Asked the secrets regarding what keeps a family-run venture alive and kicking for 50 years through three generations, Donna Gardiner Thompson, owner of Gardiner Realty in Fredericton, replies, “There are none.”
It comes down to remembering the values you “learned in kindergarten,” and sharing a work ethic, she says.
Judging from her stories, there’s one thing you might not want to share – a hotel room. In 1988 Donna and her husband moved back east from Ontario to join forces with her parents in the business, which her father Don Gardiner had founded in 1970. To save money, her husband, Lincoln Thompson, was expected to share a hotel room with her father on business trips.
Donna recalls, laughing, “One day Lincoln said, ‘I can’t do it anymore. Your father snores.’”
That was the same year Gardiner Realty joined Royal LePage, officially becoming Royal LePage Gardiner Realty (independently owned and operated). It was a new chapter for the company.
Says Lincoln, who’d left a job as director of business planning with Northern Telecom to partner with his in-laws, “I went from one of the most high-tech companies to an old-school ‘Ma and Pop’ business that didn’t even have a fax machine or a computer. I had to make a whole lot of changes. We had some struggles, knocked heads sometimes.”
Donna and Lincoln’s son Ben, and daughter Katrina, are now the third generation involved in the family’s Atlantic Canada success story. Katrina is in Halifax, serving as manager, business development at Royal LePage Atlantic.
Ben, as well as being a sales rep with Gardiner Realty, is vice president of Gardiner Properties, the enterprise’s privately owned development arm, with about 30 properties across the Maritimes, including subdivisions, shopping centres, apartments and land for future development. The family says that the commercial division sometimes helps give the brokerage side a leg up on the competition, as it provides a broader view of the community and a connection to key people making decisions for municipal growth.
“It’s a lot of responsibility for a third generation, a lot of pressure to keep things going,” Ben says. “We’re still working the kinks out. You see each other so much. You have to separate work from family time, so you’re not constantly talking about work.”
It’s not always easy, especially as Ben now lives only five houses away from his parents.
They recall being in a similar situation at one time, separated by only a backyard from Donna’s parents. “The four of us shared office space, lived in each other’s backyards, shared the grandkids,” says Donna. “And how lucky were they?”
Donna’s mother Alice is retired. Her late father Don – impeccably dressed, car loving, consummate networker – was recognized as one of the province’s most successful and public-spirited businesspeople. In New Brunswick lingo, he was “a big toad in the little pond.” He’d held a host of top positions in organized real estate and beyond, including heading up the Canadian branch of the International Real Estate Federation (FIABCI), the Canadian Lung Association and the Canadian Snowbird Association.
His deep sense of civic responsibility earned him both an Order of Canada and a Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for community service. His family says that Gardiner Realty continues to make giving back to the community a priority today.
Don Gardiner died in 2018. But Gardiner Realty, with three offices and 33 sales reps, has carried on as a leading area brokerage, recently celebrating its 50th anniversary.
“My father’s dream was to continue this legacy on to the next generations. Careful planning years ago made this a reality,” says Donna. “Letting go of some things is the price you pay to move it forward into the next generation.”
As it happens, one of the things the older generation frequently needs to kiss goodbye is their concept of the company’s value, which may be inflated. Even if it’s not, “There has to be concession that when dealing with family you will be giving the company away for less than you normally would to a third party,” says Ben.
Donna says that succession planning involves having all family members make hard decisions about whether they want to be involved. A clear division of roles is also crucial, she adds.
“There is no family I know currently operating a business where there is not stress. Leadership can be diluted by distribution of ownership; striving to be fair can be a road that has no end,” she says.
Foresight and skilled negotiation are critical.
“Third-generation companies have their challenges, but exciting times lay ahead,” says Donna. Thanks to the internet and social media, “there’s very different brand building” now than there was in the past, making it easier for young people starting out in the business to make their mark, she says.
“With new energy there is change and growth. We are ready to embrace all that entails.”