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They say never to work with children. Or animals. And perhaps the biggest professional no-no is to work with family. There are, however, many out there disproving the old adage that you should never hire anyone you can’t fire. We spoke to six fantastic local businesses about the trials and triumphs of working with family.

Forsyth Real Estate

The secret to success in a family business can surely be found at Forsyth Real Estate in Willoughby. Founded in 1898 by ambitious young estate agent, Robert Todd (RT) Forsyth, the company is still going strong 120 years later. Principal James Snodgrass, the great grandson of RT, tells us what it’s like working with his mother, Margaret, who helms the admin team.

“My mother Margaret and I have been running the business together for 20 years now. We have a great working relationship, and mutual respect and trust is the key. She is still the first in the office every morning and is a very active member of the community. She has won Willoughby Council Citizen of the Year and an OAM for her contributions to the community and charity. She is extremely popular with past and present staff as well. She began working at Forsyth 37 years ago when the business was run by her father, Jim Forsyth, and her brother, Michael Forsyth. Both were valuers and auctioneers as well as real estate agents.

I joined the firm straight from school at the age of 17 as the letting clerk. I left the firm after four years, spent three years overseas, then some time in the army commandos, and then worked for an international commercial real estate firm. I returned to take over Forsyth when my uncle, Michael, retired after 45 years in the business. I’m in charge of running the sales and management departments. It’s a busy job and the hours are long but I love the way you can tie it into your life, and the opportunities in real estate are greater than ever. We are very proud of this 120-year-old firm and wanted to see it continue into the future. However it was not just for nostalgic reasons that we kept going. We also thought the business was perfectly placed for a strong future. We are located next to Chatswood, 10 minutes from North Sydney and 15 minutes from the CBD, not to mention close to great schools.

We’ve handled a few funny situations while working together. We were selling a home for a couple who were getting divorced and we had proxy bidders [people bidding on behalf of others] on the day of the auction. Little did we know that one was bidding for the husband and the other for the wife. The wife ended up buying it – which was a good thing as her mother lived next door. We also sold a house in Chatswood for a solicitor representing 84 beneficiaries -all of whom turned up to the auction to watch! There were so many people it blocked the street for 15 minutes while the auction took place. They all individually thanked me in person. I felt like I was the groom at a wedding.

Three of my sister’s children (Margaret’s grandchildren) have also worked at the office in various positions. Now other members of the extended family are talking about joining us. They are all fully aware that they have big shoes to fill and need to earn the respect of the family and its staff to be part of the company’s future. We are members of the BSA Family Business Association of Australia. This fantastic group helps you prepare for the opportunities and challenges of bringing family into the business. We welcome them with open arms and hope Forsyth Real Estate is still going strong in another 100 years. I would love to see what it would look like then.”


Vision Personal Training

When Jason Conroy asked his brother Nick to work with him in his already-thriving personal training business in Willoughby, they made a pact to give it a try for six months. Six years later they’re still going strong. Nick was more than happy to spill the beans on how he and Jason keep the goodwill…

“It all started when Jason approached me and asked if I wanted to buy into the business and join forces. He had started out as a trainer at Vision Willoughby, went on to manage the studio, then had the option to buy it. I was working in recruitment and doing some personal training on the side for a bit of fun. I decided it was worth giving it a go.

Our working relationship is very good as we are both passionate about what we do and have similar goals. Putting in the effort for the team, our clients and each other comes pretty easily. I think in partnerships if someone is not pulling their weight then it can turn a bit pear shaped (among many other reasons). We are also both pretty laid back so we are happy to say whatever we think to each other without getting offended. If there ever is an issue it gets sorted out fairly easily.

In the past Jason’s wife Ella was also working in the studio with us but has since gone on to have two young boys, so now she just does a few bits and bobs behind the scenes. There are plenty of laughs, there have been a heap of disaster moments, a few marketing exercises have gone wrong, and there have been some funny Christmas parties, but for the most part we try to keep it pretty professional.”

