Nathan Gordon of Christmas Central shares his experience of running a family business and how the family dynamic has impacted his company.
Editor’s Note: We had the opportunity to attend the Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition this year in Chicago. There we met with Nathan Gordon, Chief Information Officer at Christmas Central, who shared insight on leadership and the dynamic of a family business. Gordon has navigated through online retail for Christmas Central taking it to become one of the fastest growing wholesale companies. In the last of three part series, he explains the dynamic of the family business…and how Grandma’s passion for the job is an inspiration to all.
Forefront: I’d love to talk more about the ins-and-outs of the family business. What is that dynamic like?
Nathan Gordon: So my father’s there, my mother comes in from eight to two, and she brings her dog. My mom will be as involved as she wants to be involved. My aunt actually runs HR. She’s retired. She worked for the Buffalo teachers union before retiring and coming to work for us. My grandmother—my mom’s mom—is actually eighty-six. She works in our warehouse. She loves packing orders. When we’re busy, it’s impossible to get her to leave. “Let me just pack one more cart,” she’d say. And I’d be like, “No, no Grandma you have to leave, you have to go home.”
Forefront: That’s amazing.
Gordon: She loves it. Even my uncle works in the warehouse too. He’s a retired Buffalo school teacher, and he just loves pulling the orders. There are a lot of our family members roaming around the building. Even when I hired my new warehouse manager I was like, “Pete, I’m hands off in the warehouse now, everything on this side of the wall is you. You could do whatever you want, but that’s my uncle that’s my grandma. Will they drive you nuts? Maybe. Do you sometimes tell them something and they’ll just do it their own way? Probably. But you can’t fire them.”
Forefront: So you kind of set the ground rules then.
Gordon: Well, I’m actually Jewish and Italian, so we have a very interesting family dynamic. Do my father and I yell a lot? Yeah. At each other. When we started out I used to share his office, and the employees used to think we were going to kill each other. There was always a lot of yelling. But then two minutes later, it’s like, “You coming over for dinner?” “Yeah.” Sometimes it’s interesting because if you have an idea and they have an idea and you really disagree, it can get into a heated argument really fast. You feel like it’s an attack on you personally instead just a business choice.
Forefront: Right, and that’s always tough to balance. You’re trying to understand “What relationship are we having right now? Is this business or family?” How does working with your family affect your family life and your business life? Because I feel like it’s, it’s very mingled.
Gordon: You know you can get very stressed out, you can be stressed out because something’s going on in your family, and then it comes to work. And you see them everyday. And if you’re fighting at work, do you really want to see them on the weekend or something? It’s very difficult. It can be difficult being around them all the time, or it can be a great thing. It’s great that I get to see my grandma, my mom and my dad everyday.
Forefront: Do you guys have any rules in place, like you can’t bring work home or holidays you can’t talk about?
Gordon: No. I mean my dad will try sometimes if we’re out. My mom will start saying something, and dad will be like, “No shop talk tonight.” And my mom will be like, “Okay,” and then she’ll just keep going.
Forefront: So it sounds like business is at the heart of your family.
Gordon: Having Grandma in the warehouse… clearly this is the definition of family business, right here. When we were really going through our early stages, when we were going through that hyper, hyper, hyper growth, when we were even in our small warehouse and the multiple off-site warehouses, every year we got behind in shipping. So my aunt, my cousins, everyone came into the warehouse over the weekend to help pull the orders because that’s what family does. They were willing to do whatever they had to do to help us.
Forefront: And they’re still helping, which is great. For your Grandma, it is probably helping her. Would you say work is therapeutic in some way?
Gordon: Yes, especially since my grandfather died a couple years ago and it was really tough on her. She doesn’t like going home and being alone. Here she gets to see the people and talk to the people. The amazing thing is that family members don’t stop; they just keep working. So it’s a great way to boost morale for the other warehouse employees. If I have to do a quick pep-talk, I can tell everyone, “That’s my grandma right there, she’s eighty-six years old, and look how fast she’s working.”
Forefront: That’s amazing. It sounds like everyone is passionate and committed, and it is in contrast to, I’ve heard, the other side where there are times of entitlement or something like that because of the family business. It sounds like you’ve gone the route of, “No, we’re here, we’re working hard, we’re setting a positive example here.”
Gordon: Right. When I came home in 2004 with my degree, I had everything. It’s my family’s business. But my dad looked at me with a straight face and said, “You’re getting salary, and you’re getting four-hundred bucks a week, and that’s it.” He goes, “Oh, and you’re probably going to work like sixty hours a week.” My father was very clear to me. He said, “I’m not giving you something just to give it to you, you earn it you show it.” And just by building what I built overtime, I did show it, and I did earn it. We even have our retail sale. We still have our retail stores, we still have our traditional closeout, but online is has just really become the mass of the company.