March 1, 2024

You’re the Boss Blog: What Do Small-Business Owners Want?

She Owns It

Portraits of women entrepreneurs.

Small-business owners are often described in monolithic terms. But as I rediscovered during a conversation with three women who run companies, their goals and motivations tend to vary. When I met recently with Jessica Johnson, Susan Parker and Carissa Reiniger of our newly formed business group, we talked about their long-term goals. (Alexandra Mayzler, the fourth member of the group, couldn’t make the meeting.) I was particularly curious about their thoughts and attitudes about eventually exiting the companies that they or their families — in the cases of Ms. Johnson and Ms. Parker — built.

Ms. Johnson said that exiting Johnson Security Bureau would feel like walking out on a spouse: “My daily struggle is, how do I keep the business going successfully for as long as possible, while protecting myself and my interest?” She added that she did not want to turn 75 one day and find that she was still trying to find security guards to cover a client at 2 a.m.

She wants to leave the business in the best possible hands, and she hopes to keep it in the family (neither she nor her brother, Charles, a part-owner, currently have children). “African-American family businesses generally don’t make it past the second generation,” said Ms. Johnson, who is a third-generation owner. She said she felt “called to go beyond the third generation to a fourth or fifth if that’s a possibility.”

From an operations standpoint, Ms. Johnson acknowledged that her skill set was limited. For that reason, she said, she knows it will be best, at some point, to bring in an outsider who is subject to family control. “I could have someone who’s not a Johnson running it, but a family member would still have to be involved in setting strategy,” she said.

Ms. Johnson has received offers to buy her company, but, she said, “If you buy the firm, you won’t be a Johnson and it won’t be Johnson Security Bureau.” She doubts that someone outside the family would bring the same level of passion to the business.

Like Ms. Johnson, Ms. Parker said she hoped to keep Bari Jay, the dress manufacturer she owns with her sister, in the family. But she didn’t always feel that way: “I grew up hearing my father say, ‘I don’t want you in this business — it’s horrible.’” Over his lifetime, manufacturing had shifted from domestic to overseas, and he became disenchanted by that change and others.

Upon learning that her father had left her and her sister the business, Ms. Parker was unenthusiastic at first. But her sister Erica was thrilled. Ms. Parker said she decided to “give the business a shot” in order to work with her sister and because it was “the only thing I had from my father.”

At the time, Ms. Parker said, Bari Jay was sinking. But the sisters gave it their best efforts and turned it around, she said, adding that she is now “reaping the rewards of those efforts.” She said she was “shocked” by how much she enjoys the work and likes being in charge. “I didn’t realize I was a little bit of a control freak,” she said, adding that she also appreciates the lifestyle that the successful business provides for her family. For that reason, she and her sister have ensured that their children (each sister has two) will have the opportunity to enter the business.

Still, Ms. Parker is not categorically opposed to selling Bari Jay under the right circumstances. When the sisters first took over, potential buyers approached them, and they listened — “you should always hear what someone has to say,” Ms. Parker said. But no offer has been tempting enough. She sees far more potential in staying, and said it would be “really difficult” to get her to leave the day-to-day operations to someone else at this point.

By contrast, Ms. Reiniger is more than ready to step aside. After a failed exit attempt in March, she is eager to find the best person to build her business, Silver Lining Limited. “I know what I’m good at and what drives me,” she said, “and as much as I care about the mission, running the business has become less interesting to me.”

Ms. Reiniger said she favored new adventures. “Business has become like a game to me,” she said. “To play it in a big way, I need to prove to myself that I can build and exit,” she said. Ms. Reiniger said there’s an “unspoken rule” that entrepreneurs need an exit to validate themselves. “I think it will be fun to see how many of these big-scale entrepreneurial boxes I can check,” she said.

We will continue the conversation in future posts.

You can follow Adriana Gardella on Twitter.

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