Family Business Memories and the Importance of Authenticity

by Frank Connelly | Jan 9, 2024 | Celebrating Family Business

Increasingly, companies and brands are using media as a means of communicating their social impact and purpose. As we have seen across social media, it is important that brands tell stories that are authentic. This sounds simple enough but can be a challenge. Naturally, nothing is as authentic as the “real thing”, but it isn’t always so obvious what that “thing” may be. Discovering it starts with determining where you are within your community of influence. Where does your business have permission to express itself?

Even though I spent my professional career as a corporate communication lawyer focused on corporate social responsibility, I pretty much learned all I needed to know about business purpose working at the hardware store that my immigrant great grandfather founded in 1911. By definition, a hardware store’s purpose is pretty basic: to supply the tools, materials and sundry items that its community needs. In our case, despite decades of “big box store” competition for that space, our independently owned business still endures over a century later. How did we do it? Well, it took me a while to figure that out, but it came down to one word: Relationship. The extra sense to realize that we were not just hiring employees to help sell products to our consumer community – but instead the realization that we were an intimate part of the community – a citizen- and therefore shared in responsible for its welfare. They counted on us, we counted on them. That was our purpose, and its yours too no matter how big or small your business.

A couple examples of this taught me lifelong lessons:

In 1984, I was sixteen and finally allowed to emerge from the dark and dusty stock room to work “the floor”, i.e.. where the customers shopped. I was learning the ropes of customer service by shadowing my manager Harry Grafton. One day Harry was in the middle of selling our local surgeon Dr. Metcalf a small chain saw. Dr. Metcalf wanted to take care of a few dead trees on his farm. Suddenly, my Dad came rolling up in a hurry with a serious look on his face. He asked if he could talk to Dr. Metcalf privately. (My Dad was no doubt a hands-on owner, but this was out of the ordinary. ) The two stepped away for a moment and Harry was summoned into the conversation. The the next thing I knew Metcalf was leaving the store with Harry – no sale made. I asked my Dad what happened. He said, “I explained to Dr. Metcalf that we couldn’t sell him a chainsaw.” he continued, “I told him, ‘if I sell you this chainsaw and you have an accident and lose a finger, you’re out of a profession. Harry knows tools and I’m a businessman, if either of us do the same, we can just use the other hand to open the door of the store in the morning.’ ” Instead he asked Harry if he wouldn’t mind going with Dr Metcalf to take care of his trees. That left an impression on me, (particularly later in my career when I started working overseas and began to appreciate the value of difficult to replace resources) – for our little rust belt town, losing the town surgeon would have been catastrophic.

Lesson: Earning brand goodwill is never transactional. It’s earned over time. Embrace conscious consumerism within your industry. Transform your industry. Put purpose before the sale, and let loyalty ensue.

Little did I know, but only a few years later our town would lose its main economic industry – coal mining and steel making. The steel industry collapsed and people were losing their jobs left and right. Replacement ‘scab’ workers came in and things really heated up. When US Steel created the novel solution of re-hiring the workers as shareholders, my Dad and Uncle Mindy followed suit by starting an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) that made everyone from the managers to the cashiers stakeholders in the business’ future. Shareholder meetings were held during our annual company picnic – everyone had a say. Together we weathered the economic storm of change through community and compassion.

Lesson: Treat your workforce with the compassion you would show a family member. They are your most important stakeholder. Communicate with them like they are. Make them stakeholders in your business and its decision-making and you will find loyalty in return.

When things got really bad for our town, I started hearing rumors of items “showing up” at people’s homes. One example was when Uncle Mindy learned that a family’s two breadwinners, father and son, lost their jobs at “the mill.” He learned this when they called for service for their broken fridge. They had no way of paying for the repair. Mindy instead hired the son to drive our delivery truck, and on his first day there was some extra cargo onboard – a new fridge for their home. Coyt, drove for our store for over twenty years. This was our community – we looked out for each other … and a century later that mindset and relationship continues.

Lesson: Like anything involving your business, use your knowledge superpowers to be insightful and strategic. Be strategically philanthropic; find ways to measure your impact and communicate it so others may follow your lead..

Therefore, as companies increasingly hire consultants to divine their purpose (which I don’t discount and is a brilliant start) – I recommend leaders look to their own story through the lens of the communities they serve and how they are creating meaningful relationships with stakeholders. Where can these be improved? Rather than engineer some blanket program, listen to those who may know your the community the best. Be on standby to fund-a-need. Don’t be random about acts of kindness – that only results in random results. Be strategic like you would if you were keen on the success of a member of your own family – because they are. Homeboy Industries’ Greg Boyle says we must practice drawing a bigger circle around the word family – and yes, that includes industry.

As a lawyer, we call corporations “fictitious entities”. They are. They are not real- they are comprised of people. Lesson: Recognize that your business is your superpower. Put those powers into service and make them part of your story. Make those stories, tell those stories, create your business narrative. That is authenticity and the future of purpose in business today.

Hero Bridge communities are a way your business can reach the most vulnerable in your community 24/7 through curated edutainment that carries your brand, your values and your know-how to those who may not have access to the resources that many of us take for granted. What’s more is we do all the work of making sure your story of purpose, reporting and relationship is backed by the “evidence of lives touched”!

Frank Connelly

I'm the fourth generation of a hardware chain that my great grandfather started when he immigrated to the US in 1911. The "store" shaped my understanding of the meaning of community and how to be part of one.  It's probably why I decided to get into brand storytelling and have had the pleasure of working with production companies like Al Roker Entertainment and brands like Toyota and Illy. You can learn more about my family business story and see how it informs my work as a brand strategist and head of corporate social responsibility at the Social Impact Entertainment Society in Los Angeles.

About the Author

I'm the fourth generation of a hardware chain that my great grandfather started when he immigrated to the US in 1911. The "store" shaped my understanding of the meaning of community and how to be part of one.  It's probably why I decided to get into brand storytelling and have had the pleasure of working with production companies like Al Roker Entertainment and brands like Toyota and Illy. You can learn more about my family business story and see how it informs my work as a brand strategist and head of corporate social responsibility at the Social Impact Entertainment Society in Los Angeles.