Family business owners say relationships, openness keys to success


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

When city native Carina Wohl graduated from Northampton High School and headed off to college in the late 1990s, she never thought she’d end up with a career in the family business.

“That was not the plan,” said Wohl, who is a partner in Wohl Family Dentistry, a solo practice founded by her father, Martin Wohl, in 1982, and renamed once she joined the operation.

Now 33, she and her two siblings grew up spending time in their dad’s dental office and even doing odd jobs there — including performing magic shows in the waiting room. Still, dentistry wasn’t on her radar as a choice of profession.

At Boston College, Carina Wohl majored in Spanish and fine arts. Then, at home on a break one semester, she had a revelation: “I was hit with the thought of, what are you going to do for the world?” she said. “I realized I could help people through dentistry.”

After earning a doctor of dental medicine degree at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, she worked as a dentist for two years in that city before returning to her hometown to join her father’s practice. Carina Wohl came on as an associate in 2009 and, two years later, became a full partner.

She and her father now share in all aspects of the business, from seeing patients to overseeing office renovations.

“It’s 50-50,” said her dad, with a smile, during an interview earlier this month in their shared work space in the Silk Mill Professional Building in Florence.

The arrangement has been rewarding — and not just professionally, the Wohls say. Working together has also strengthened their personal relationship.

“People have asked us for years, ‘How do you guys do it? There could be baggage,’ ” said Martin Wohl, 64. “But we both get benefits out of this.”

“The best part is getting to be together so much,” his daughter said. “I love saying, ‘OK. See you tomorrow,’ at the end of a work day.”

Wohl Family Dentistry is one of a number of area businesses where generations of families work together. Some others are Florence Hardware, Canal Bowling in Southampton and Ted’s Boot Shop in Northampton.

Experts say managing relationships is key to the success of family businesses, which make up between 80 percent and 90 percent of all U.S. business enterprises, according to the U.S. Census.

Ira Bryck, director of the Family Business Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said he advises people who may be thinking of going into business with their parents, “Remember what it was like to learn to drive a car with them.”

If the experience was easy, then the working relationship will likely be the same, he said. If not, then running a business together might not be such a good idea.

Bryck, who does consulting and training for family businesses in the region and hosts a show on WHMP Radio called “Taking Care of Business,” says “shared belief systems” and management styles are also important to a successful family enterprise.

If those issues aren’t taken into account at the start, they can cause trouble, he said, adding that “business partnerships break up more often than marriages.” (Bryck estimates that family businesess make up closer to 39 percent of all U.S. firms because he uses a stricter definition of what constitutes a family-run operation.)

It’s not just relationships between family members that need to be considered, but also relationships with nonfamily employees, said Bryck, who worked for years alongside his father in the family’s retail clothing store in Long Island.

“You need to grow up with a work ethic that says, just because you are the owner doesn’t put you on a different level,” Bryck said. “I’m impressed with owners who know their workers and have an open relationship with them instead of just being those guys upstairs.”

Laxman Parmar of Hadley and his sons, Shardool and Kishore Parmar, have managed a hotel and real estate business together for nearly a decade despite what they describe as similar personality traits.

The three serve as chief operating officer, president and vice-president, respectively, of Pioneer Valley Hotel Group, which owns four hotels in the region, including the Comfort Inn in Hadley and the Hampton Inn Hadley/Amherst.

Laxman Parmar, 65, worked as an engineer in his native India and his sons also earned engineering degrees in college after graduating from Hopkins Academy in Hadley, where they grew up.

“The hardest part for all of us is we’re Type A personalities with strong opinions,” said Shardool Parmar, 36. “We’re also all engineers, so we all have that level of arrogance. Putting that aside and just listening — we struggled with that at first.”

He joined the family hotel business in 2005 after his father suffered a stroke. But he said he would likely have done so eventually even if his father hadn’t needed temporary help.

“As much as this is a business, at the end of the day, this is my father and my brother,” Shardool Parmar said. “We all respect and appreciate that dynamic. You can’t get that anywhere else.”

His brother Kishore, 32, who came on board in 2010, agrees.

