a family business to remain positive about the experiences they encounter, whether they are good or bad - it is these experiences combined that develop you as a business person and aid your overall industry knowledge. 

Furthermore, working beside family members prior to the expansion of the company meant that it was possible to see one another’s skills and shortcomings when dealing with all aspects of the business, meaning we could adapt our roles accordingly.

Our family culture and supportive attitude have resulted in us encouraging our children to step into roles across the company. But despite the fact they have a clear career path if they’d like it, I believe that it’s vital that no one skips any stages or opportunities to learn. I enjoyed being able to experience the company from every role in the early days, and I think it’s an important part of development that everyone in the managerial team should experience first-hand, before taking the reins.

Harnessing strengths and weaknesses

Everyone is different, which means that each family member will have different strengths that can be used to the company’s advantage. Each person’s strength needs to be complementary to one another’s ability to evaluate how you can best combine your different skills in your business.

Jacqueline O'Donovan with her siblings

Furthermore, through recognising individual strengths and weaknesses in a business environment early on you can then agree on the appropriate job roles; thus shaping a suitable working structure. It is important that everyone sticks to these roles and does not deviate from them, as there can only ever be one captain of a ship!

Working together

Our entire family is dedicated in promoting a working environment that is inclusive and supportive in order to create a very strong team culture across the company; something I encourage all family businesses to aspire to achieve. The sheer comradery and strength that I associate with our family business is what makes me appreciate the culture, as it is completely different to being an employee of a large firm.

With this in mind it is equally as important to ensure employee satisfaction, which is why our company’s largest investment is veered towards our staff development as we believe everyone should be able to develop and improve their skills. As a result, we have a confident, loyal and motivated workforce that delivers great customer service and achieves results over and above other SMEs of a similar size. Additionally, we pride ourselves on the community outlook that we have, and our overall fantastic team spirit.

Managing sibling time vs work time

One issue frequently experienced in a family-run business is the ability to separate your family time from your work time. It’s very easy to get distracted by non-job related personal discussions, so it is important that it is a known fact that at work, business is business. A way to deal with this is to schedule family gatherings outside of work to keep a balance – it helps if, like many families, you live close to each other and can drop by easily.

However having family involved in business can make it difficult to ensure a successful work-life balance – it’s often difficult to switch off. Being really passionate about what I do and caring greatly about the wellbeing of my co-workers can sometimes come at a cost to my own personal work-life balance, but that comes with my role!

Embracing differences in the workplace

Like in any business, disagreements will inevitably arise. Nonetheless, as soon as they become apparent it’s crucial to discuss these issues and the suitable way of to dealing with them to prevent these problems continuing for hours or days.

The benefit of working with family members often means that it’s easier to be more open with each other in order to communicate as transparently as possible.  

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