Maker’s Loft

Cammeray locals Anouke Klarenbeek and Sacha Nzigamasabo-Klarenbeek are sisters, best friends and great business partners too. They started working together in 2004, pooling their interior and landscape knowledge into a design business, followed by a children’s gift and clothing store, and now their current business, Maker’s Loft. The craft cafe hosts classes, parties and has become a gathering place for the North Shore’s crafting community. Sacha gave us the lowdown on working with her sibling…

“We decided to work together when we became mums. Neither of us are good at sitting still. We love a project and love working on these together. Our design careers brought us together in our first business and the rest flowed on from there. We grew up in The Netherlands and I think our move to Australia in our early teens tightened our bond due to the challenge of moving to a foreign country and not speaking English at the time. We depended on each other a lot.

There have been a few funny moments working together. It appears that Anouke and I look very similar (until my recent hair cut). We often get customers who have been coming to the cafe for a long time but months later suddenly work out there are actually two of us. Once someone was chatting about his kids with Anouke in the morning, and returned for a coffee in the afternoon and suddenly started showing me photos of his children on his phone – which had me puzzled. After telling Anouke of this strange situation, she explained she had been speaking with him in the morning and obviously he had come back thinking I was Anouke and continued his conversation with me!

Occasionally you might see our mother at Maker’s Loft. We have her to thank for our creative flair. She was our inspiration growing up. Mum was a fashion designer and together we were always making things in her sewing room. Our own kids now often help out either with cleaning shifts in the cafe, serving customers or helping with workshops and parties. Anouke’s eldest girl, Ruby (13), has even run some workshops and parties by herself.

Anouke and I know each other so well we know how to treat each other so it keeps working. Of course we have our disagreements but we respect each other’s areas of expertise and trust each other. We brainstorm ideas but generally we are on the same page. We have had the occasional fall out where we basically didn’t speak for a couple of days, but they always blow over and sort themselves out. Everyone has a moody day once in a while and we just leave each other alone on such days. We are both empathetic and listen to each other, and we respect our differences.”

Sailor’s Bay Plumbing

Husband and wife Ben and Charlotte Hunter are Willoughby Living favourites – with good reason. Their business, Sailor’s Bay Plumbing, has helped countless locals since first offering their services in 2011. Charlotte talked to us about how they manage their working relationship…

“I’ve been working for the business during the day this year. Previously I was doing business work outside of my other job hours. Ben was at the stage where he needed an administrator (answering phone calls multiple times a day as a plumber is incredibly difficult as it’s certainly not a desk job and can be pretty messy). It made sense that it should be me since I already knew how things worked and did administration for the business anyway.

We’ve had our fair share of funny stories but this one still makes me laugh. Ben walked in one day absolutely saturated – he’d had to come home to get changed before the next job. He had been trying to pull the jetter hose out of a pipe and he overbalanced and fell into the client’s pool. Because we love working in the local area and have children at the local school I knew this client pretty well and mentioned it to her much to Ben’s embarrassment as he hadn’t told her!

Even though my work isn’t terribly creative or mentally stimulating, I really feel like I am helping Ben by taking away most of the administrative burden. With multiple phone calls during a job he didn’t feel like he could focus well enough on the task at hand and also communicate as effectively with our clients. Since I am not by his side (as I would be in an office job context) I do call him during the day at times to clarify elements of jobs so I can book in the correct amount of time. It gives him space to work well without feeling time pressure from phone calls.

I can’t imagine anyone else in the family wanting to work in the business at this stage but as our kids grow up it will be interesting to see where their passions and talents lie. Who knows, we might have another plumber in the family!”

Flatrock Brew Cafe

Local residents Karl and Jenny Riseborough opened their Naremburn craft beer cafe five years ago. Karl gives us his frank and funny account of working with his wife while pursuing his homebrewing dream.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision to work together – we didn’t sit down and outline what we would be doing, it was just given that we would utilise our specific skills to make the business work. Opening the Flat Rock was a dream of mine after homebrewing for a number of years, and Jenny has supported me throughout for which I am deeply grateful.

