Real Life

What it's really like to be in business with your mum

A family business has traditionally been one of fathers and sons, but mothers are now also heading companies that their children can step into.

Danielle and Suzanne Butler
Business: The Pie Piper
It was Suzanne Butler who came up with the idea of turning her mother Danielle’s culinary skills into a business. The concept was born around the family dinner table over an American dessert pie – the kind she’d grown up watching her mum make for every special occasion.“We were away on holiday with my husband’s family and I’d made pie,” says Danielle, who moved from America to New Zealand during high school. “I always make pie – pie for birthdays, pie for Christmas, pie for events. Suzanne turned to me and said, ‘Mum why don’t we make this a business, why don’t we make pie together?’”
After a year of perfecting their recipes, the duo launched The Pie Piper, selling their first creations at a small suburban farmers market, where they began educating Kiwis on the joys of American dessert pies.
“People know about fruit pie, but when you start talking about sugar pie, cream pie or sweet pumpkin pie – we had to introduce people to that,” says Danielle, who learned the skill from her mother, Janet Igrisan. Janet also helps in the business.
The Pie Piper’s presence spread to other Auckland markets and Danielle and Suzanne have now employed three more staff to keep up with the increasing orders from restaurants, retail stores and online. The mother and daughter own the business 50/50 – Danielle, 48, is the baker, and Suzanne, 20, is in charge of customer relations, while also studying psychology at Auckland University.“So far the growth in the business has shown the demand is there,” says Danielle. “Now I am in the process of writing a recipe book for pies tailored to the Australian and New Zealand market, and we are looking for a permanent home where people can come and have coffee and pie.”
Danielle on Suzanne:
The biggest benefit of working with Suzanne is…
I get to see her so often. Most of my friends with kids of a similar age only see them every couple of weeks, so I feel very blessed.
The key to our success has been… Honesty. Suzanne doesn’t hold back and I don’t temper what she says. Her opinion matters and sometimes I just have to sit on my hands and listen. There will be times when I think I’ve created the perfect pie flavours – but if it is not quite right, Suzanne will say.
We solve conflicts by… Balancing each other out. In a challenging situation I might be able to bring my experience and Suzanne can bring that lovely youthful perspective. Suzanne is very ‘big picture’ and I’m very systems orientated – so if I am having a meltdown in the kitchen because we have so many pies to make, she’ll calm things down by reminding me why we are doing it.
I’ve learned… The child-parent relationship is in the background – now it is adult to adult. This is Suzanne’s first business, I get to see her grow and she continually surprises me. She is so fantastic with customer service and it’s great watching her in action.
Outside of work we… Have a family dinner once a week – pie is usually on the table!
Suzanne on Danielle:
I was inspired to work with Mum when…
I realised how good she was at making pie. Mum has always experimented with food and baking, she’ll wake up in the middle of the night with a new idea and make it. She takes what she learned from her mum and sees what more she can do with it.
My mum is… Independent and smart. For as long as I can remember she has always started new things – she owns three other companies as well as The Pie Piper and she’s a baseball umpire. She can take something tiny and turn it into something big.
The best thing about working with Mum is… I get to see her and Dad so much. I am really grateful that I have been able to form such an amazing relationship with my mum and to create something with her.
Sarah Cowan and Lynn Kirkland
Business: The Herb Farm**
When Lynn Kirkland developed The Herb Farm as a one-woman band more than 30 years ago, her daughter Sarah was just three years old and natural health and beauty products were few and far between. Now, at 34, Sarah is the managing director of the company and is catapulting the business into the future.
“We are now a team of 24 – it has become quite a bit bigger than I ever envisioned,” says Lynn, 65, who was drawn to learning about natural remedies when her son Craig started school and got recurring chest infections.
“The only thing our GP could suggest was antibiotics. I wanted to do something preventively, so I did a herbal diploma.”
During that time the cough mixtures, creams and teas Lynn was trialling on friends became hot property and she saw the potential for a business.
“We’d purchased a piece of land behind our small holding here in Palmerston North and I had a vision that people could come here and learn about herbs and buy the products and plants – so that was the birth of The Herb Farm.”
After the farm had been open for a year, the council announced they were going to put a landfill a kilometre away, a move strongly opposed by the community. It was during the submissions process that Lynn first saw her daughter’s strength and determination.
“Sarah had done her own submission on the effect the landfill would have on the community, her school and the environment. At 13 she was standing up for The Herb Farm and now here she is running the company.”
The community won the battle, and when Sarah returned to New Zealand to study business after working overseas as a model, she jumped on board again, using her new skills to advance the company.
“She worked part time while she finished her degree, then the opportunity to buy into the business came up,” says Lynn. “She had been away from it and could see the potential, whereas I had been in it for so long I couldn’t see that we needed to do things like change the branding a little bit. We have not looked back.”
Lynn still develops the products, but is prioritising another special project – caring for Sarah’s children Taj, four, and Sia, eight months, while Sarah runs the business.
“When I started the farm, it was almost like another child. I loved it, nurtured it and gave it everything it needed to grow, then I got to the point where I could trust Sarah with something so dear to me. Sarah has done the same for me with her children.”
Lynn on Sarah:
We complement each other in business because…
