by Kathy Decker
In an industry that’s just over 55 years old in Kansas, family dynasties are as rare as hen’s teeth. But the John Davis family of Wichita comes pretty close. He’s owned Davis Liquor on 13th Street for over 30 years. His son Brian has owned a store in southeast Wichita for over 15 years. His daughter Kim has owned her store in southwest Wichita for over 10 years. His wife Jean has owned her store in north Wichita for over 3 years. And all are learning the fine art of getting along in a family business.
“The unique thing with us is that we’re all independent operators,” said Davis. “We can keep our distance, yet we can compare notes and get advice.”
Statistics show that 90 percent of all business enterprises in North America are family owned. More than 30 percent of those businesses survive into the second generation and 12 percent make it to the third generation. Only 3 percent survive into the fourth generation and beyond. Of those that don’t make it, the problems tend to be family rather than business.
In a recent article in Entrepreneur Magazine, Quentin J. Fleming, author of Keep the Family Baggage Out Of The Family Business said all the stuff that happens in any normal family comes into the family business but masquerades as a business situation and it’s killing family businesses.
The legal constraints in the liquor industry at the retail level keep family members relatively independent — each owning their own store. Still many of the challenges and joys of being in the same business with your family are still present.
The history of the Davis family and the retail liquor industry really goes back one more generation — to retailer, Jack McCaslin, John’s uncle.
“I basically learned the business from “Uncle Jack,” said John.
“These are the next generation of liquor store owners,” he said gesturing toward Brian and Kim. “And Brian’s son might be the next.”
When Brian turned 21, Uncle Jack was ready to retire. Brian bought the store, and John helped him get things going.
“At my store, Dad worked side by side with me for a year. He’d let me get out so far then he’d kind of pull my choke chain in.”
In retrospect, John thinks he may have overdone the parental supervision.
“I was looking over his shoulder a lot,” said John. “With Brian I learned what supervisory skills” I needed to throw out.”
According to Mary Dana Korman, a family business consultant with McGladrey & Pullen L.L.P. in Minneapolis quoted in Entrepreneur Magazine, over supervision is a common problem for parents whose children come into the business. Young adults need an opportunity to test their abilities. You have to allow for some failure, said Estess.
Tough as the first year was for the Davis’s, it didn’t hold a candle to year two. Brian’s store burned to the ground. And 12 days later, John suffered a massive heart attack followed by triple bypass surgery. And the whole family — including those not involved in the business — saw what the relationships were really made of.
“It was a tough time,” admits John. “He had all these loans, no income and no store.”
John’s illness took him out of commission for the first two months — which forced Brian to figure things out for himself.
“I was just learning,” said Brian. “I thought I had graduated. Then I went right back to being a student.” That’s where John’s long-term business relationships really came into play for Brian. Retailers helped him clean up the mess and figure out what to do next. He figures he got through it with a combination of a good banker, good moral support, and an uncle willing to let a few things slide.
“I really got to know my Uncle Jack,” admitted Brian.
Tough as the experience was, going through it with family made it easier according to Davis. And that’s one of the advantages of being in business with the family.
“As stressful as it was we knew we were all going through it together,” said Brian.
Those business contacts that helped Brian through the aftermath of the fire have come in handy for both Brian and Kim more than once since. Both “grew up” in the liquor industry, attending events with their dad. Suppliers, wholesalers and other retailers have known them since they were children — and that opens doors.
“It gives us a little bit of an in,” said Brian. “When we call somebody at one of the wholesalers and say “this is Brian Davis, John Davis’ son” they know who I am. What he (John) had to go through to get that established, we’ve gotten handed to us very easily.”
When Kim bought her store , she had the extra challenges of being both young and female.
“A lot of salesmen aren’t used to dealing with women, especially young women,” said Brian.
“I kind of had the path paved for me because people knew if they messed with me they’d have to answer to these two,” said Kim.
When Kim came into the business she had two mentors — both Dad and brother. But this time around, conflict between Dad and daughter was greatly reduced.
“In our business relationships we’ve never really gone head to head,” said John. “I’ve learned when to step back and keep my mouth shut.”
“He (Dad) always gives us one chance,” said Kim. “If we screw up, he’ll throw in his two cents.”
Though the four Davis stores are independent, the Davis’ coordinate their activities so they can share resources like employees — and each other.
“Before Kim and I came into the business he (John) and Mom never took vacations,” said Brian. “Now he can leave and know somebody’s going to watch out for it.”
The four stores share the same store layouts. They have the same computer systems, the same procedure for bank deposits.
“Basically the four stores are rubber stamps of each other, modeled after my store,” said John.
“We’re all employees of each others stores,” said Kim. Keeping the stores similar makes it easy to cover for each other.
Looking back, the Davis’s wouldn’t trade their family-business relationship for separate careers.
“I wouldn’t do anything different,” said Brian. “It was a bonding experience for me and my dad getting to work together. I’d do anything to make my son close to me like that.”
For anybody considering a business relationship with their children, John offers this advice.
“You have to be patient,” said John. “You have to step back and let the kid run the operation. What it all boils down to is it’s theirs.”