Trading Stories: Keeping it in the family is a matter of minding the business

Having put his son, Eamon, in charge of City Life, Mr Dwyer started Ted Dwyer Family Business to help others do the same with their family.
Trading Stories: Keeping it in the family is a matter of minding the business

According to Ted Dwyer parents often divide the family business between too many children and the business fails.

How did you get started?

My family originally had Dwyer and Company, situated opposite the courthouse. That employed about 3,000 people and was one of the biggest employers in the Cork. Lee Footwear and Sunbeam Wolsley were also in the family. 

Dwyer and Company started in 1820 and ran up until the 1980s. They were wholesalers and manufacturers, with everything from suits to tea, supplying Cork, Kerry, and all along the west coast up to Donegal. My grandfather, father, and brother were all involved, but when I was getting to the stage of going to work there in the 1960s, my brother said not to. He said there were too many people involved and no one really ran it and there was no succession plan. He left to set up his own successful business.

According to Ted Dwyer parents often divide the family business between too many children and the business fails.
According to Ted Dwyer parents often divide the family business between too many children and the business fails.

There was no future in that business for me, so I started City Life in 1971. I borrowed a few quid from the AIB, back when the bank manager would give you a bit of money if he knew you. But, back then, Cork was not a great place. Fords and Dunlop were closing, and Cork was very bleak. We did pensions, savings, loans, and insurance. Bit by bit, as things went on, we got more business, but then I got a call from my bank to say my overdraft was too high. So I went in and had to look at what my core business was, and that was helping people to save money for pensions. My son, Eamon, joined 15 years ago, and he's running the business now. I'm taking the backseat a bit, working with some of the clients I've worked with for a long time.

When did you decide to get into succession planning?

I'm 71 now. I'm not dealing with the young clients' pensions anymore. Eamon is taking them on because I'm not going to be around when they retire. I started getting into succession planning from dealing with small, family businesses, and that's what I'm doing now. 

I've worked with a lot of these businesses for years and I know how they work. They have told me about their problems in how to plan ahead and how to please all of their children. 

My advice was always to keep it as simple as you can. If you're lucky enough to have one son or daughter who is interested in taking over the business, then leave it to them. The other family can be looked after in other ways, like the family home or savings. 

I'm not in favour of more than one or two family members getting involved. It's a difficult dilemma. Sometimes it's not obvious who is the best if there is more than one person interested. And just because people are brothers and sisters doesn't mean they will work well together. It's not easy. 

But I've seen too many cases where too many people have shares and the business fails and no one ends up getting anything. If people want to have someone from outside their family to advise them, they can come to me. My job is to help them get that business on to the next generation.

Do you see a lot of problems with people taking over their family's business?

A lot of the time, it happens when someone is sick or someone dies, and there is no plan. We weren't great in the past in Ireland for fathers talking to their sons and daughters about how to take over the business. 

You often see it in the papers with families fighting over these things. I heard of one farmer who had two sons and left them each 50 acres of a 100-acre farm. One of the sons wanted to be a farmer, but 50 acres wasn't enough, so he rented the other 50 from his brother. Now that brother wants to sell, and the farm business is under threat. 

The father should have decided between them and given the farm to one of them, but that would have been very difficult. 

I've seen other situations where people have had a farm in the family for generations and don't want to see it go, but no one in the family wants it. The best thing to do would be to sell it and give away the money, but it's difficult.

In some cases, all people need is someone to talk to. I did a course in family business planning in UCC, and I was one of the older people there. There was a lot of the younger lads who kept coming up to me, because they knew I had a son in the business. They didn't know what was going to happen to their family business and they had no information. Their parents hadn't talked to them. I told them to just ask.

What's in the future for your business?

I love what I do and I don't want to leave. My brother was very different, he ran his business and then passed it on to his sons and retired. Passing it on can be very difficult, but you have to do it.

I learned that from my own family's business. Mine is a second generation business now. Eamon has children too, but I'm not sure if it will get to a third. That's not for me to decide.

Our business is very strong, and we have about 16 people working with us. We opened a franchise office in Galway during the recession, even when things weren't going so well. We might do another one too.

The business will pass on to Eamon when I'm gone. The others will get other bits and pieces to look after him. It will be his business and he can pass it on or sell it or do whatever he wants. It will be his decision.

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