An interview with family business HR guru Tim Pointer

Tim Pointer: "At family businesses there is a deep sense of pride". 

Tim Pointer: "At family businesses there is a deep sense of pride". 

Tim Pointer began his career in HR at Marks & Spencer in 1994, and has gone on to be HR director of some large family businesses: book chain Waterstones, Italian fashion brand Diesel, and Pentland Brands, the firm that owns brands such as Berghaus and Speedo. Two years ago he began his own HR consultancy, Starboard Thinking, and counts numerous family businesses among his clients.

We caught up with him, ahead of an appearance at our People Management in Family Businesses conference on June 6. (Click here to register.)

BF: In your experience how much influence do, or should, family members who are working in the business have? For instance, is it okay for them to be involved in recruitment?

TP: The whole point of bringing in people from outside the family as business leaders is to get their perspective and bring their experience, so over-ruling them is counterproductive. You have to decide what is your one-way of working - which stands for everyone - and stick to it. You have to say, this is the approach, rather than falling into the trap of ‘one rule for you, one for you’.

What that approach is, is always bespoke to the business. I have always found the concept of ‘best practice’ completely naff, because obviously it is about the most appropriate practice. There is more than one way you can do anything, and you have to decide together – as business leaders, including family members - which is the right fit.

BF: One of the functions of HR is to instil a certain culture in the business. People always say that family businesses have strong values. So how do you understand those values, and how do you go about injecting them into the business?

TP: When this gets interesting is when you have people making public statements. Renzo Rosso [the founder of Diesel] chooses to have a very public persona - he does things like giving the Dalai Lama a lift in his private jet. And when he says things, you have to work out what they mean internally.

For instance, if he talks about the importance of youth in the business, what does that mean in an everyday, diverse, inclusive, regulatory, procedural, and ethical framework? HR has to think, how do we articulate that? Is it about age, or sensibility, or mindset? We have to find a way to express that.

Where the family isn’t so public, it requires more internal conversations on what culture will enable the future ambition of the business. How this should be pitched for current employees - and those yet to be hired. Reputation is so important, that we want to create the right buzz; have the right stories told. For instance: What are the stories we want people who don’t get a job with us to tell about their experience?

Because it is not just about a company, it is a family owned-business and so everything will be referred back to “this what the family accept in their business.” In my first role, at M&S, we  

were told when making a difficult decision to think: “what would Michael Marks have done?” That was formative for me. In all the businesses where I have met with family members there is a sense of accountability to the generations before, and to the ones to come. The family members do not wear that lightly, and you should respect that.

BF: Does the fact that their actions reflect on their family name make family businesses risk-averse?

TP: I would ask a slightly different question, which is: what is the appropriate standard for any particular project? Because of that deep sense of accountability and pride in the business, you may feel yourself always steering towards a top quality approach, which can slow you down and/or reduce your agility. Do we always need platinum? Could we choose silver? Adhering to the highest quality of approach may appear to be risk-averse, but may indicate different concerns completely. Again, that is not wrong in itself, it just has consequences and it is your job is to point that out.

BF: Family businesses are renowned for employing young family members in top jobs, and many people think that is a mistake because they are inexperienced. Is that a problem?

TP: Looking at age is the wrong way to see it. If you look at a 24-year-old, they have - what? One or two years’ experience? Wrong. If they are a family member they have 20 years’ experience. She or he has been part of this decision-making all their lives, they are absolutely steeped in the company’s values and the principles; and the absolute accountability that comes with it.

They have that feeling that “the people who preceded me made this, my job is to make sure I am as proud to pass on this business as I am to receive it. It is not about the age in years, it is about experience.

BF: Family-owned businesses often pride themselves on being values-driven. How does HR play a role in that?

TP: This is a huge issue. You need to have a lot of conversations about culture. Where there are written values, what do they mean? You are starting with a word, sometimes you have a definition, sometimes you haven’t. You have to play through scenarios and work out how you would behave in each of those.

Obviously that happens in lots of businesses, but the difference with a family-owned one is the time frame. In other companies you are aware of the CEO cycle and that they will move on and things will change. But the family is there for good, and that adds a different tenor to those conversations.

Most CEOs have a sales or finance background, but when you talk to family owners it is as if they have an HR background because the conversation starts with organisational culture, with expression of values: ‘We do this, we don’t do that’. From my experience you have many more conversations about the business’s DNA - it’s about what this business is all about, who succeeds here and why, and who gets it and who doesn’t.

Someone doesn’t just have commercial targets, they also get told, ‘We don’t do this and this’, which adds a constraint. As an employee, you have to be able to accept that - and therefore, it’s not for everyone.

BF: Families also have a story, or a myth - but do employees understand it?

TP: Telling the story all starts with culture and values and the responsibility to the generations who have gone before and are to come. But how do you articulate that? Families can have a very, very deep understanding of the culture they expect in the business, but they may not be that great at embedding it. That’s where I have done a lot of work. Once you have done that, you can be confident that X person speaking Y language in Z country is acting within the right framework.

You have to ask: What is the purpose of our organisation? How do you lay that down in a strategic framework? How do we know that we are being successful? What are the strategies that are going to get us there? What are the measures of success? How are we going to achieve them?

This has to be done in a way that can be easily and quickly grasped, and can shape each individual’s decision-making.

It can be interesting to see in action. Renzo Rosso has a thing about the number 55 - you can see it throughout the businesses. Diesel’s streetwear brand is called 55DSL. It is fascinating to see how far that thread goes, and how it affects decision-making. For example, Diesel’s London office is at 55 Argyle Street, in King’s Cross. That used to be a grotty part of town, and we had people coming in for interviews who would turn back before interview! But these days that is a really desirable area, and it has really proved to be an amazing investment.

BF: Do family businesses have more interpersonal issues than others?

TP: To be honest, not in my experience. In non-family businesses you have situations where the sales director and the marketing director don’t get on and you have to work on that. I don’t see it as being that different, fundamentally. 

Some tasks you get given in a family business are personal, because in a family business the lines between personal and professional are blurred. But I have done that in non-family businesses as well. Being in HR is like being a doctor at a party. At some point someone’s going to say: “would you mind having a look at this”. 

And of course, you do.

Tim will be appearing at Business Family's People Management in Family Businesses conference on June 6. Click here to register.