A father and son working together is a common story told throughout history, with multiple different endings. It can often be a dream of father-son bonding or a nightmare of resentment and hurt feelings. In reality, the story is usually somewhere in between; similar to anything in life, it can have its ups and downs.
In this article, I will share my story up to this point with my dad and some thoughts for anyone interested in hearing what we have to say about running a successful family business. Of course, there is no road map for it because every family is different.
Ever since I can remember, we had a pond. My dad started Pondscapes of Charlotte back in 2002 after having just gotten laid off from U.S. Airways. Times were tough with lots of uncertainty. Starting a business doesn’t come without its bumps and bruises, but I was just a kid, and to me, my dad was the best pond guy in the world.
I remember the day he asked me if I could help. I was about 8 years old, getting ready for school in the morning when he asked me if I would help him rebuild a pond in our front yard. I was so excited to help on the new project that I told him I would be there to help as soon as I got home from school! He replied, “I am going to need help all day today.” It was a very special treat to play hooky from school and help my dad on the pond out front. It was my first taste of pond building, and like any kid, I was just happy to be with my dad.
As I entered high school, I lost my over-the-top excitement and joy to work for my dad. Working for my dad included being the guy who always looked for stuff. We would be on a job site and my dad would say, “Hey Brad, see if you can find a 90-degree, 2-inch slip fitting in the trailer.” I would then run to the road where I would enter the messy enclosed trailer and search for a fitting that may or may not be there. Even though I felt like not much more than an errand boy during this time, I learned the common components of a water feature and how they were made.
I grew up seeing how hard my dad would work. He would work long hours in the field then come home, make phone calls and do it all over again the next day. After working a couple of summers with him, I remember thinking I was not really sure I wanted to be working that hard the rest of my life. It looked exhausting, and from my experience after working three days in a row, I was ready for a day off to play video games at home in the air conditioning! How was I ever going to be able to work as long and hard as my dad did?
Choosing a Vocation
The summer after I graduated high school, my dad and I spent more than 40 days on the Appalachian Trail together. We hiked from Mount Katahdin in Maine southbound all the way to Mount Washington in New Hampshire. It was a trip of a lifetime, and it’s something that means more and more to us as the years go by.
It was at this time I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do the rest of my life, and my dad was just looking to spend more time with his son.
The funny thing is, two things happened during my college years that made me decide to choose a career in the pond world, and both were both opportunities presented to me by my dad.
The first was attending Pondemonium, a networking and training event put on by Aquascape Inc. There I got to meet a lot of passionate pond builders. I was exposed to some of the stunning water features at Aqualand and even got to see Aquaterra, Greg Wittstock’s personal pond. I saw the passion these people had for building ponds and waterfalls and the effect it had on their customers’ lives. This inspired me to change course with my life and travel down a different path and follow in my father’s footsteps. Going into my sophomore year at East Carolina University, I changed my major to business management in hopes it would help me one day with my dad’s business.
The second event that cemented in my head the idea of running a pond business actually came about during the previous year’s Pondemonium event I attended with my dad and Ken Walls. I was offered a summer internship at a thriving pond company in Maryland called Premier Ponds. Steve Shinholser, the owner of Premier Ponds during the time of the internship, had built an amazing team and culture around having fun, changing lives and making money. And we did all three!
Entering the “Real World”
After I graduated college, I entered into the “real world” and started working full time at Pondscapes of Charlotte. It took some time to adjust, and I faced some difficult situations along the way. I was very green, and my dad had years of experience at running the business and building ponds. I think he knew that the only way I was going to learn and improve was by experience, and that’s why he would put me in those situations. At the time, I hated the uncomfortable feeling of not being able to solve a problem or know what to say.
My parents never pressured me to stay at Pondscapes of Charlotte. They always wanted me to pursue whatever would make me happy. I am very grateful for that, and there were times when I felt overwhelmed and even thought about what it would be like to have a job with low stress. There were times in my mid-20s when I even thought about what it would be like to move and start a pond company somewhere else.
There was a long time where I did not do any of the building. I was the helper for years, assisting the guy who would build. Whenever I decided I would try to build a little, it felt like every rock I put down would be moved or adjusted by my dad. Sometimes it felt like I could do nothing right as a builder. I felt like I was not learning or improving as quickly as I wanted to, and over time, this became more and more frustrating. I wanted to be the one who could finally build the waterfall on a project!
To be fair, my dad is an amazing artist. He has built some of the most incredible things I have ever seen in my life, including a chainsaw carving of water pouring out of a bucket. I would always be sitting next to him as he built a waterfall with a bucket of gravel and shovel, ready to help when needed. He would tell me time and time again what he was doing and explain in detail the right and wrong ways to do it.
Passing the Torch in a Successful Family Business
It finally came to the point where my dad gave me full reins on a project for a local plant nursery. I would be tearing out a pond he built 10 years before and rebuilding it. I had a team to help, but I was going to be the man in charge. I was laying the rock and running the project! This high-visiblity project not only had to look great but also function properly.
During construction of the pond, we broke irrigation pipes. We had to maneuver a machine around a highly trafficked storefront. We worked in front of an audience of customers and employees who all had questions about what we were doing. It was the most stressful week of my life, but when we finished, the pond looked good. I felt extremely relieved and accomplished.
To my disbelief, two days later I found out the pond was losing water. My heart sank, and the stress came back. Normally in a situation like this, my dad would come to the rescue. But in this case, I was in charge, and I was the one who needed to solve the problem. After a couple of visits, I was able to find the low edge in the liner and fix the leak. I was also able to get in contact with the irrigation company, and we got the irrigation lines fixed. Today, all the issues are fixed, and the display pond is thriving!
Lessons Learned from a Successful Family Business
That pond taught me to think multiple steps ahead while building ponds. It also gave me more experience recognizing and overcoming problems that always tend to pop up on projects. All that wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for all those years being the helper. For all the years watching my dad build ponds and waterfalls.
During the years that have followed, my father let me build and lead more jobs. Although there is always something that can be improved , I continued to learn better and at a faster rate, as I took on more responsibilities.
As I look back on my pond life to this point, I can see how far we have come as a family business. I see how I have changed over the years. I look back on some of the most impactful things that have happened in my life and realize that many are opportunities afforded by my mom and dad. Letting me play hooky from school to help build a pond, taking me to my first Pondemonium event, setting me up with an internship at a great company, and giving me the opportunity to lead jobs and learn from my mistakes are all examples of opportunities I grew from. As time goes by, I become more and more grateful for the parents that I have.
Here’s my advice to other fathers and sons who are working together in a family business:
To the father, sometimes you have to let your son fail for him to learn. You can tell him over and over what to do, but you cannot keep him under your wing forever. It’s important to teach him and give him advice, but eventually you need to let him go out and learn it on his own. If you don’t allow your son to make mistakes, he will never be ready to handle tough situations when you’re not there.
To the son, the wisest thing you can do is listen to your father. He has years of experience and only wants to pass that experience on to you. You do not always have to agree with your father on all business decisions he makes, but you can learn from them. You should respect that it is his decision as long as it is his company.
It’s always important to keep in mind that your relationship with your father always comes first before anything else. If both the father and son believe that, everything will be all right.
Today I am still under my father’s wing. I don’t own Pondscapes of Charlotte, but I have grown to be more comfortable in tough situations the more I face them. I know that when the time comes and ownership of the business transfers to me, we will keep working together. I expect to continue to lean my Dad for his advice. I have no doubt that the relationship we built throughout all the years will always be strong.