Brokering With Your Brother (Or Your Father, Sister or Mother)
Perhaps it's because they're based on good old-fashioned family rivalry, the kind that can lead one sibling to excel in math to outdo her brother's success on the football field, or a father to never let his son beat him in one-on-one basketball until he can't help but lose.
"Both of us are highly competitive," said Don Bierbaum of Aon explaining how this quality has driven him and daughter Jennifer Bierbaum Thorpe to establish their own identities and their own success in the same firm. Bierbaum the elder said it comes from their sports background. Jennifer is now vice president and team leader of the Aon Financial Services Group; Don is executive vice president of Aon Global Americas.
"There's always been competition between me and my brother," Gary Van der Voort said. "We were competing against each other and other producers."
Van der Voort, now area chairman of Miami operations and managing director of niche efforts at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., and his brother, now retired, joined the firm one year apart in the late 1960s, after both went through the broker's intern program followed by a stint in the Army Reserves during the Vietnam War.
You can also get this sense of competition from the Schenone brothers of Marsh. Robert, for instance, shared how out of college he initially didn't join the firm of his father and brother--Roger Sr. and Roger Jr.--because he didn't want to follow in their footsteps. After all, he said, he and his brother had already gone to the same high school and college.
In 1991, Rob joined and has since become managing director in the New York aviation practice, while Roger Jr. is managing director in the New York real-estate practice. And they both live in Chatham, N.J.
"I moved there first," Rob was sure to throw out there.
The brothers were also quick to make it known that they haven't necessarily tripped over each other walking in the same footsteps as their father. They both have different skill sets, Roger explained.
"I have skills," Rob quipped.
After allowing his brother to get that shot in, Roger then explained how he's more of a client-facing broker--"more the sales face of Marsh than Rob"--while Rob agreed he's more on the management side, with his strong suit being the analysis and detail-mindedness needed for policy placement and claims.
As you might tell from this interchange, the Schenones also can work in the same firm together because they get along as brothers, outside of the office. Inside the office, they treat each like colleagues.
That's crucial, said experts. Family members need to separate how they relate to each other at home and at the office, said Barbara Spector, editor in chief of Family Business magazine.
Todd Millay, executive director of the Wharton Global Family Alliance, agreed, saying some families that work together make sure they make time to not work together. They have dinner together every night, for instance--some sort of event so "that there's a way to vent ... and ensure communication," he said.
Robert O. Lane and Bob Lane Jr. of Beecher Carlson make sure to have lunch together two to three times a week when possible to touch base, and they try to keep the family separated from the business. It's a relationship they've developed since both worked at Lane and Associates, an agency Robert started in 1979. They still work together out of Atlanta after selling the company to Beecher in 2005. Bob Jr. is now senior vice president in the firm's construction industry practice, while his dad is managing director in the risk management vertical.
Robert said that they might talk about their weekends in the first 10 minutes of a Monday, but then it's all about work. Bob Jr. also said they have an agreement to "not talk deals at Thanksgiving and (not) talk Thanksgiving at work."
An "unsaid agreement," added Robert.
They agreed that they treat eachother the same, however, in or out of the office.
"I holler at him in both," said the father.
"He's still the dad in both places," said the son, recalling how a friend once had asked what he was going to call the "old man" around the office.
Perhaps another reason families can work together so well in brokerage environments is because those environments are big enough, in terms of number of employees, number of offices and number of opportunities, that they, well, don't have to see one another all that often. With most of the family members that Risk & Insurance® spoke with for the Power Broker feature "Family Renewals," the brokers said that they did not work with their family members all that often.
Sure, the Lanes try to grab a bite to eat regularly, but there are some times at Beecher, said Robert, that he doesn't even know if his son is in the office. And considering they work in different verticals, they infrequently collaborate on accounts.
Marsh is so darn big that the Schenones don't have to deal with each other. As they have branched out into different industry groups, the Schenones don't typically work on the same account together.
"Thank God," said Rob. "I get enough e-mails from him as it is."
One family pairing, though--the Bierbaums of Aon--were special in that they worked together on accounts often.
"Ours is a little unique in that we've worked a lot together," said father Don. "One of the neat things, and it wasn't planned that way, in the last eight years, we have actually had some of Aon's largest clients."
How have father and daughter treated each other in these high-powered deals?
"I think we are very much the same here as outside the office, and that's a good thing," said Don. "I actually think our clients kind of really get a kick out of it. It's never been an issue."
Said Jennifer, the clients can detect the "comfort level" between her and her father. In other words, they can see the relationship works in the office. Clients would see through it if they were trying to force it, she said.
You can hear it in Don's voice that, especially now that he may or may not be approaching retirement, depending on where he is in his "five-year plan that's been going on for 15 years," he's enjoyed working so closely with his daughter.
Beecher's Lanes seem to feel similarly.
"Most of our colleagues think it's pretty neat that we're close and work together and have worked together for a long time," said Bob Lane Jr. They all have "admiration" that father and son still talk, he kidded.
Or as Van der Voort put working with family members, "it's a wonderful way to have a business career."
So whatever these family members have done to be able to stand each other in and out of the office, it's working.
Or as Fred Sanford used to say to his son, "You big dummy."
MATTHEW BRODSKY is Web editor/senior editor of Risk & Insurance®.
February 14, 2008
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