All in the Family: The Inside Scoop on Running a Family Business

by Michele Wade, on May 5, 2020 3:29:00 PM

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Joyce Brenny and her husband Todd founded Brenny Transportation in 1996 with three employees. Today, they have 100, including their daughter and son-in-law. The company has ranked as one of the Star Tribune’s Top 150 Workplaces in Minnesota and received the 2018 Minnesota Family Business Award.

Founded in 1932, Rihm Family Companies is a fourth-generation family-owned-and-operated truck dealership. Kari Rihm took over the business in 2010 as President and CEO and has grown the business to 357 employees. Her son serves as Vice President. The recipient of the prestigious Silver Dealer of Excellence award, the company has added four new dealerships in just the past 18 months.

Both women are past recipients of WIT’s Influential Woman in Trucking Award. In addition, their companies were named Top Companies to Work For in Transportation in 2018. It’s not surprising that these two high achievers are actually good friends and even do business together.

The duo are the perfect candidates to share their best practices for running a successful family business.

Lead with values

If you’re starting a business, be sure to do it for the right reason, Brenny advises. “So many people go into business with two goals. They want to work less and make more money. Both are wrong,” she warns. “You have to love what you’re doing and want to serve others.”

Rihm emphasizes the need for a strong commitment to core values. “Our founder John B. Rihm made sure the business was centered on ‘The Golden Rule,’ which is still the bedrock of our core values today,” she says.

Rihm chose not to sell the business when her husband passed away. She explains, “My reason is simple. I know that we support a great industry and supply good jobs for hard-working people and their families. I felt strongly about continuing this legacy because many of our employees had given their entire careers to this company.”

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Focus on employees

It’s easy to see that employees are at the heart of these family-owned businesses and drive the corporate culture. Rihm is very concerned with the welfare of her staff. “Our management team is accessible to employees, and we let employees know we are interested in their ideas, their concerns, their joys and sorrows,” Rihm says. She makes sure employees are treated and compensated fairly and enjoy generous benefits.

In addition, she looks for ways to enhance an employee’s experience and expand his or her skill sets. Brenny also invests in the well-being of her employees. Recently, the company intensified its focus on helping drivers with health and wellness initiatives. Brenny is particularly proud of the recent addition of a full-time Wellness Director. Her daughter, a certified nurse, joined the company a year and a half ago and now works hands on with drivers.

“We wanted to give them more attention. Drivers need cheerleaders – people in their court,” Brenny explains. The attention is already paying off. For example, since Brenny instituted a program to help drivers quit smoking, five have already given up the habit.

Brenny emphasizes that her company is not just family owned; it’s family oriented. The management team strives to make team members feel like family. Her calendar is filled with employees’ personal celebrations. Weddings, graduations, funerals… She attends them all.

It’s no surprise that Brenny Transportation boasts a retention rate of 89 percent. Brenny says she’s shooting for 90. “When you put people first, profits happen. We’ve made money every year,” she points out. In fact, Brenny Transportation achieved 18 percent year-over-year growth in annual sales last year.

Rihm’s employee-driven environment has had similar success with 16 percent year-overyear growth. 

Throw in a little fun

Of course, owning a family business has its challenges. When both partners are involved as top-level leaders, it can be difficult to find balance, Brenny admits. The couple tries to leave work at the office and not let the business consume family gatherings. However, since they’re together so much, the Brennys have found that the best strategy is simply to change their attitude and look for opportunities to have fun on the job – gunny sack races, a dose of humor during daily meetings, team picnics, etc.

Brenny’s annual Dream Goal program is an employee favorite. As a team, the company sets an aspirational goal along with a highly desirable incentive to achieve it. For example, when they accomplished last year’s goal, Brenny took the entire team on a trip to the Bahamas.

“We’re much more productive when we’re having fun,” Brenny says. “People often comment on the positive energy here. You can feel it when you walk in the door. It’s just who we are.”

Involve the next generation

Another challenge for family businesses is figuring out how to navigate the fine line between personal and professional responsibilities. Rihm says she finds herself responding to her children from the perspective of both “mom” and “boss” – sometimes within minutes of each other. She is always mindful of their interactions in the workplace.

“There is the constant reminder that others are watching to see if you treat your children differently than other employees,” she acknowledges. “The next generation is always scrutinized by other employees, so bringing real skills and value to the business and living the family values helps them to be accepted and embraced by their fellow employees.”

To help address this issue, Rihm insists that her children work outside the business to gain work experience before they join the company. Of course, one of the most appealing aspects of a family business is the potential to create a legacy.

“There is family pride and a ‘DNA’ imprint that fuels the desire to preserve and protect the business for the next generation,” Rihm explains. To ensure success, she recommends taking classes in family-owned business and seeking advisors who can assist in making plans for successful transitions to the next generation.

With best practices like these, Brenny Transportation and Rihm Family Companies promise to be doing business for generations to come.

This article was originally featured in Edition 2 of 2019 in our official magazine, Redefining The Road

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Topics:LeadershipOperations

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