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All in the family Featured

10:23am EDT March 28, 2003
Schoedinger family members have been running Schoedinger Funeral and Cremation Service for nearly 150 years. This record is amazing enough on its own, but given the fact that not everyone is cut out for the funeral industry, it's doubly surprising.

David Schoedinger, chairman of the board of the 175-employee firm, says maintaining harmony within both the family and the company is not always easy. But giving new generations a certain degree of freedom, coupled with responsibility early on, helps keep them involved and interested in staying with the business.

"We told our sons who were interested in joining the business that it was up to them to grow the company," says 60-year-old Schoedinger. "We started them out quickly in important areas like marketing and personnel."

This is opposed to the previous generations' approach, which limited the newest generation's duties to mundane tasks like washing cars, says Schoedinger.

The secret to keeping family rivalries and disputes out of the business is to just keep talking, says Schoedinger.

"We don't let conflicts fester," he says.

SBN sat down with Schoedinger to discuss running a family-owned business.

Did you always want to enter the family business?

I knew midway through college that I wanted to work here on a permanent basis. I spent every summer here starting in high school, and I felt that being able to serve people, along with running my own business, was the best of both worlds.

What are the most challenging aspects of running a family-owned business, and how do you meet those challenges?

Keeping the harmony among the family is challenging, and we keep it by maintaining respect for each other and each other's opinions. We view each working member of the family as an equal.

One of the things we do is each member of the family, regardless of his position gets one vote. We meet weekly and make all major decisions together. We determine the job duties of each member by examining each person's strengths.

And we leave it up to each new generation how the company will grow. In the past we've had two brothers running the business. With the next generation we'll have two cousins.

And we only allow active, working members of the family to own stock in the company.

What are the biggest rewards of working with family members?

The biggest reward for me is to watch the new generation grow in to more responsibilities, to see them doing a good job, being capable and carrying on the name for another generation.

I think most business leaders enjoy grooming a successor, but because for me that person is family, there is extra pride. There has always been someone in each generation that wanted to enter the business. You've got to want to do this, or you shouldn't be here.

We have been fortunate that someone has always stepped up and wanted to take ownership. Otherwise, we would have to think about selling.

How do you keep business and personal matters separate?

Very carefully. We have to step above business matters when we leave the funeral home. We keep the business behind us when we are not here, and we carry that discipline home.

We still get together for holidays, and we have to be able to do that. When there are disagreements, we sit in a room with the door closed until it is hashed out. We don't hold grudges, and we let the majority rule and go on with life.

How do you keep family conflicts to a minimum?

You keep talking them out until they are resolved. You don't let them fester. We've always been good at that. We keep our disagreements here.

Fortunately, in the 37 years I have been here, there have been no major disagreements. In the three generations I've witnessed, we've had a similar mindset.

There is always more prodding from the younger generation to grow the business. We've gone along with their ideas, as my father went along with ours, and some have been profitable.

We've been in this business long enough to know that you have to keep looking toward the future.

Why do you think so many members of the family continue to join the business?

I think we all feel that we want to help people at a time that, for many, is the worst of their lives. It is rewarding being able to help people and also run the business.

We've been lucky that each generation has not only wanted to join the business but has been very capable as well. I don't know what we'd do if someone weren't capable. We've never had to face that.

What is it that makes your business unique?

Our biggest strength is that only active family members own stock. We don't have anyone prodding us to pay dividends. It is mandatory that if you sell stock, you can only sell to an active family member.

There are four of us involved in the business right now, and even though we are large company, our doors are always open. We look at the business as one family.

We give our staff ownership as well. We fully back our branch managers' decisions, and they take ownership of their branches. That is one way we have attracted good people who give good service.

We've tried to bring on the new generation quickly. I spent my first years here after getting my degree washing cars.

The latest generation was introduced to responsibility early, because they will be the ones to make the business grow. And they were happy to be contributing to the business so quickly. How to reach: Schoedinger Funeral and Cremation Service, (614) 224-6105 or www.schoedinger.com