Six siblings make a partnership work

By Patricia Olsen

When six brothers and sisters are involved, managing a family business can be complicated. Not so for Smyth Automotive—at least not according to Steve Smyth, 48, who manages store operations at the Cincinnati-based company. Although he declines to reveal sales figures, Steve says the company's revenue increased 10.5% during the first quarter of 2015.

Steve's father, George Smyth Sr., started selling used cars in 1963. He added a salvage yard to have parts available and in 1965 moved into selling parts over the counter—the start of Smyth Automotive. When George Sr. retired in 1983, he turned the business over to his children. Joe, the oldest, became president, and when he passed away in 2010, Jim, the next oldest, took over while remaining head buyer. George Smyth Jr., who worked in sales, passed away after George Sr. retired. Six of the eight surviving siblings run the business.

Ask Steve Smyth on a day when he's stepping in for one of his store managers how many stores the company has and he'll laugh and say, "Too many." There are 23 retail stores, five warehouse distributors, a battery division, two machine shops, one automotive repair shop and eight paint centers throughout Greater Cincinnati, Dayton, and Columbus, Ohio, and in Kentucky. The company also has more than 250 trucks and close to 400 employees.

Bill Smyth is general manager of two retail stores, Bob Smyth manages the machine shops, and Rita Summers is general manager and buyer for the paint centers as well as manager of outside sales for the paint and body division. Lynette Simpson, the oldest sibling, is CFO and treasurer. The brothers and sisters assumed their positions more or less according to their early experiences; all of them worked in the business as kids. As Steve recalls, "Mom and Pop were always at work, so we always went to work after school and in the summer."

"I worked in the parts department as a teen and hated having to pick up greasy bearings," Rita says, "so I moved to the paint division as soon as I could." She adds that Lynette learned the financial end early from their mother, Ruth Smyth Ross.

What's it like to work in such a large sibling partnership? Steve and Rita make it sound relatively easy. "It's a lot of give and take," Steve explains. "We were raised that if something is worth anything, it's hard."

The siblings keep their areas of responsibility separate, which helps to keep the peace, Steve says. "We'll help each other, but we try to let everyone do their own thing," he explains. "I don't like to meddle, because then you start crossing paths and there are two captains trying to drive the boat. That's when arguments start." Steve says he's glad to lend a hand or give advice, but if he sees a sibling crossing boundaries, he'll say, "That's so-and-so's job."

The six make group decisions when warranted. Steve says that if an idea doesn't sound right to him, he tries to explain his reasoning. He asks the person who proposed the idea to explain how the business would benefit and how long it will take to see results. "It might just have to wait," he says.

Rita says the six siblings run their business without meetings. "We communicate through email and phone. Maybe we meet once a year, as strange as that sounds," she says. "Everyone has his or her own identity, knows what to do and does it."

Besides the siblings' well-defined roles, there's another reason behind their success: They rely on non-family members in key positions to assist them, such as outside sales managers and district store managers. "We couldn't do it without them," Rita says.

Patricia Olsen is a freelance business writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Continental, Harvard Business Review online and other publications.

Copyright 2016 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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January/February 2016

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