Running your own business: Keeping it in the family

Sesame Access is a family business established 17 years ago, which specialises in invisible wheelchair access solutions for listed, public and prestigious private residences. Their clients include Kensington Palace, Oxford and Cambridge Universities, Institution of Civil Engineers, Tate Britain, the Barbican and Sotheby’s Paris.

Steve Lyons now runs the company, supported by his sister Alison. The company was founded by their father Charlie, a hydraulic engineer who came up with the idea for the business when a friend mentioned the difficulties his disabled wife faced accessing buildings whilst the pair were chatting in the pub. Now, the business has ambitions to become a household name’ for disabled access and has been working with GrowthAccelerator to harness the value in their ideas and IP, and develop a cutting edge marketing strategy. The coaching and support they’ve received has seen turnover increase by 25 per cent in the past year, and given the company confidence to export more overseas.

There are obvious benefits to working within a family business but there are challenges too, something Alison says they’ve worked hard at managing at Sesame Access.

“I’m 12 years older than my brother Steve, and he’s actually my boss, which could cause problems for some people! But we are a close family and go out a lot for meals and round to each other’s houses. We spend Christmas together and even went on holiday together for 2 weeks last summer! I think we have an unwritten rule that my brother and I don’t speak about work when we are out. Work related issues are for the office (or travelling to and from the office) and non work issues are for outside. Having those clear boundaries is very important.”

Alison also realises the importance of family members having defined roles within the business. Her brother Steve is the technical expert, and whilst running the company he focuses on the engineering, drawings and keeping all of their builds on track along with their Head Engineer. Alison brings a slightly different background to the business, having worked within NHS finance for 20 years, including at board level. She says “I think I bring to the table perhaps a more ‘Corporate Governance’ approach to the business. I have lots of experience working to corporate policies, dealing with business cases, influencing key decision makers, planning for risk, and seeing how corporate decisions are made etc, which really complements the things I’m responsible for at Sesame Access, which are HR, business development, sales and marketing and branding.”

GrowthAccelerator coach Andrew Cross, who has been working with Sesame Access on their growth plans agrees that distinction between leadership roles is especially critical within a family business. “Within any company, there will be some role crossover but it’s important everyone knows what their remit is, and this is particularly true in a family business where personal relationships also come into play. I think if there are clear definitions around who does what, it makes everything run far more smoothly, and Sesame Access have managed this particularly well.”

Alison appreciates she’s lucky that her family are close outside of work, but admits she was a little apprehensive about joining the family business at first. “I didn’t know what it would be like to work with my brother when I first started, but he is excellent at what he does, whether it’s customer service, engineering, technology development, or managing the Sesame workforce and ensuring everyone is happy and has fun along the way.” As with any close business relationship, trust and respect are hugely important and Alison says that really believing in the company and the way it is moving makes for a very positive working environment. She said “I really respect Steve and support him 100%. We work well as a team with our Head Engineer and love bouncing ideas off of one another. If there is something stressful happening, we talk it through and share the responsibility which is very helpful”.

Andrew Cross agrees that making the workplace a great place to be is particularly important when working with your family as personal issues can be amplified in the office if not. “If you don’t get on with your family members, this will of course affect the business. But by making your place of work a positive place, and building a very supportive culture it is possible to protect the business itself from any personal issues which might arise. What is evident at Sesame Access is that there aren’t any politics, everyone gets on well and there’s a great atmosphere.”

Whilst being related to your work colleagues doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll share opinions, Alison knows the importance of finding common ground. She and her brother have entirely career different backgrounds, but they’re both dedicated to customer service and resolving problems immediately. She says, “I think it’s because our Dad always instilled in us a mantra of ‘treat others how you’d like to be treated and it’s definitely influenced our approach to customer service.”

Sesame Access are on course to achieve impressive growth, and are expecting to install their 100th lift this Summer. They are also about to officially launch the business in France with an event at the British Embassy in Paris.

When it comes to the downsides of working within a family business, Alison says she can’t really think of any, “although Steve makes bad jokes, and sometimes his lunches are a bit bizarre, but he’s really talented at running such an innovative and cutting edge business and its great experience working with him!”

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