What it Means to be a Family Business

Bob Fitzsimmons was born into his business. As a second generation CEO of Food Authority, a family owned food distributor based on Long Island, NY, he has had to evolve the business while maintaining the company’s 35 year record of year-over-year growth. Under his leadership, the company has created a niche by providing sustainable products and locally sourced fruits and vegetables. Here, Fitzsimmons discusses the how he effectively made changes and got employee buy-in when taking over, and growing the family business.

Who founded the company?

Bob Fitzsimmons: Food Authority began with humble roots—my father, Thomas Fitzsimmons, started the company out of the back of his car in 1977.

What are the pros and cons of owning a family business?

BF: There are many more pros than cons. Without a doubt, the greatest benefit is the culture that we have been able to instill in all of our team members. They are part of our family, whether or not they share our last name. We operate as one big family, and I believe that everyone here feels the same way. Regarding cons, involving family in business can occasionally create a more emotional atmosphere, as opposed to a situation that’s strictly business.

Did you ever consider not working in your family business?

BF: I can quite honestly say no. I was, as so many “next gens” are, born into the business.  From the age of 10, I started helping out on the weekends and during my summer breaks. Each year, I became more ingrained in the fabric of the company and there came a point when I saw the road map for my career being laid. I’d say this has been the most definitive part of my life. I knew how to set my sights, and where I would be when I finished school. I wish there were more things in life that could be so clearly marked out for us. I wish there were more situations that provide us an answer, before we even know what the question is.

You are the second generation running your family business. Did you make any significant changes after taking on the role?

BF: I was very fortunate to have a father who encouraged my growth and allowed me free reign to succeed and fail on my own accord. My dad comes from the airline catering world. He started his company, Air Stream Foods, in the late 1970’s and ran it successfully until I came on full time in 1986. For the next six years, I continued to work in various departments of the business. In 1992, I purchased a small grocery distributor (through a loan my dad had provided), called Herbert Charles in Queens, New York, which I later renamed Food Authority. It was at this point that I began to diversify our family business and began selling to the New York restaurant trade. This has now become a very large part of who we are—we have more than 100 trucks on the road and five distribution facilities to serve customers from Boston to Virginia. While my dad was always close by to lend advice, he never suffocated me with his presence. To me, this is the single greatest reason for our success as partners over the past 25-plus years. My father is the savviest businessman I have ever met and he never forced his opinions on me or stifled my ambition, which I see all too often in family businesses. Sometimes that can lead to breaking up the business … or even worse consequences for the family as a whole.

How did you prepare employees for the change of leadership?

BF: I never had to work at preparing anyone for my role here. I worked side-by-side with them over the years, and because of that, had that certain credibility that comes with “being one of them.” They know that I would never ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself – and that sends an important message. The fact is, my father and I have been lucky enough to work with our employees, rather than have a team that works for us.

Have you had any friction from partners, family members or vendors during the transition? If so, how did you handle that?

BF: It’s a simple fact of life that people do not like change – so, you can always count on some people to not fully embrace it out of the gate. But as time passes, people get a sense of who you are – once they see that you are another hardworking human being who gets up early with them every morning, and goes home late at night, that resistance quickly passes. I strongly believe that humility and empathy are critical components in running a great business and it goes a long way when others know that you come in each day prepared to work just as hard as they do.

Do you currently have a succession plan in place? If so, what has been your process in making that decision and how will you go about executing it?

BF: I am 47 years old and at this time, I have no serious succession plan in place. My oldest son Matthew will be 18 soon, and I have three younger children that might decide to come into the family business. That said, I encourage them to go out and explore life a bit more than I did – to really try their best to find their passion, and then to pursue it with gusto.

Although I love what I do for a living, I must admit that there was never a timein my childhood when I said: “I want to be a foodservice distributor when I grow up.” Rather I said: “I want to be just like my dad.” So, where the road leads at this stage is not totally clear, except for the fact that I can still probably count on getting up early and going to bed late for a while.

What are the most significant lessons learned about growing a family business?

BF: There are only so many “family members” that you can bring into the business who could truly become a part of your success plan, rather than them becoming a possible undertow to that plan. The fact is, unless you find a great team to surround yourself with – and truly treat them as though they too are part of the family – then you better have a lot great hardworking relatives standing by!