Keeping It All in the Family – Keys to a successful family business

Bonnie Elgie

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Starting and growing a family business can be the best or the worst experience for entrepreneurs. Family dynamics can add layers of complexity when it comes to building a business and for some, it can be a high-stakes game.


Laura Zanchin, Principal, Zanchin Automotive Group, knows what it takes for a family business to thrive, even through challenging times. We recently sat down with Laura to have a wide-ranging conversation about how her family’s business has grown from a single dealership founded by her father, Joe Zanchin,  in 1973 to a thriving company boasting over 30 locations and 19 brands.   


Q: Zanchin Automotive Group has operated for over 40 years. Tell us about the corporate history and how the business grew over time.

Zanchin Automotive Group was founded by my dad, and he’s done everything on his own. Originally from Italy, he came to Canada in the 1960s and barely spoke English. He dreamed of having his own dealership but the domestic brands wouldn’t consider him. When Honda came to Canada in the early 70s, he saw cars that reminded him of Europe. He was persistent, found a piece of property in Woodbridge, Ontario for the store and that is where it all started.


Dad was always very successful investing in land and so he would buy properties close by, and then we’d put up another store and we began to grow. He was always very strategic about it and as the business grew, everything around us was growing too. Our original store was on Highway 7 in Woodbridge and we were very, very fortunate that he picked the right spot at the right time and everything came together.


As of right now, we’re 34 stores strong in the Greater Toronto Area. We consider it a family business with my father still at the head of the company. My sister and I are the only family members involved, which gives us a strong focus and vision. We also have a strong executive team around us, as well as a COO who has been crucial in helping to structure and align best practices, but for the most part, it is our core family group.

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Q: How did you become involved in the family business?

I started very young because when an Italian family opens up business, as a family, you always go in to the business. So every night we would go to the store and we would help out. When I was eight years old I was answering phones, filing, cleaning bathrooms and taking out the garbage. I was doing anything and everything that had to be done within the store. As a teenager, I started doing accounts payable and receivables, and eventually became a controller with one of our Mazda stores. That worked well for a good 10 years before I decided to take time off to have children, focus on my family and be home.


During this time, I would work on our new building projects. I was very good at managing the construction side of things and creating the best layouts for our new stores. After about a decade of this, I decided that I needed to be 100 per cent focused and invested in the day-to-day business and it’s been six days a week ever since.


Q: Can you share some advice for working effectively with family members?

You need to know your own lane and stay in it. My sister and I both work in the business but we have distinct roles. My focus is human resources and I have a couple stores I am responsible for, while my sister oversees marketing and is also responsible for stores of her own.


When it’s time to have a difficult conversation, be direct and share your concerns, but it should be done in a supportive way and not demanding one where “you do this or that”. When it comes to my sister, it takes a lot of experience and practice to realize that althought I may not always agree, her department is her responsibility and I am confident she has it under control. Sometimes, if there’s an issue we’ll discuss it and then we make the right decision for our own department.


It’s taken my father a long time to learn that he needs to let go of the protective instincts he has for us as daughters and to recognize we are strong, smart women who can handle what’s being thrown at us, especially because automotive is an extremely male dominated and competitive business.

Q: What guidance can you give for navigating difficult conversations and competing priorities, which are part of growth?

There needs to be honesty and transparency within the core family group. You will not all be on the same page all the time so you need to ensure that everyone has a chance to share their opinion and that these views are heard and respected. But ultimately, the final decision has to be made and whoever makes that decision will make the right decision for all of us. In our case, it is usually my father who will makes those decisions. Sometimes it takes time and a few – sometimes heated – discussions,  but in the end, we get to a final result that everybody understands, even though wemay not agree with it at the time.  


For the most part we agree on a lot of the larger issues, but it can be the smaller ones that cause more discussion. We have now learned to say, “You’re right and that’s your department, so you handle it.”


You have to remember that everybody has a voice when you’re a family and it’s important that everybody says what they truly feel. That’s the nice thing about being in a family business.


Q: What are the keys to growing a successful family business?

You have to be open and honest with everybody in your family no matter the circumstance, whether it’s acquiring something new or reinvesting in another area. You also have to have a lot of trust with your family, and with your executive team as well. Trust that they’re making the right decision at the right moment for your organization.


Ultimately, it’s our family name and reputation that is attached to every decision. We have a reputation for integrity in this business and we’ve worked hard for that. If you make a mistake, because everybody does, you have to realize it was never one person’s fault. It was everybody’s fault. Moving forward, you have to learn from all your mistakes in order to evolve and hopefully continue to grow.


Q: How do you prepare for a transition in a family business?

The whole transition process is always evolving and I do believe that is the way it should be. In the case of our business, everybody knows who’s in control now and everybody knows who will be in control in the future. We’re all good with that and the plan is laid out. Having said that, when things like a pandemic or a change in the business happen, we have to be ready to adapt.


Q: What would you say to someone considering a family business?

Being part of a family business is one of the best things that you can do, but it can also be one of the worst because everything that you do is connected together. So, if you’re not the type of family that can handle it, you shouldn’t go in to a family business. We are very fortunate that it works for our family. Ask yourself if you think you can be aligned as family members, and if you can’t, don’t do it! Family is the most important thing in the world.