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Published 29 October 2012 10:20, Updated 21 November 2012 07:10
Flight Centre founder Graham Turner has overcome considerable business hurdles, such as breakdowns in Russia and India and the war in Iraq. But when his wife became pregnant, he was faced with a set of circumstances he’d not yet experienced.
Mention the difficult business of combining the running of a company with the demands of parenthood and most would naturally conclude women to be central to the discussion.
So topical have the challenges of balancing business and motherhood become, the media is abuzz with catchphrases for those striving to achieve it. Terms such as “mumpreneur”, “WAHM (work at home mum)” and “mummy millionaires” are now common euphemisms for women who seem to be getting the balance right – or are at least trying to.
But when it comes to men building businesses and raising a family, this issue is rarely given a second thought. In fact, unlike their female counterparts, the very existence of children in the lives of male entrepreneurs and executives is seldom discussed.
But contrary to common belief, trying to perfect the balancing act – and the associated stresses – isn’t exclusive to mothers. Many fathers experience intense guilt over time spent away from their children.
Managing that guilt and finding ways to incorporate active parenting into their lives often proves difficult for entrepreneurs, many of whom have put their hearts and souls into building their businesses, particularly those started before children came along.
For the founder of travel agency Flight Centre, Graham Turner, commuting between London and Brisbane meant significant time away from his wife and two young children.
At the helm of the global corporation (encompassing Top Deck Travel and Flight Centre), he overcame considerable business hurdles, such as breakdowns in Russia and India and the war in Iraq. But when his wife became pregnant, he was faced with a set of circumstances he’d not yet experienced and this time emotions were involved.
“There was guilt at travelling a lot and it took me some time to realise the commitment children required,” he says.
“It took me a few years to realise that life had changed and I needed to adapt my business life to accommodate that.”
That meant curtailing extensive international travel and making sure overseas trips were quick and effective.
“Also keeping weekends as free as possible from business and trying to get home before the kids went to bed.”
Of course when size – and money – is on your side, incorporating flexibility becomes more of a possibility, albeit requiring dedication and commitment.
But for many owners of small and medium-sized businesses, delegation and outsourcing is simply not an option, making flexibility difficult to achieve.
Such was the case for Shane Pepper, who took over his father’s children’s fashion business, Plum, and initiated a brand overhaul involving a huge phase of growth with relatively few staff.
“[We have] new manufacturers, new ranges, new marketing strategies and new agents in Australia, Britain, the US and international trade shows,” he says.
And then children came along.
While this brought the benefit of an increased understanding of his target market, it’s also meant a tug-of-war for time and levels of guilt that have only increased as the children grew.
“When my wife tells me what the kids say when I’m away, it does make me feel really emotional,” he says.
“On my last trip to China my four-year-old told my wife he was worried I’d died and my daughter, who’s three, asked if mummy and daddy were still married.”
Reducing working hours was not an option, so time and priority management was crucial.
“I usually get into the office just after 7am,” he says. “That enables me to be home at night for bath and story time.“
He also schedules exceptions, leaving work early on some Fridays to collect his children from kindergarten. Technology has also played a key role in maintaining communication with his family, particularly Skype when he is travelling.
“It really helps when the kids get upset for them to see me and for me to see them as well,” he says.
The owner of global street wear brand Unit, Paul Everest, agrees that technology, such as the smartphone, makes it possible for him to be active in the business while still spending time with his children.
“The best thing in your life is kids and the worst thing is business headaches,” he says. “A smartphone allows you to be with your children and still be connected to the business.
“I can be bouncing on the trampoline with my three-year-old and send an artwork approval to our California office at the same time.”
No doubt, days off, smartphones and flexible hours are all effective ways for business owners to engage with their children. Owning a start-up, however, poses its own set of problems.
When Mark Medelis started recruitment firm Concentis, he had all the time in the world – and big plans to go with it. Fast-forward less than two years and his first son was close to arrival. Add to that the business challenges arising from the global financial crisis and flexibility simply wasn’t an option.
Determined to make family a priority, Medelis and his wife and business partner Emilene, made the expensive decision to relocate early, bringing the office closer to home.
“There’s no escaping the long hours,” he says. “I don’t think you can build a business working a 40-hour week.
“The closer location made it possible to drop into home at lunchtime and allowed me to spend more time with them in the morning but I still had to put in hours after the kids went to bed.”
For Medelis, it became about quality time, rather than quantity, as well as accepting that activities outside family and business would have to wait.
While entrepreneurs no doubt experience a unique set of challenges when it comes to work-family balance, the fatherhood guilt associated with time away extends beyond those that own the business.
For Jason Sargent, taking on the role of managing director of Red Bull Australia and New Zealand has meant long hours and frequent travel.
“Balancing career and fatherhood is an ongoing challenge and certainly one that I haven’t mastered,” he says.
With two children, one aged three and the other 18 months, and another on the way, he says he often contemplates a simpler life.
“However, the hard work has allowed my family to live a comfortable lifestyle,” he says. “For us, the beach is a big part of everyday life and we’re lucky enough to live at one of the country’s best.”
Being an employee means different strategies are required to make the most of available time.
Sargent says he dedicates the working week fully to Red Bull, working a lot of overtime, but he makes sure the weekends are for the family.
“When I get home on Friday after a long week, through until Monday morning I’m theirs,” he says. “When I’m home the kids have my full attention and support, which means doing the fun stuff but also the tough not-so-nice tasks like nappies and discipline.”
One thing all agree on, be they owners of large corporations, start-up entrepreneurs or senior executives: the impact on children would be far more significant – and the guilt heavier – without a supportive partner.
“I feel guilt as much or more so towards my beautiful and amazing wife who has 100 per cent dedicated her time, energy, care and love to our children and home,” Sargent says. “For that I will be eternally grateful.”
Their most crucial piece of advice is to make changes while children are young.
“The business will be there – hopefully – long after the kids have grown up and left home,” Turner says. “So don’t miss out on them.”