The co-founder of the North Carolina-based Italian tabletop and home décor company — who launched Vietri with her sister Frances after a trip to the Amalfi Coast with their mom — tells us what it's like to be part of a family business, both the ups and the downs.
The most exciting part about being in a family business…That there is somebody who loves you unconditionally. There's a lot of value in having a family member whom, when the going gets tough, you really trust. Is working with family the hardest thing in the world? Absolutely, because it brings in that other dynamic: emotion. But would I do it again? Absolutely.
Our biggest challenge...When we started it was, OK, who's going to lead this endeavor? Because there is a corporate structure in the world and there's a family structure. And our family structure was that Frances is the older sister. She taught me about sex, she told me about Santa Claus.... But I had the retail experience, I was single and had lots of time; Frances was a mother of two with a newborn. So we decided I was going to be president. To grow up in that family dynamic and then be her boss, so to speak, that was a huge obstacle.
And how we overcame it...You've got to communicate in an honest way and, upfront, create a mission and a vision and write clear roles for everyone. Also, from the beginning, we had a board of directors. We consciously looked for someone who was in a family business; another who had been extremely successful, lost everything and gained it back; an entrepreneur, and a family member — people we could call at any time.
My advice to resolve family conflicts...From the inception of the business idea, you have to have really gut-wrenching, honest conversations about your dreams and hopes for the company and what you see your role being. Communication is key, all the way through. The perfect scenario is that your hopes, dreams and visions are the same, but your strengths are different and recognized and embraced early on. That way, you always have respect for what you bring to the table.
And don't forget…I'm a big believer in the yearly physical checkup. You also need to have a family-business checkup. You should find a family-business professional with whom you could talk to together and separately throughout your career.
My favorite childhood memory with mom…Going to a fabric shop and picking fabric with her. Then we would go home, I would cut out all the patterns — like for an apron — and she would sew them together. We'd make Christmas presents and I would think about which fabric would be good for which person….
Best advice from mom…Don't make any major life decisions at night. Sleep on it and when the sun comes out, it's amazing how much you shake off. You'll make better decisions because suddenly things aren't quite as daunting. The other advice she gave me is to not be afraid of making decisions. You can always change your decisions — if you turn right, you can always go back and turn left — but you've got to make them.
Must-sees when visiting Amalfi...1. The town is known for its handmade paper. There are a couple shops that sell it, but the original paper mill is there; it's really important to see if you love crafts.
2. The San Pietro hotel is really a magnificent piece of architecture.
3. There is this gentleman named Gaetano who, with his brother Salvatore, will take you out on a boat to see the Amalfi Coast from the water. To see how these homes have been built into the rocks is not to be missed. There is this island called Isola de Li Galli which, when we started Vietri, was owned by Nureyev. When we went out with Gaetano, we could see all the dancers practicing on the island!
Susan (left) and Frances Gravely