Generations work hard to create work and family boundaries
Daughters decided early on not to call parents mom and dad at work.
| 3:10 a.m. April 9, 2021
Company: Sun Protection of Florida manufacturers and installs retractable screens and awnings, under separate retail and manufacturing businesses. Sun Protection of Florida is the retail operation, while SunPro Motorized Awnings and Screens is the manufacturing entity. Owners Bob and Val Falahee purchased a preexisting screen manufacturing company in 2008, inspired by a family member who had success in the retractable awning business up north. They bought $30,000 in raw materials from Orlando to get started.
It took three years to start a fully functioning manufacturing facility, but the persistence and investment has paid off, especially in the past three years: Revenue has grown 113.8% since 2018, from $2.9 million to $6.2 million in 2020.
Succession plan: When Mara and Ashlyn considered coming back to the Sarasota-Manatee area to work with Sun Protection of Florida, they wanted an offer in writing.
Mara was working in Austin and had earned a master’s degree in finance from Claremont McKenna College. Ashlyn was in the last semester of senior year in the University of Central Florida’s business management program. Their parents often mentioned casually that they wanted the two sisters to work at their Bradenton headquarters. But Ashlyn and Mara didn’t want to take the leap unless it was a done deal.
“Mara and I both wanted an offer letter because it is tough trying to keep work separate from personal life,” 25-year-old sales manager Ashlyn says. “Mara and I wanted more of a structured work environment.”
More than two years later, Ashlyn and Mara, 27, have an established track record at the company, which allows their parents to be mostly hands-off managers. Falahee remains heavily involved with the manufacturing side, but the retail side is largely left to the younger generation. Mara is the CFO.
In addition to structure, Ashlyn and Mara worried they would be yelling Mom or Dad down the office corridor while working with their parents — something they sought to avoid. So they enforce boundaries like that in a simple way: In the office their parents are Bob and Val.
Challenges: When Ashlyn joined the business for sales support, instead of giving her a territory, her father told her to scour the firm’s open leads, or clients who met with a sales representative but didn’t end up buying a product. Ashlyn spent almost four months going through a spreadsheet and calling people. “As soon as I had made a name for myself, he then gave me a territory,” she says.
Ashlyn worked her way up to management in recent months. Now she supervises a team of seven sales representatives. That experience says a lot about the Falahee family dynamic. Their parents basically offered them the burgeoning retail business and said "Figure it out."
“The retail side was the ugly stepchild, and the big focus was the manufacturing side,” Mara says. “Ashlyn and I basically came in and kind of weeded it out in the past two years. We’ve hired a completely different set of people and put a completely different process in place.”
The sisters also had to deal with an unusual challenge in building up the business — making the move from urban Orlando and Austin to considerably sleepier Sarasota-Manatee. They both recently bought homes in the area, Mara in Bradenton and Ashlyn in Sarasota. And they’ve hired some of their college friends to work at the company.
“It was March of last year that my dad sat Mara and I down and said, ‘In five years, you’re going to want to have roots here,’” Ashlyn says. “That’s why we got into it — we were both so serious with the business.”
What will the company look like in five years: Although the Falahees have some succession plans in place, they are mostly trying to keep up with the business.
“There are pie-in-the-sky plans, but there’s nothing set in stone,” Mara says. “We’re all still considering what we want to do and making it the best that we can right now.”
After more than a year of working with their parents, the sisters asked them for some ownership stakes. They came up with a legal agreement that gives the sisters each 10% ownership and the parents each 40%.
As the business continues to grow, so do internal conversations about long-term plans. Right now, the company serves customers from Tampa to Naples, but the Falahees want to grow service into Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
They’re also working to get their oldest sister, Lauren Aboulafia, to join the company. She’s currently in Miami — she just earned a Master of Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University and is working in operations of a health care company.
So which one of them will take over when succession occurs? The sisters don’t think of it like that, but they all have their pockets. Ashlyn’s skill set is in sales and “the science and art” behind marketing while Mara is a numbers and execution person.
“With our older sister coming on board, I think the three of us will work together on the operational bigger picture,” Mara says. “When people ask me what my label is, it sounds so official, but we’re all doing whatever we can.”
Both Bob and Val are 61, and neither parent has an official retirement date. (Val essentially phased out of the company at the end of 2020.) Of course, like most company founders, both are also having a hard time letting go.
“They’re both boomers. They want to work every minute of every day,” Ashlyn says. “Their identity is with the company. It’s all they’ve known.”
Click the links below to hear best practices from other families working through business succession and experts who have helped others.