Lynella Henke’s three daughters, Janessa, 12, Lynza, 9 and Myrissa, 3, each made their first appearance at their Vernon, B.C.-based family business at about the age of one week. “There is no maternity leave when you own the business,” says Henke, who founded Vernon Teach and Learn with her mother, Mavis Jackson, in 1990 in their basement, when Henke was still in high school.
Henke and her husband, Trevor, purchased the teacher supply business in 2003, just months into their married life. “We joked that we would never work in the same place together for the sake of our marriage,” said Henke. That changed four years later when Trevor, an engineer, decided to dedicate his energy to the business full time. “He saw the extra hours I was putting into sales for us and thought ‘Why am I not putting my energy into my own business so we can build it together?’ That’s what’s happened and it’s been great.”
Vernon Teach and Learn has since expanded into a 10,000-sq.-ft. location, grown to 13 employees, and has diversified beyond teacher supplies into children’s education toys, an ice cream/candy shop and a Lego-themed birthday party room. In 2017, it was ranked among the top five small businesses in B.C. Two years ago, it began to sell through Amazon and today online sales account for 25 per cent of total revenue.
Integrating work into their personal lives has been key to striking a balance that works for the Henkes. The store features a dedicated play space for their girls, who are also all working in the retail space in age-appropriate roles. Three-year-old Myrissa labels shipping envelopes while the two older girls do everything from working the till to serving ice cream to answering the phones. The girls were consulted when Lynella and Trevor decided to add the ice cream and candy shop and they review toy catalogues to share their opinions on what kids will like. All three have time cards and Janessa and Lynza are on the payroll.
“There are things they can all do to help no matter what age they are,” said Henke. “And they are learning an important lesson: you have to work for what you want.” They are also learning to be entrepreneurs. In addition to working at the store, they have their own slushy/lemonade cart they run while their parents cater ice cream at local events. “It’s work, but it’s also fun. That’s important,” said Henke. “If we weren’t all enjoying it, we’d have to make changes.”
The Henkes have managed to blend family and work successfully. This at a time when new research from U.S.-based technology company NodeSource shows that the greatest ongoing challenge for the majority of entrepreneurs is finding work-life balance. The family has adopted the motto: “We run the business. It doesn’t run us.”
Henke admits that her lessons at arriving at a work-life balance that succeeds for her young family have been organic, learned over time — and absolutely necessary.
This past year for the Henkes has proven that point. Their nine-year-old daughter, Lynza, became ill last October and spent seven months in hospital. She is home now but life has changed considerably as she can no longer walk and uses a wheelchair.
“This has been the biggest test of work-life balance,” said Henke. “I’ve learned how important it is to delegate. I’m a bit of a control freak but I had to disappear from the business and be by my daughter’s side. My amazing staff stepped in and did totally fine. It was a great eye-opener. I realized here I was all these years, thinking I had to have my finger on everything, but when I had to leave very suddenly they carried on. As an owner, it’s a good thing to watch everything but also good to hand over responsibility. I’ve seen my staff blossom and flourish because they have more responsibility.”
Here is Henke’s best advice when it comes to finding balance within a family business:
Have distinct roles. Lynella manages the front-end and staff, and Trevor manages the back-end operations and deliveries. “We are so busy now, we have to make a point to schedule lunch together so we can sit down and regroup.” Carve out personal time. “We always have dinner together as a family. That’s a priority. We use that time to hear from the kids about their day. We don’t talk about the business.” The store is open six days a week so the family can have Sundays to themselves. Be organized. “We live by our slow cooker. I hate getting home after six and having to start dinner. I usually make enough to have lunches ready for the next day. It’s the little things.”
Sidebar: Building a sustainable family business
Fast fact: According to research from the Alberta Business Family Institute, family businesses employ six million workers, create 70 per cent of jobs in North America, and contribute about 60 per cent of Canadian GDP.
“We often assume family business will be passed down, but that’s not always the case,” said Jason Storsley, vice-president of small business at RBC. “That assumption needs to be validated, planned and talked about it.”
Here Storsley offers some best practices to build a sustainable family business:
It’s never too early to introduce children into the family business. Having them contribute at an age-appropriate level is healthy. Communication is key. Have conversations about the business, vision, the future and what your children’s roles could look like — if they want it. It takes five years to come up with a thorough succession plan. It should include the process for transitioning the day-to-day management and to whom. The current owner’s transition must be included. Are they really ready to retire?