Question: I own a family business in Dublin together with four siblings. We can't agree on whether it needs further investment. We inherited the business but none of us works in it. We are deadlocked on almost every issue. What should we do?
Answer: Your topic is one that is close to my heart and I have some very clear views on. I have just published a new book, 'Mind Your Own Business', and I have dedicated a complete chapter to the topic of family involvement in the business.
Your letter suggests that you have not empowered any one of you to make decisions in the event of a stalemate and it would also appear that you are trying to run the business by consensus. You don't need me to tell you that that is never going to work. You have to separate the family element and the business element.
Part of the challenge for me during my Superquinn career was how my family could run the business if for some unfortunate reason I was no longer able to do so.
In order to avoid the predictable uncertainty that arises, we set up a family council. The objective of this was to bring clarity and transparency to the process. In other words, we anticipated any possible outcome and planned for it. You will need to get specialist advice on this topic as it is somewhat of a specialist field. However, the broad advice is that you must stop the internal debating, recognise that there is a significant problem within the business and put in structures and processes that will resolve any issues when stalemates do occur.
I am sending you a copy of my new book which will deal with this in far greater detail in chapter 14.
Question: Watching the horse-meat crisis unfold has made me wonder how I'd handle a PR disaster in my business. Have you ever had a PR nightmare?
Answer: The retail business over the last number of decades has been exposed to several challenging situations, and I certainly have come across several difficult situations.
While Superquinn was very successful, in reality it was also very small, and we could never afford the advertising budgets some of our bigger competitors had. Therefore I always had a view that we would comment publicly on any industry issues that arose.
This sometimes meant that, when no other retailer was willing to comment on controversial issues, we had to be prepared to speak publicly. I got some very good PR lessons from the American retail expert, Michael O'Connor.
Mike was a former senior executive with Coca-Cola for many years and helped see them through several successful phases in their business. He later became one of the world's leading experts in the retail world.
Mike's advice was very simple. At times when there is no crisis, you need to be busy interacting with journalists and giving them lots of information about particular topics.
So if, for example, your business is passionate about the integrity of the food chain, then it makes perfect sense to circulate information to journalists about this topic and your views are on file until that 'rainy day comes'.
Of course the smart thing about Mike's advice was that when journalists then scrambled to react to an emerging crisis and reached for a file on that topic, yours was the reference point they had.
As well as being prepared, and willing to speak, you also need to be credible in what you are saying. No member of the public is interested in some corporate one-line response.
What people want to hear is an honest appraisal of the situation.
The final piece of advice is to surround yourself with knowledgeable people who can help you through whatever crisis may emerge . . . it is unlikely you will have all the answers yourself.
Question: My son called in early at my home last Friday and, because he was wearing a hoody and jeans, I assumed he had taken the day off. He quickly pointed out it was Friday and therefore it was "dress down day". Do you encourage this in your company? What benefit does it serve?
Answer: It is very important that staff feel motivated in the workplace. There are lots of pressures put on staff to perform to a high level today, while in some cases being paid lower wages at the same time.
So it is important that each employer should look at ways of making work fun, while still getting the job done.
Your son's employer recognises this and in doing so probably finds that the productivity on these days is higher than other more rigid work days.
There are lots of other things employers can do to help improve the work environment and staff motivation.
For many years in Superquinn we entered the St Patrick's Day Parade and for two months in advance, each Sunday, we would have 450 staff voluntarily practising their dance routines in the underground car park in Blackrock.
The staff loved it and it brought a great sense of pride and camaraderie. It wasn't part of our core retailing work but we did it because it helped create a fun environment in which to work.
There are many other examples of fun in the workplace. Virgin airline's Richard Branson is famous for taking the full airline crew out to dinner after he travels on one his planes, and stays in the same crew hotel.
I spoke with the manager of an international clothing chain in Dublin recently, who told me that his company issued him with special internal scratch cards that he could give to members of staff who he observed delivering excellent customer service.
The scratch card would entitle the staff member to an array of benefits, ranging from half an hour's extra lunch break to an extra paid day's holiday. What a great fun idea with a strong business message.
The job always needs to get done, however there are moments when informality and bringing a smile to staff faces can add significantly to the culture of the business.