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The Secret to Running A Successful Family Business

Ron Davis talks to Per Mar Security Services’ Brian Duffy about running a successful family business.

Per Mar Security Services is a large company and has been around since 1953. In fact, CEO Mike Duffy, whose parents John and Eleanor Duffy founded the company, just celebrated his 50th anniversary working there.

Per Mar is rare in that it has both an electronic security service component and a guard service component.

The company always seems to be among those being honored, awarded something and celebrating something.

And all of this from its headquarters in Davenport, Iowa. In addition to how busy Mike Duffy is in the business, he stays fairly busy outside of the business too.

Mike and wife Linda have so many children and grandchildren that when I attended a recent anniversary party for them, there must’ve been more than 100 direct relatives of theirs.

They have so many grandchildren they would need a Greyhound bus to move them all around at once.

A few of the Duffy kids, and by now some of the grandchildren even, have also entered into the employ of the company, and this column is about one of them, son Brian.

He is now president of the electronic security division of Per Mar. Brian Duffy is a good guy, well respected both internally and externally, knowledgeable and very approachable.

Results Still Come From Hard Work, Long Hours

I asked Brian a variation on my usual type of question, inquiring “If you had one really great idea you could share with children and other relatives who work in family-owned businesses, what would it be?”

He thought for a moment, and then responded, “Understand where we came from … and recognize that family is more important than the business.”

A few moments later he added, “Any position within a company is earned, not given.”

It seems more frequently than not, when people find out that when someone is in a position of authority and has a parent or other close relative as the owner of the company, he or she has been given a free ride.

In my experience, not only is that statement not true, but very often it is the exact opposite.

Most people who have family in a business, and are in a position of authority, have earned it the hard way — they worked harder, put in longer hours and sometimes suffered what might be called verbal abuse by coworkers who thought they were “handed” the position.

In Brian’s case, I can confidently say that had he gone to any other company or industry and applied the same skills he uses in the Duffy “family business,” he would’ve achieved similar heights.

I remember many years ago, a freshly minted college graduate who looked a lot like me went to work in the family business. Not surprisingly, I was in outside sales.

And not surprisingly within a few weeks of joining the firm I was telling my father, and through him, my mother about all the changes I would make if I were in charge.

That lasted for less than two years and I was gently asked to go take my opinions elsewhere. I did, and never looked back.

The only do-over I’d wish for would be to take back those two years and do it differently. Of course we can’t, but hopefully we all learn from those kinds of experiences. I know I did.

And if you ask any progeny who’s in a management position in today’s industry the same question I asked Brian, I bet nine out of 10 would answer the same way.

By the way, Mike Duffy started out working for his father also.

Lessons for Success Still Apply to Family Business

It seems as though the laws of success are as applicable to everyone in management as they are to those who have attained good jobs in family businesses. Here are a few I learned along the way.

  • Treat everyone you meet as though he or she was the most important person in the world.
  • Especially with family members, treat them with the dignity and respect that you would a complete stranger.
  • Set meaningful goals, share them with subordinates, and stand aside and watch how some of your goals become the same ones embraced by the people that report to you.
  • Seek opinions from everyone in the company, but particularly from those who report directly to you.
  • Always try to give credit for your successes to other people; always accept the blame when things don’t go quite as well as you had planned (this is a tough one).
  • Enjoy the ride, take pleasure in the work that you do, and give back to your business associates some of the pleasure that you receive from these successes you’ve achieved together.

Congrats to Mike and thanks to Brian; I predict Brian will carry on the legacy that has been well established in Davenport.

About the Author

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Ron Davis is Security Sales & Integration's "What's the Big Idea?" columnist and contributing market analyst. He is president of Davis Marketing Group (DMG), a full-service consulting firm serving the security industry, which also includes GraybeardsRus. He has 35 years of industry experience, including founding Security Associates Int’l in the 1980s.

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