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Band of brothers: Why sibling-run firms work

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Sibling sparks
In even the most successful brother-and-brother businesses, sparks fly. Take the Black brothers, Ben and Ollie, who run the nation’s largest crèche and nursery business, My Family Care. To an observer, it looks like a mature and stable business, with 30 childcare agencies, 34 nurseries and a maternity benefits consultancy division that advises investment banks and City law firms. Far too grown-up and corporate for any argy-bargy, surely” “There is potential for conflict,” admits Ben Black. “We can go from nought to 100 in a matter of seconds, and there have been a few meetings where it’s been incredibly tense.”

Until recently, the brothers stayed at arm’s length, running different parts of the firm. This kept the relationship harmonious. Now Ollie’s come over to the benefits consultancy side to work with Ben. “Suddenly, I’ve got this idiot brother in meetings and he’s got the same shareholding as me. There’s tension,” says Ben. “Fortunately, we’ve matured and we have structure and non-execs, so it doesn’t escalate.”

There’s clearly a lot of affection between the brothers. Ben eulogises Ollie’s sales and marketing talents, which work well with his own strengths. “You’ve got to trust each other and respect each other’s commercial talents,” says Ben. “Without that, it won’t work.”

However, Ben doubts that the moments of conflict are beneficial. “Clashes are usually about ego, which isn’t particularly productive. What I think is good is that we both challenge each other. As you get older, you develop a lot of foibles. You need someone around to tell you when you’re going wrong. A brother can do that for you.”

Amusingly, Ben admits there are four brothers in the Black family, all entrepreneurs, but only Ollie and he are able to work  together. “The eldest, Adam, runs Feather & Black, selling bedroom  furniture from 30 stores. He’s hugely successful, but he’s the most difficult. He’s always right. Our other brother Dan runs a design consultancy, Black & Blum. Our father was an entrepreneur, so it runs in the family, but I don’t think I would have worked with any of  the others. Too much tension!”

One secret ingredient to the harmony at My Family Care is a third partner. “Ben and I were joined shortly after founding the firm by Amanda Coxen. We have 45 per cent each and she has ten, so we can’t get over 50 per cent without her. She is absolutely essential. We didn’t plan it like that but looking back, her presence has been brilliant.”

Perhaps Harriet Harman could have played the same role for the Milibands. Or, maybe not…

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