Setting boundaries is key to family business success

“I’ve grown into it,” says Michelle Geber, 33, of becoming the Managing Director of Chateau Tanunda, Australia’s oldest and largest wine chateau, earlier this year. She is the second generation of Geber to run the historic Barossa Valley winery, which was founded in 1890 and is home to some of the oldest vine plantings in the region. “I’ve been working with [my parents] for six years now. When you’re at work, you don’t bring family into it. I don’t call them Mum and Dad at work, I call them by their names. 

"I made a real effort to have a really professional relationship at work, and I present to them with as much professionalism as I would to any boss I’ve ever had to ensure that I’m not taking advantage of the fact I’m a family member," she explains. "It works both ways, you make sure you don’t bring too much work into family life and when you’re at work, you’re acting like a professional management employee would in any high-level company." 

The Gebers illustrate a broader trend among Australian family businesses; daughters taking over from their fathers. The latest 2018 Family Business Survey from KPMG Enterprise and Family Business Australia showed that although today’s family business leaders are overwhelmingly male (78%), when it comes to the next generation of leaders, the ratio is evenly split, 50-50. 

Chateau Tanunda has changed ownership only three times; the Gebers purchased it in 1998 after it had fallen into an abandoned state under wine giant Southcorp. "We think that it’s so important that these iconic, heritage brands of Australia remain in private ownership because this is the perfect example — it was privately run and then sold to a corporation and it wasn’t well managed and protected," says Geber, who began her career in a very different field. 

After studying government and international relations at The University of Sydney, Geber worked as a youth ambassador for Oxfam Australia in Samoa. She had done an internship at Chateau Tanundaand while working in the South Pacific, was asked if she’d like to launch the family brand in the U.S. "It sounded like a great opportunity and I just continued to really enjoy it and that’s what happened," she says. 

Today, 70% of Chateau Tanunda’s business is export, and they send wine to 22 countries globally. The business employs 50 people in Australia, France, the U.S. and in Asia. 

"I think what’s really important in the wine business, what’s really important in family business, is people want to know the family and the people who are passionate behind the company,” she says. “They want to know that there’s somebody who cares, and it’s a really important factor for people working in family businesses." 

Geber believes being a multigenerational family business has helped Chateau Tanunda build international partnerships. "It speaks to that understanding of longevity and belief that if you’re going to form a relationship with a company, their values are going to continue over time. 

"One of the biggest disruptions you can have in a company is when brand new management come in and put in completely different strategies overnight, or there’s a lot of change, it can really pull back on the momentum of the business partners you have around the world.” 

Her father John remains chairman, but is no longer overseeing the day-to-day business, while Geber’s mother is about to retire, and her brother is not involved. Geber says she "loves" working with her family, but firmly believes in rules. “You need to put in some boundaries at times to ensure that you do have separation between family time and business time, business conversations. It’s not very healthy if your business conversations are always flowing over into a family dinner or a birthday breakfast,” she says, adding that it took a little while to establish those boundaries. 

"When you’re in a board meeting or a family council meeting, that’s the space where you have honest and frank conversations about how the business is affecting the family and vice versa," says Geber. "I think those boundaries are really important. In a way you almost over-deliver because you want to have respect amongst your work colleagues as well." 

"You want to make sure that everyone knows that you’re where you are because you should be, not because you share the surname." 

Geber advises other young Australians to consider working elsewhere before joining the family. "It’s imperative that you go and work in other businesses first," she says. "I think you should have at least five years in other people’s businesses. I worked in a quite separate industry before I came into wine but even when I came into wine, I worked internationally as an employee of our importer to build my skills, and then later I came back to work for our own business permanently. I think it’s so important to go and learn in other companies, whether it be in a different industry or the same industry but through another company." 

Her second piece of advice: just try it. "A great way to get an impression of whether you would actually enjoy your family business when you’re young is to give it a go and do an internship and see if you like it. Be honest with yourself and your family in that regard. If you don’t like it, be honest that it’s not for you." 

“I’ve met a lot of people who are quite disappointed that they didn’t get into their family business." 

Geber suggests young people try to work in their family business while in their 20s or 30s. "If you are considering a transition into your family business, you’d want to do it around that time to have the opportunity to grow within your own family business so you’re not coming in at the top later without understanding the more detailed parts that it is necessary to know," she says. "I think people value when you come up through the ranks. That’s my own experience of it." 


This post was written by Carmel Melouney and first published on LinkedIn as part of their series on Australian Family Business.  Carmel is a news and features journalist who is one of LinkedIn’s team of global news editors 

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