Add family dynamics to the day-to-day stressors of running a business, and you'd think it would spell disaster. But on the contrary: family businesses are thriving in the United States. These companies produce half of the U.S. gross national product, employ 50% of the American workforce and comprise one-third of Fortune 500 firms.*
In our field, almost half of dental laboratory owners work with members of their families and agree that, despite the various challenges, there are advantages they just wouldn't trade. "The best part is knowing you can depend on each other because these are people you've known your whole life. Everyone has a high stake in the business and is going to put it first; you just can't necessarily know that about someone from outside the family," says Janine Mahery, vice president of Pro Dental Arts, Titusville, Florida, whose mother and sister work in the laboratory founded by her husband, Mike.
If family members have a good relationship, then the trust and insight—which usually take time to develop between co-workers—is already built into their business interactions. Along with that comes the common motivation of ensuring the ongoing success of the family business. "Everyone wants to put forth their best effort, because it's their family name that's on the building," says Priscilla Cale, director of the Family Business Program at the University of Connecticut. "A family business builds unity and gives a common cause for every family member to rally around."
The sense of family often appeals to those outside the laboratory as well and can be a competitive advantage in a service-oriented business such as ours. "I think the fact that we're a family business gives us an edge. There's a perception on the part of dentists that those who have a stake in the business are going to make sure that things are done right," says Steven Pigliacelli, vice president, Marotta Dental Studio, Farmingdale, New York.
That's not to say that it's always smooth sailing when family members work together. The fact is, because of the intimacy of relationships, there is a tendency for family matters to become work matters, or vice versa. The most important thing you can do is talk to each other. "The number one threat to the family business is the failure to communicate," says Cale. "You have to discuss everything upfront—from performance reviews, future roles, employment policies, expectations—to remove any ambiguity."
For large, extended families, Cale recommends having family meetings—apart from business meetings—that include all family members, even those outside of the business such as spouses or children who may join in the future. Not only does it give the family an opportunity to enjoy each other outside of work, but it also gives them a chance to review future plans and goals so that everyone is on the same page. Another strategy she recommends is to have an outside board of advisors—comprised of industry professionals and/or owners of other family businesses—to act as a sounding board for key business decisions and alleviate family conflict.
But there's no way a family business—or any business for that matter—can avoid conflict, and the key to a laboratory's success is how the conflict is handled. In fact, Jerry Ragle, whose two children recently joined his laboratory, points out that it can be a growth opportunity. "Stress, strain, differences of opinion and misunderstandings are part of life. You have to learn to deal with those situations respectfully and move forward," says Ragle, owner of Ragle Dental Lab, Champaign, Illinois. "As my daughter and son become more and more involved in the business, they are going to face obstacles and conflict and I hope that our discussions help them deal better with what lies ahead."
Starting in June/July 2005, LMT begins its Portraits of the Family Business series, a collection of profiles of family-owned laboratories. Through their stories, we'll glean advice for managing family dynamics, succession strategies and perspectives on what makes a family business tick. See below for this month's portraits.
*Source: The University of Connecticut Family Business Program
Marotta Dental Studio: Three Generations of Dental Technicians
Ragle Dental Lab: Unexpectedly, A Family Business
Marotta Dental Studio: Three Generations of Dental Technicians
The Marotta family wanted to celebrate. In April, they held a grand opening party at their new, state-of-the-art, 12,000-square-foot laboratory in Farmingdale, New York. Nearly 100 people were on hand to see the new facility--and to commemorate the family's 70-year history in the field of dental technology.
That history dates back to 1935, when Leonard "Len" Marotta started working at a machine shop that fabricated radar equipment for the war effort. Len apprenticed in the department that constructed steel frames for dental appliances. After gaining experience in several New York City laboratories, he opened his own partial frame lab in 1950, Artwork Dental Laboratory.
There, he eventually began training his son, Leonard "Lenny" Marotta Jr., whose passion for this field was evident early on. After graduating from dental technology school, he fabricated Vitallium® castings for his father but, a year later, decided to branch out to learn all phases of laboratory work. He gained experience in various laboratories and dental offices, did graduate studies in gnathology and implants, earned his CDT in four specialties, and finally opened his own laboratory—now Marotta Dental Studio—in 1980 with his wife, Christine. Lenny then hired Christine's brother, Steven Pigliacelli, who helped him build the laboratory into the 40-person operation it is today. He is a full partner and vice president of the corporation.
And now, the third generation: Lenny's son, Josh—who was training to be a civil engineer and oversaw the building of the new lab—has opted to make dental technology his career. "I've always thought the laboratory was a cool environment and enjoyed doing some of the work, but I never planned on being a technician," says Josh, who currently invests, casts and solders C&B work and handles quality control. "But now I see it as an opportunity to work with my family to help continue the business they created."
