Maintaining Sanity in the Family Business
François-Pierre Chevalier, Bio-K+ International Inc.
April 16, 2018
Running a family business is not for the weak.
Our company is Evergreen to its core. It started with a businessman with a visionary idea who wanted to create something he could hand down to his children. Through Perseverance the company has flourished, and we children are now at the helm. But our most consistent struggle over nearly 25 years has been balancing our very different skill sets, leadership abilities and temperaments. I guess we can say we succeeded because we still want to spend time with each other outside of the office.
My father, Claude Chevalier, founded Bio-K Plus International, a Quebec-based company that develops probiotics, in 1994, when I was a young teenager. I had a brief moment of wondering why my father was giving up his superstar status as the president of the Dairy Bureau of Canada to found a startup that would be manufacturing and selling a fermented supplement that tasted like spoiled milk (this was long before probiotics was a household term). But based on Claude’s vision, and the knowledge supplied by his scientific partner, François-Marie Luquet, of this soon-to-be-multibillion-dollar category, I quickly became an eager supporter. My sister, Isabèle, and I were high school students at the time, but we spent our nights and weekends helping our parents. I started out officially as a clerk in the warehouse, folding boxes and doing deliveries.
My sister and I were free to explore a variety of tasks. I discovered a love for sales, marketing and anything IT and had a knack for distribution. Rather than attend university, I spent years traveling to drum up new business and find enthusiastic reps. Isabèle gravitated to higher-level administrative duties, so we never argued about our places in the company. As Bio-K Plus grew, so did we in our responsibilities.
But when you start working for your parents at a young age, there’s a blurred line between work and home. What’s always been difficult for my sister and me is knowing if we’re talking to our dad, who at 69 still runs the company, or to our CEO. Understanding the hierarchy and expectations is the hardest thing in a family-run business, especially when dealing with a parent who is a majority shareholder like my father. Whatever he says goes, which can stir up a lot of emotions.
It’s an issue we’re all aware of, and over the past 20 years, we’ve worked hard to maintain open communications, trust and emotional stability. Eight times a year we bring in a family business moderator who helps us talk through our differences in a way that is good for both the business and our personal lives. Our four immediate family members attend the four-hour meetings off-site at my parents’ house. We blow off some steam, share our worries and get alignment on the state of the business. The moderator helps us sort out issues around roles and responsibilities, and how to create the space for open, respectful communication. It’s a wonderful way to regularly make sure every family member has a voice and a place to share concerns. These meetings are the key to our ongoing strength as a family unit and a company.
As I’ve risen in rank at Bio-K Plus, I’ve made an effort to talk to other family business owners to learn about how they handle challenges. Generational clashes are pretty typical in family businesses. The parent starts a company and most of the time has a hard time ceding authority to these children who once toddled around their home. Public managers generally don’t have any such memories of their employees. Our regular family forums have helped me and my family members learn how to check our egos at the door and work through problems before they do any damage.
Something else that has been good for us: Traditionally my parents, sister and I gather up our families and travel together on a vacation. The rule on this vacation is to never discuss work. It’s a very special time that brings us joy and reminds us that we are more than colleagues.
In 2012 my father named my sister and me co-presidents. I think he struggled with what to do with two very bright, very ambitious, very deserving kids and settled on an equal share of titles and duties. Isabèle and I work well together and our strengths offset each other, which is why she acts as CEO and I run the commercial division. Recently we hired a COO to better manage internal process due to ever-increasing growth. It was a smart way to handle that situation: Always surround yourself with the smartest people around.
But we’re still continuously learning how to better run this company, which now sells products all over the world. Who do I need to be to lead this Evergreen organization and what are my values? I strive to somehow find common ground with my dad and sister. As my sister and I take on more responsibilities, we will be implementing our own best practices. My philosophy is that you’re better at owning your business than running it — hire the best talent. Of course, in a family business, that is tricky. Isabèle and I each have several children who may someday wish to be involved.
We are already having these discussions in our forums to ensure that they will be well-prepared and motivated to rise to the challenges their generation will face in an Evergreen family.
François-Pierre Chevalier is president of the commercial division at Bio-K Plus International Inc.