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Case Study: Family Dynamics

February 18th, 2016

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Alastair Soper

Alastair Soper

Interview by the Academy for Chief Executives

What’s the background of your business?

Hallis Hudson is a family-run national wholesaler and distributor of soft furnishing fabrics, blinds, tracks and curtain poles that was founded by my grandfather. In 2014 (after 14 years in the business) I was appointed Managing Director, and my father became Chairman.

Are there any other family members in the business?

Yes, my brother Russell is a Director of the business and is involved in new product development and marketing.

How was it decided that you would take the MD role rather than your brother?

We both have quite different skill sets and it was simply that I’m more suited to the MD role. Our actual job titles are almost irrelevant in a way. We have different skills that complement each other, and we play off each other’s strengths.

How does the dynamic work between you, Russell and your father?

There is certain creative tension between the three of us. It’s also fair to say that I have a closer working relationship with my dad. I see my role as custodian of the business to ensure that it is passed on for future generations. As such, I tend to take a more measured and evolutionary approach, incremental rather than sudden change. Russell’s role is more creative, so his outlook is more likely to be influenced by external factors. I’m less risk-averse than either Russell or my father. This can result in a certain level of conflict at times.   

What role do you play within this dynamic?

Part of my role is to help manage the balance between the three of us. Whilst on the one hand it’s important to make sure that the business doesn’t expand too quickly, we have to ensure that we adapt to changing market conditions and remain competitive. It’s all about ensuring that each side understands the pros and cons of what is being brought to the table.

That said, my dad has always been dynamic and stood firm in the belief that if you don’t change the business, it will eventually die, so it’s more a question of balancing the pace of change.

We also work closely with an external financial consultant, who acts as an extension of the family in some ways. He knows and understands us very well and can offer an objective sounding Board, and challenge us as necessary. He can also help us to navigate potential areas of conflict or disagreement.

How does the Academy help you with the typical challenges of managing a family business?

I was a member of the Directors’ Forum 13 for five years, before joining Peter Hills’ group, ACE 18 in Manchester, in January 2014. Both groups have helped me change and navigate my way through a variety of issues, particularly since becoming Managing Director. There are a couple of other family businesses in my Group and this is very helpful. As much as anything it’s nice to know that others deal with the same issues that we face.

The Academy has also really helped my understanding of the dynamics of effective communication, in particular the importance of understanding the position of others before you try to resolve an issue or make a final decision.

How’s it going with the transition of your father to his new role as Chairman?

As it progresses, the transition gets better every day. This journey will take as long as it takes – it’s not like flicking a light switch. Again, it’s a question of getting the balance right. It’s important that I own the position of MD, but at the same time I’m conscious of the fact that my father is hugely experienced and that there are still things that I can learn from him.

We did try to create a job description for him but that didn’t really work! So it’s more of an informal evolution, with my focus on the day-to-day running of the business and my father’s focus on strategic direction and making sure the business delivers a return.

What has been one of the most challenging issues of being in a family business?

In any family business the blurring of boundaries can become an issue; for example, there was a period of time where I continued with my previous job of Operations Director whilst also taking on the MD role. In essence, I was doing two jobs over this period which wasn’t always effective and also put me under a certain amount of personal pressure.   We have now asked the senior management team to all step up to each fulfil a little part of my old role.

Email glenn.watkins@chiefexecutive.com to find out more about Academy membership.

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