“We both worked for other companies after college and we’ve seen how this is better,” he said. “It’s our own business. It’s something my father started and grew.”

So, how do they manage disagreements? Does one of them have final say?

“No,” said the elder Parmar. “It’s always combined.”

“It depends on the level of decision,” Shardool Parmar said. “We all brainstorm about what we want to do next. We’d feel bad if all three of us were not committed to something. If there are doubts, we probably won’t do it.”

They are proud of having many employees who have been with the hotel group for more than a decade and of weathering the economic downturn of the past several years. The Parmars’ newest venture, a banquet and meeting facility called Hadley Farms Meeting House, opened six months ago in the Village Barn Shops off Route 9 and is steadily attracting weddings and other events, they say.

What advice would they give to other family business owners? Shardool Parmar said, “Managing expectations and being open-minded. We have a family business that emphasizes family, not just how much money is in the bank account.”

Nate Sustick, general manager of Paul and Elizabeth’s restaurant in Northampton, said he is grateful for the open-mindedness his parents showed when he joined the business that bears their names.

Traditions, new directions

After graduating with a business degree from UMass in 2001, Sustick began working full time at the restaurant his parents opened in 1978 in Thorne’s Marketplace in downtown Northampton.

As head chef, he was eager to update the restaurant’s vegetarian menu to include more complex dishes using local ingredients. “I saw there was an opportunity to take advantage of everything the Valley has to offer,” said Sustick, 35, who lives in Florence with his wife and three children, ages 6, 3, and 10 months.

In recent years, the restaurant has cultivated more relationships with area farms and added seafood dishes to the menu. Rather than resisting, he says his parents have been supportive of his suggestions for change. “That made all the difference,” he said.

Paul Sustick said it helped that his son respected the restaurant’s traditions. He noted that his son studied with master chef Hiroshi Hayashi, who worked at the Seventh Inn Restaurant in Boston where Paul and Elizabeth Sustick were apprentices. Hayashi died in 2012.

“Nate really accepted and acknowledged the philosophy of the way we cook,” said Paul Sustick, 65. “His tweaking a dish just felt like finishing a work of art.”

It also helped that Nate Sustick and his two siblings spent so much time in the restaurant when they were children, his dad said. “He basically grew up there,” Paul Sustick said. “Starting in the back in a playpen and then graduating to a high chair and booster seat.”

Before their son joined the business, his parents said they were wondering how long they could keep the restaurant going. Now, they are feeling more confident.

“It’s kept developing and now he’s taking over,” Paul Sustick said. “It’s been fun watching that energy.”

Martin Wohl feels similarly about his daughter’s involvement in their dental practice, which has expanded from an initial staff of three to 14. A third dentist, Christopher Steed, joined Wohl Family Dentistry in 2012.

“It makes the operation better to have more people involved,” said Martin Wohl, who began his career as a dentist in the National Health Corps after earning a doctor of dental surgery degree from Georgetown University.

“I see the future of dentistry as bright and I’m glad Carina’s in it,” he added.

About the only thing they’ve disagreed about since they began working together was the length of Carina Wohl’s second maternity leave. Her first child, Ethan Arsenault, arrived in 2010 and another son, Luke, in 2012.

After Luke was born, “She argued for a shorter leave and I argued for a longer one,” said Martin Wohl. In the end, they compromised on an four-month leave.

Staff members say the father/daughter partnership has given patients a sense of security and continuity.

The Wohls “are on the same page as far as their business ethics and they communicate quite well together,” said Nancy Neuhauser, a 14-year veteran of the dental office staff. “It gives patients that whole family feeling.”

While having his daughter join the practice was never a conscious goal, Wohl said connecting work and family was a big part of his own upbringing.

“My father was an optometrist and he made a point that I work in his office,” he said. “The important thing was the comfort level.”

Carina Wohl said her children are already learning their way around the family dental practice.

“I like that my kids know where we work and they like coming here,” she said. “The smell of a dentist’s office is distinct and comforting. It’s how my dad smelled. When my oldest son said to me the other day, ‘You smell like work!’ I had to smile.”