Thriving in Tough Times: Tips for Family-Run Business


After being laid off in 2000 on the heels of the dot-com bust of 1999, Alexandra Pena decided to go it her own and launched Forums Event Design & Production. She hasn’t looked back since.

The Miami-based event design and production company has experienced 11 consecutive years of growth despite enduring tough economic times including two recessions.

When faced with the decision of taking a job with the competition in 2000 or starting her own business, she figured why risk another layoff when she could take charge of her career and create her own path? From the start, Alexandra knew she was going to need help. After getting settled, she brought on her daughter Pilar Pena, who now serves as director of finance and accounting. After stints at a marketing and communications company, Alexandra’s other daughter, Ali Pena, came onboard and now serves as CEO.

Ali and Pilar started at the bottom at the company and built creditability with the staff. Both daughters started as telemarketers and worked their way up. “The most important thing was that [Alexandra] made us work for it,” says Pilar. Ali echoes this sentiment, saying coming on as a telemarketer “allowed us to see the potential of the company.”

Hallmarks of any great entrepreneur are adaptability and willingness to take risk. Alexandra understood the value her daughters brought to the company. “Young people see the world in a different way,” she says. In particular, Ali’s experiences as a corporate marketer brought new perspective to the business. Alexandra had to open herself up to her daughter’s thinking and give up some authority to let them flourish. This challenge is common in many family-owned and operated businesses. JW Marriott went through a similar transition when he ceded power to his son Bill who is still at the helm of Marriott International, a business still thriving today.

As a consultant and coach, I’ve worked across a lot of industries and have dealt with a lot of unique workplace dynamics, and there is no doubt that family businesses have tough workplace problems. The Pena woman shared the following advice on building a successful family business:

Know Your Values: The family knew that in order to be successful, they had to take a more corporate mindset while maintaining their family values. To maintain their focus through tough times, they turned off the TV, looked inward, and focused on their path. Ali says that she reflects on her purpose and responsibility everyday to make sure she is on course and staying true to her values.

When it comes to making tough business decisions, Ali says you have to know “what are you willing to sacrifice now for later.” No decision is ever easy, but if you have a sense of your internal compass and direction, you feel more comfortable making those tough calls.

Invest in Your Future: One of the game changers was when they brought in industry experts to help them take their company to the next level and start really competing on the national stage. Although conservative with money, Alexandra believes in the old adage “you have to spend money to make money,” and to get the best you can afford and be willing to take some tough criticism. She also believes that it’s important that everyone in the company has the opportunity for growth. She always stays open to learning opportunities that will help their staff both personally and professionally.

Don’t Be Greedy: Nickel and diming your way to profitability won’t cut it if you want to be a serious player in your industry. You have to believe in your employees, and be willing to share your successes. Pilar notes that after moving to a bonus structure based on profitability she noticed “employees started taking their work more personally.” Sharing helped bring everyone together and feel part of the team. It’s important for employees to experience the success that they help create.

Times are tough, but this trio of a mother and two daughters has shown that with the right mindset and attitude anything is possible. Even during tough times. With clients like Sony, SAP, and Telefonica USA this family business is serious business.

Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD is a CEC certified executive coach trained in organizational psychology. Dr. Woody is author of The YOU Plan: A 5-step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economy and is the founder of Human Capital Integrated (HCI), a firm focused on management and leadership development. Dr. Woody also sits on the advisory board of the Florida International University Center for Leadership.Follow Dr. Woody on Twitter and Facebook