Of course, Josh's decision pleased his father, but Steven was just as thrilled with the news. "I started training under Lenny when I was 16, and was always here for him to fall back on when he needed me. And now, since Lenny is 18 years older than me and will eventually retire first, I'll have Josh to depend on," says Steven. "We don't yet have any specific plans for a transition, but not a day goes by when we're not thinking about the future."
It's evident that the sense of family at Marotta Dental Studio extends to employees as well. In fact, another purpose of the grand opening party in April was to honor the employees' diversity of nationalities; more than 20 flags hang from the ceiling of the laboratory to represent the home country of an employee.
The laboratory cultivates this family atmosphere by having yearly picnics and holiday parties, free weekly breakfasts and sponsoring an employee mountain bike club and other recreational activities. They even welcome their technicians' children into the lab to help with mailings or other projects, especially during school vacation weeks when childcare can be an issue for parents. "Our technicians are absolutely an extension of our family. Many of them have been with us for years," says Lenny. "If you want to have team spirit, and to expect people to really care about producing a quality product, you must have close relationships."
Lenny says his father, Len—who is now retired—taught him early on that taking an interest in people and investing in their futures would pay off in terms of loyalty. "When my father was a trainee, people would hide their work from him. I even remember when I was starting out I was told by another technician not to look over other people's shoulders," he says. "But my father told me to never be afraid to provide training for my technicians and encouraged me to share technical knowledge." This is advice Lenny took to heart: in addition to being committed to ongoing training and advancement opportunities for his employees, he is also a clinical associate professor at New York University's College of Dentistry and both he and Steven lecture extensively.
And what lesson does Lenny hope to pass on to Josh, the third generation of dental technicians? "I'm an eternal student, so I tell him to never stop learning," says Lenny. "Once you stop learning and think you know it all, you're done, especially in this field."
Ragle Dental Lab: Unexpectedly, A Family Business
Many laboratory owners, from the day they open their doors, imagine the time when their children will come work side by side with them and eventually continue the business into the next generation. Not Jerry Ragle. "I figured they would run away as fast as they could. I never expected it, never thought that either of my children would work at the lab," he says."
Not that he didn't want them to be involved; it's just that they seemed to have other plans from the get-go. Natalie, who Jerry says wanted to be an accountant "from birth," pursued a degree in management accounting. She joined the Champaign, Illinois laboratory on a temporary basis in January of 2004—while waiting for "the big job" to come through—but decided to stay on. "Natalie has taken over our accounting department, and it's been great. She's really good at it, and there is a lot of trust," says Jerry.
Jerry's son, Nick, had worked at the lab on and off over the years, but opted to major in graphic design while in college. After earning his associate's degree, he found he wanted to work for awhile and joined the lab late last year—and discovered that his artistic talents translated into real technical skill. "He has an eye for detail and, after only a few months as a ceramist, could do what others need years to accomplish," says Jerry. Nick is also the Captek trainer at the lab, and plans to take on the lab's newly purchased CAD/CAM system next.
What changed their minds? For Natalie, it was perspective. "I always thought, 'What? Me in my father's dental laboratory? No way.' But it's funny how things change once you start growing up," she says. "For one, I grew up in this business; I watched my dad build crowns from day one—I was born the year he started this company. Also, I admire my dad's determination, enthusiasm and vision. He inspires me to take risks, and never settle."
Natalie says another determining factor for coming into the laboratory is what would happen to the business once her father retired. "I took a serious look at what my parents had built and knew I didn't want their efforts to be sold to a stranger. I wanted to keep it in the family," she says.
Nick's change of heart came after working for the laboratory out of necessity at first. "I was a little lost as far as my career plans, and looked at the laboratory as something to fall back on," he says. "But my impression of it now is that it's solid and practical. I feel like I'm helping guide the business into the future."
Since Natalie and Nick have just joined within the last year or so, Jerry says they don't yet have definitive succession plans. "Clearly, Natalie's role is administrative, and Nick's is technical. But have we discussed everything? Not at all, it might scare the heck out of them," he jokes. "But they have a pretty good sense of where they stand and accept that it's not a free lunch; we all have to work at it."
Natalie agrees. "Although some might think working for a family business is a free ride, it's just the opposite. You have to work harder, because your family is counting on you and you don't want to disappoint them," she says. "And my father is just as hard on me as he would be with anyone else, maybe even harder."
Both Natalie and Nick say that their father's openness to their opinions makes all the difference in their working relationship. "I don't know everything; I admit I'm still learning, too," says Jerry. "So the nice thing is that we can call each other out on something, and we truly listen to each other."
If the family members' obvious mutual respect is any indication of how successful the second-generation Ragles will be, Jerry needn't worry about the future of his business. "Natalie is smart and she handles a difficult job well," says Nick. Remarking on her brother, Natalie says, "I love working with him and seeing him succeed. He brings a lot of energy to the lab."