Working with family can seem a nightmare for some.
But for Ira Schwartz, CEO and founder of Free Country, an active outdoor apparel and products company, family is at the core of his business. Schwartz received his introduction to business from his father who owned Fur Vault Inc., a fur coat distributor.
Schwartz’s first job out of college was on the sales floor at one of Fur Vault’s stores. He later moved into the fashion side of the business. After six years of working alongside his father and uncle–who was the company’s executive vice president–Schwartz struck out on his own and started Free Country in 1990.
The lessons he learned from working with his father have informed many of the decisions he’s made as owner and CEO of his own company.
Schwartz’s father and uncle had very different responsibilities in their company. While his uncle, Fred Schwartz, ran the sales department and became “Fred the Furrier,” a well-known television personality appearing in advertisements and TV commercials, Schwartz’s father took the lead on the production and supply side of the business. “When people have different competencies you can do more things well,” says Schwartz.
Since starting Free Country, Schwartz has worked alongside his wife, Jodi, who runs the women’s division, while he focuses on the men’s and children’s line. “Having different areas of focus creates the most amount of productivity and results,” Schwartz says.
Schwartz recalls his dad taking him to work on Saturdays and school holidays. Although he spent a lot of time at the office, his dad didn’t discuss much about the day-to-day operations of the business at home. That’s something Schwartz has sought to change with his kids. At ages 8, 14, and 16, they’re still too young to work for the business. During dinner at the Schwartz home, the conversation often turns to business; with the kids regularly taking part in focus groups.
“We talk to them all the time about our work,” says Schwartz. “We constantly ask our kids what they think about our advertising, what they think about our brand, what they think about merchandise that we’re planning for the next season,” Although he wouldn’t force them into working for the business, Schwartz says he hopes they will eventually want to become part of Free Country. He says he believes that his kids being kept up-to-date on the company’s operations will make their transition a little more seamless.
Early in Schwartz’s career at his father’s company, The Fur Vault, he was told by a manager: “Everyone’s replaceable; even you’re replaceable.” This was a shocking statement to Schwartz at the time.
“I thought I wasn’t replaceable since my dad owned the company,” he says. While hiring family members has many merits, nothing can create more drama in a company and distract from the goals of the business than a family member who isn’t performing. The idea that even family can be replaced in a family business has stuck with Schwartz through his career, and is a statement that he now stands by.
“I would dread the day that I had to terminate a family member, but I would do it if they weren’t living up to the challenge of what they were asked to do,” says Schwartz.
Perhaps the greatest lesson Schwartz has taken away from working alongside his father and later venturing out on his own is that family offers the greatest support.
“I think that without my family, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. “My family gave me the footing and the financial backing to start a business and they also gave me the entrepreneurial support that you need when you’re in that jump-off period of taking a leap of faith to go into business, not being sure if you’re going to make it.”
Schwartz’s father, now 88 years old, still keeps an office in the building. Although he’s not involved in the day-to-day operations of the business, his presence provides a great deal of support for Schwartz as a source of advice and a sounding board for ideas.
“I love having my dad in the office every day,” Schwartz says. “It’s rewarding for him and for me to have him see our successes. Working alongside family can not only cement a stronger bond between members, but makes the successes much more satisfying.”