Jenny is a Chartered Accountant which is great. Not only does she provide a sensible balance to our partnership, but her role is more behind the scenes supporting Flat Rock with her bookkeeping, admin and oversight of cash flow – something that I lack patience with. We have four wonderful children, so there is a lot of co-ordination required to get the kids to sporting activities, school and other things – I’d like to take credit for some of this family organisation, but in all reality, Jenny takes the lead with that and I just do as I am told. However, having a young family does help shape Flat Rock’s culture of being a venue for families, a place for school class parent get-togethers or a place where local mums or dad groups can have a good time.

Funnily enough, Jenny doesn’t like beer so that in itself might seem a bit strange! Jenny doesn’t know what Mosaic hops are or how to brew a beer (I still haven’t convinced her to come to one of our beer tastings!). Similarly I have no idea about BAS statements or Xero, so all in all our skills complement each other completely. Having specific roles does help to ensure we don’t step on each other’s toes. I know that I annoy Jenny with my lack of communication, ability to only do one thing at a time, not listening and leaving things to the last minute, but think that’s in line with being a normal husband. Jenny is the sensible and conservative one and I am the one who dreams up (sometimes unrealistic) ideas. But again, that’s in line with being married – we bring a balance to each other. In all seriousness though, having a small business is a significant stress and the odd hours of running a bar/restaurant can impact family time. I haven’t found any real solution to this to be completely honest, but go week by week and just manage to get through as part of our hectic life. Both Jenny and I are actively involved in the school and junior cricket community and this helps us strive to make Flat Rock a community driven venue.

Only one of our kids is old enough to work as a kitchen hand, but I like our chef and wouldn’t want to subject him to the eye rolling and phone watching, so have not offered her the position. I’d really like to teach the kids to brew once they get older, just so they can see what it is like to have a skill that is a little different. I think you can learn a lot through running your own business, so it would be good to teach the kids that you need to be adaptable, flexible and assertive to survive. Quite a good life lesson really.”


Studio 84 Personal Training and Degabriele Kitchens

There must be something in the air for Willoughby siblings and personal training. Brother and sister act, Sam and Melissa Degabriele, have just celebrated their first anniversary working together. Their studio is upstairs from their father’s business, Degabriele Kitchens, and he even trains with them twice a week. Melissa shares how they keep it all together in such a family dominated business…

“Sam and I both shared a passion for fitness and wanted to do something involving helping people. Feeling tired in our previous jobs, we thought, what better timing than to come together to create something that we could take great pride in?

Our father’s business is downstairs – he has run Degabriele Kitchens for 35 years. We love having him close as he offers great support and trains with us during the week. Sam is known as Willoughby’s famous Yellow Man/Banana Man. We have had quite a few laughs dressing him up with different props ranging from carrying bananas, to walking our dog (dressed in a Studio 84 cape) to riding around on a bright yellow bike.

Sam and I couldn’t be more opposite if we tried! Sam is quite laid back and easygoing whilst I am on the go and quite the perfectionist. Our clients often have a laugh at us hearing us squabble when things are not left in their correct places or slightly out of alignment.

Having said this though, we work very well together as we balance each other out. I find that Sam is great at calming me down when I get stressed and he also helps me to think logically and rationally. On the other hand, I am the motivation and drive that Sam sometimes needs when he becomes a little blasé about certain things. We are still working out how not to push each other’s buttons spending so much time together but are happy with the bond that is strengthening between us.

It is just the two of us at the moment, although we are currently looking for a third trainer. Whilst we enjoy working with family as you can be as open and honest as possible, we are looking to hire someone outside of the Degabriele clan. We believe that the more people you know in the local community, the better and expanding our horizons is definitely on the agenda.”

(Main image of the Forsyth family: Samantha Oates www.frankieandharryphotography.com.au)