“It Used to Be a Family Company Until I Joined My Husband in It”: Professionalizing a First-Generation Family Business


Australians Catherine Harris and her husband David, who both came from family business backgrounds, met around 1970 when they were university students. David had planned to go into his father’s business but decided to go into a new industry – fruit and vegetable retailing – when his father sold the company. David learned the fruit and vegetable business by working gratis for a friend, then started his own firm, Harris Family Farms (HFF), in 1971. During the same time period, Catherine worked for a major retailer to “learn the corporate side” but, in accordance with the norms of the time, left her job when she became pregnant.

She never really left the workforce, working in her mother’s firm, starting her own firm, and having more children. Then, after her husband’s business and her own developed problems, she moved to management roles in a university and the government sector.

Catherine finally joined HFF at David’s invitation 27 years after it was founded; he wanted her to “professionalize” the business to avoid a repetition of its earlier problems. Catherine immediately found herself in a very unfamiliar environment. HFF’s secretive culture, its unique business model, the cultural background of the employees, a lack of business discipline and systems, and her husband’s management style all made implementing change difficult. To top things off, the Australian government planned to introduce a goods and services tax about a year after she joined the firm, with which HFF was ill-equipped to comply. Catherine needed to equip HFF for tax reform in the short term and professionalize it for the long term.

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