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Expanding a family business while preserving Its culture

Family businesses power the economy, and yet their leaders face unique challenges in leading workforces that are mostly not family members. Learn from a 4th-generation CEO on how she leads.

5 min read

Small Business

Expanding a family business while preserving Its culture

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As a fourth-generation leader of a family business, I enjoy sharing with other corporate leaders what it is like to be part of a successful family-based enterprise. To successfully run such a firm, hiring employees outside of the family is crucial to ensuring the continuation of the business, its goals and your vision.

Based on my experience, I have compiled five tips and best practices for family-business leaders on how to manage the growth of a company and integrate outside talent, all while preserving the ever-important culture.

Running a family business can offer many unique opportunities, but it also comes with serious challenges. There are many elements that can get in the way of success that might not factor into nonfamily entities: taxes and structural conflicts, sibling disagreements, succession challenges. It is therefore no surprise that studies suggest that 70% of family-run businesses fail from one generation to the next.

But family businesses nonetheless play an important role in the US market. With family-owned establishments responsible for creating 78% of all new jobs in the US and employing 60% of the US workforce, it is evident that the majority of family business hires are not all relatives. Therefore, many have had to grapple with preserving the “family culture” while managing the growth of the company.

When accepting the role of CEO at Premier Dental, I found myself facing this exact challenge — maintaining the culture ingrained in the company for over a century while moving the organization ahead. I love my family, am passionate about my business, and have worked extremely hard to ensure that the two go hand in hand. Ensuring that our company culture, unique to Premier Dental, survives and prospers along with the evolution of the business requires continuous re-evaluation.

Here are my five best practices to keep in mind:

1. Clearly communicate your values

Make sure you have a strong foundation and commitment to a value system that you can clearly communicate. Once you have established that, it is crucial to commit to hiring those who fully align with your company culture and values.

This is why, early in my tenure as CEO, we developed the Premier Promise, which affirmed the company’s long-standing values, making it easier for employees and customers to align themselves with our value system. Even though they are not part of the founding family, the team aligns with our core beliefs and can feel proud of the role they play in the company. 

2. Create an atmosphere of inclusion and purpose

I try to breed a culture of kinship and interdependence within my team. For example, I do not underestimate the impact of making time for enjoyable activities that contribute to building team spirit — especially during the global transition to remote work during the pandemic.

I now start my Premier Zoom meetings with a trivial “Question of the Day,” where we share personal information like childhood nicknames or favorite foods to create new opportunities to connect. I also host game nights. Most recently, we held a Zoom “Family Feud.”

3. Create, embrace and communicate change

Openly encourage the change that new employees bring. The very reason for bringing them on is to capitalize on the new ideas and fresh perspectives they introduce. Don’t be afraid to step outside your family bubble to re-evaluate how things could be improved.

Making sure people outside of the family are seen and heard not only gives them a sense of ownership over the business and their roles within it, but it also gives you an opportunity to explore new strategies and ideas that can help your business evolve.

4. Cultivate synergistic onboarding processes

Onboarding new employees into family enterprises can be tricky with existing traditions, hierarchical structures and politics. It is therefore especially crucial to promote immediate immersion by creating a space for a new member’s voice, while encouraging collaboration from the team.

5. Seek outside counsel

It is easy to be entrenched in the ways of your family boardroom, but I cannot emphasize enough how crucial it is to listen to those outside of your circle. As a leader, you have the final say, but I personally have gained so much from the wisdom of others, incorporating their ideas into my leadership philosophy and approach.

Despite all the challenges of running a family business, I can truly say that I am blessed that I am able to build upon the hard work of my familial predecessors. I am proud that their values are still very much integral to the company as it continues to evolve throughout the 21st century. Family business really is a different kind of great.


Julie Charlestein is a fourth-generation CEO and president of Premier Dental, a global dental development and manufacturing company. Recognized as a driver of inspired solutions for dentistry, Charlestein received the Gold Award by the 2020 Best in Biz Awards for Executive of the Year.

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