Kids In The Business

Originally printed in the October 2018 issue of Produce Business.

The children of terminal market wholesalers often follow their parents into the family business. And it is no longer just the sons. As more opportunities for young women open up, the daughters are joining in greater numbers. Entering the business typically starts with helping out over the odd weekend or school holiday. As the kids get older, a “well-paid” summer job follows. Depending on the individual’s circumstances or the business’s resources, these kids find a permanent place in the company after high school or college.

My own path into the family business was neither direct nor unbroken. Of course, I have plenty of stories about my brother and me going to work at the Market with our father, and sometimes we actually worked. We often went with him on the weekends during the holidays. He sold holiday flowers, and we helped the customers load their trucks. My brother and I were really only there for the food and the tips. In typical family business style, we weren’t on the payroll, and a good roast pork sandwich with broccoli rabe was our usual wage. My father worked long and difficult hours. It was a small company, and although my brother and I were comfortable working on the Market, we both chose other careers. Michael became an engineer, eventually running his own company. I had a pretty good job in marketing, but when my father called and started his pitch, I listened. A few months later, my young wife and I were starting a new life.

Luring Them In

Most successful business owners look forward to their children joining them. It seems a natural step, especially if the child has been working for them part-time or in the summer. However, no matter how much you would like to have your son or daughter in the business, it needs to be his or her choice. Our industry often operates on quirky schedules and can make unreasonable demands on personal time after hours or around the holidays. The policy I adopted for my own children was clear: no draftees, only volunteers. Talk to your family members about the realities of the hours required, and be honest about your expectations and the needs of the business. My son, Daniel, always showed an affinity for the business. During his last year of college, we talked a lot about the kinds of jobs available for a guy with his qualifications. I felt strongly about his ability to buy and sell produce, but did not press it. Just before graduation, he told me he had interviewed for and accepted a job in Richmond, VA. He said he was still thinking about my offer but needed more time. One year later, he was ready to come on board. Patience paid off.

When a business owner’s children become employees of the family business, they should be treated like employees. Not worse, and not better. They deserve the same respect, growth opportunities, training, fair compensation and advancement as every other team member.

Set Them Up For Success

When a business owner’s children become employees of the family business, they should be treated like employees. Not worse, and not better. They deserve the same respect, growth opportunities, training, fair compensation and advancement as every other team member. When Daniel joined the company, my former partner Charlie Pigliacelli took over his training. Dan still quotes his mentor today. When family members join the company, let them choose something of their own to grow — new product lines, IT enhancements, a new website or social media development. Coach them, but don’t hover. Allow them small failures (no failing, no learning). Always have their backs, and most importantly, listen to them — no really — listen to them.

Continue Their Development

Owner’s kids often get the “basic training” of our industry. Trade shows, technical training, management or HR seminars and farm visits form the typical curriculum. Next-level ideas for their development might be job rotation within the company, travel to other terminal markets or membership in a peer group. In some firms, aspiring family members are encouraged to work in related fields before they are considered for placement in the family business. Ask your key growers to take them in as “interns,” or create an exchange program with someone from the grower’s staff. Some years ago, my friend and supplier in Holland, Jerry Bergwerff, asked about opportunities for his son to work in the USA for a few months. Jerry’s older son had already done a program like that. The young man did find a place with an American company, learning about the industry and honing his English language skills. Years later, those experiences helped Jerry and his sons build a thriving produce trading company in Holland with customers all over the world.

Plan Their Future Role

In many family companies, succession planning is left to chance because family dynamics can make these kinds of conversations difficult. Succession planning is never out of place. Don’t gamble with your firm’s future.


John Vena is the owner of John Vena Inc., a family owned and operated produce business located a the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. Founded in 1919, the company is a fourth generation family business bearing the name of John Vena’s grandfather.

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