All in the Family | Generations in business share their secrets

By Jillian Mitchell (article first published in 2014)

Working with family is a talent all in its own. But when it comes down to it, keeping it professional and planning for the future is what counts—just ask any of the following long-term SICA member firms, who each celebrate multi-generations in business. 

All in a day’s work

The Greenough family of Kelowna’s TomTar Roofing & Sheet Metal Ltd. has been in business for over 70 years, and during that time three separate generations have taken their rightful place at the helm. 

It all started in 1945, when Harold Greenough founded the roofing company as a branch of plumbing/heating/roofing contractor Barr & Anderson. Harold’s son Tom came onboard with the company in the 1970s and proved an integral part of the company’s rebranding in 1980 as TomTar Roofing & Sheet Metal Ltd.

Next up, the company looks forward to a new chapter, as Tom’s son, Robert, will take over ownership. Accordingly, Robert has been diligently preparing for this role, gradually taking on more responsibilities in addition to his current duties as general manager. 

One thing he’s learned thus far: “A 9-to-5 is not going to cut it, to own a business,” says Robert, who started working at the family business at age 10. “Eight hours gets you the meat, 10 hours gets you potatoes, and 12 hours gets you the gravy. We do 12’s here—success is not optional.”

Patience and integrity are among the most important leadership attributes, according to Robert, as is an unyielding respect for the generations that came before him. “The old man’s always right. If he isn’t, you make it his idea,” he adds. “He’s got decades of experience under his belt; sometimes there’s other ways to do it, but the way he’s doing it you know will work.”

It takes two

For the Donald family, it all began on the Canadian Prairies in the 1940s. It was then that Edward Donald founded Donald’s Metal Works, known today as Donald’s Machine Works Ltd., in Winnipeg, MB. It wasn’t until 1981, however, that the company planted roots on Canada’s West Coast. 

Edward’s son Doug officially founded the Vernon chapter 33 years ago. Today, the Canadian Welding Bureau-certified company has grown from a one-person operation to a team of 20 under the direction of Doug’s son, Shawn, the current owner.

Shawn remembers the succession transition like it was yesterday. “I never intended to buy the company,” recalls the current president, who in partnership with long-time friend, Andrew Blake-Knox, took over his father’s business in 2007. “I came to the realization that I was going to have to move away if [Dad] sold it; I didn’t want to leave, so I worked into the position.”

This is the first chapter for Donald’s Machine Works Ltd. that involves dual-ownership. It was a strategy that came about through the insistence of previous owner Doug. “The company was too big for one person by the time my dad had sold it,” adds Shawn. “My dad [had the foresight to not] let me buy it as an individual.”

For Shawn, two pieces of advice can be attributed to his successful transition to business owner—education and knowing your limits. “It’s best to stay on top of legal aspects as much as possible. I recently took a Construction 101 course, not because I was new to construction; contracts change and you try and understand your risks,” he says. “And for us, what we try to do, I don’t take on jobs that don’t suit the shop—too much risk.”

Roll with it
Penticton-based Betts Electric Ltd. has been a staple in the Okanagan since 1933. Behind its longevity is three (soon to be four) generations of owners spanning eight decades—founder Ira (1933); his son David (late-1950s); grandson Gerry (1988); and within the next five-plus years, great-grandson Cameron. 

In recent years, current owner Gerry Betts has limited his work hours, as he hands over responsibility to his son, Cameron, the next owner. “We’re trying to phase from one to the other,” Gerry says. “It’s my goal to help fill in the gaps.”

This approach is much different than what Gerry experienced back in 1988 when he transitioned to ownership. “Back then, there wasn’t really a succession plan,” he says. “My father was around to help and guide, but I was on my own quite a bit of the time.”

What got the company through, says Gerry, was its reputation. “It does make life easier when you have a good reputation to build on and move forward,” Gerry says. “But you have to keep up with the reputation.”

Son Cameron is learning valuable life lessons from his father about entrepreneurship, among them is the importance of a work-life balance. “You try to keep it professional in the office—work is work,” says Cameron, who started working alongside his father as a young child. “That’s something my dad has taught me: when you’re done at the end of the day and you go home, we don’t need to be talking about work.”

For the ISO 9001-certified electrical contracting company, diversification has been an integral factor in their success, as has their ability to roll with the changing times. “Our business has gone from handshakes to CCDC contracts. It’s been a big shift for us,” says Cameron. “My father’s been very good with technology; he’s embraced it quite well and I think that’s been a big benefit for us.” 

Gerry adds, “I like to think that we were a little ahead of the curve [with technology]. “When I started estimating, it was pen, paper and a calculator; now it’s a computerized system with a database. We were probably one of the first to do computerized estimating.”

This article first appeared in the 2014-2015 issue of SICA's Construction Review Magazine. To read the entire magazine click here.

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