I am a peacemaker and Sarah has a much more powerful personality. Communication has never been my forte so she handles the human resources and the strategic growth of the business and I do the research and development.
Working together has… Strengthened our relationship. We want the business to be a success and we can support each other with that. Our ethics and moral compass are the same – it has to be 100 per cent natural, we will not compromise.
Sarah on Lynn:
I admire Mum’s ability to…
Be a pioneer at a time when natural was not the norm. She was passionate about it, believed in it and pursued it, and I think that took a lot of courage and guts.
The benefit of working with mum is… I get to see her a lot, we share a passion and I have been able to continue a legacy.
We complement each other because… We are different in personality and skills. Mum is very creative at formulating the products and I love the business side of it.
Vicki, Ben & Andrew Wallace
Business: Bayleys Real Estate
No one gets in trouble for being on the phone during dinner at the Wallace house – with four of the five family members in real estate, there is always a client drawing attention away from the family meal.
Vicki Wallace has clearly provided some inspiration to her sons Ben, 26, and Andrew, 24, who have both pursued a career in real estate. Although Vicki’s husband Gary is also a real estate agent, it was Vicki who led the way. She was the first member of the Wallace clan to become an agent 13 years ago. Gary joined two years later and Ben was the next to follow in 2014.
It wasn’t in his plans however. Ben has a commerce degree, but his first love was golf, and he represented New Zealand in the sport until a shoulder injury made him rethink his future.
“When he returned from Europe and was considering his options, someone said to him coincidentally that he would be really good in real estate. With it being in his bones, he joined us,” says Vicki, whose third son Sam lives in Sydney and works in advertising.
Ben won Rookie of the Year in his first year, and when younger brother Andrew returned from his OE a year ago he too decided to follow suit. His choice was less of a surprise, as he had done a commerce degree and a bachelor of property with plans to emulate his parents, who have been Bayleys’ number one residential agents in New Zealand for the past seven years.
The brothers work in the commercial team at Bayleys, but there are plenty of crossovers in the Wallaces’ work – and Ben and Andrew have learned some valuable skills by osmosis.
“It’s fundamentally a relationship business and the boys have picked up on that,” says Vicki. “While the hours are flexible, there are no short cuts and you must be committed to delivering a high level of quality service with honesty and integrity, and the boys appreciate that.”
Vicki on Ben and Andrew:
The benefit of working with my sons is…
We have something else in common. Dinnertimes are really interesting – there is always some aspect of property being discussed. You spend so much time being their mother and mentor and then all of a sudden you have this wonderful friendship. We’re equals now.
Outside of work… We are really family orientated. We walked the Routeburn Track together last Christmas. The boys are very sporty so there is always some activity happening. We are just so fortunate that we all have so much fun and the boys are happy to come and spend time with us.
I’ve been proud to watch my sons… Pave their own paths, because although we are all in it together, you still have to individually drive your business in this industry. They are very good with people, have great social skills and are good communicators. I have huge respect for their discipline and their interaction with people – everyone loves them.
Ben on Vicki:
I admire Mum’s ability to…
Give time to everyone. I think that is a big part of her and Dad’s success. People love dealing with them and gravitate towards them.
I now see Mum in a new light because… I have an appreciation for how hard it is to get going in this industry and I’m proud of what she has achieved.
Mum has taught me that… Real estate is a pretty simple recipe at the end of the day – it is about treating people the way you’d want to be treated.
Andrew on Vicki:
I was inspired to work in real estate when I saw…
The freedom my parents had. You can choose your own hours, work as hard as you want and determine what you make. It’s commission-based, which can be pretty scary, but I have watched my parents do it most of my life.
I am impressed by Mum’s… Work ethic. She is tireless – she will work from 7am until 10.30pm and I have never seen her not answer a phone call. I have always respected my mother but I respect her a lot more now because I understand how hard it is to do what she has done.
Sonia Watts with daughters Vanessa Bramley & Stephanie Kiteos
Business: French Country
Three decades ago, frustrated by the lack of decorative ornaments available in New Zealand, Sonia Watts began creating, painting and engraving jewellery boxes, photo frames and candlesticks in her kitchen and living room.
“When I first started, I made everything, packed everything and wrote all the invoices by hand,” she says.
Vanessa, now 41, remembers coming home from school and using the wire-bending machine to create the back of photo frames, applying black antiquing to jewellery boxes and helping her mother pack boxes.
The objects soon became so popular Sonia couldn’t keep up with demand, and so she continued designing the range but had them manufactured elsewhere. That business became the success story that is French Country Collections, a project both Sonia’s daughters, Vanessa Bramley and Stephanie Kiteos, 38, have dedicated their working lives to.
After her OE, Vanessa joined the business in a full-time role at 21, and is now the managing director and buyer. Stephanie came on board after university, and when the business entered the Australian market in 2001, she hit the road in Melbourne and sold the products there. She is now the marketing manager. While Sonia is still present in the business, she has gradually stepped back in her day-to-day role and her daughters are now carrying it forward.
Sonia says her daughters’ contributions have been invaluable.
“I like to stand back and watch them – I’ve loved to watch them grow. Their tastes are beautiful. I could walk out the door at any time and they could take it over. They bring a young feel to the business and I think that is important.”
Sonia on Vanessa and Stephanie:
My daughters inspire me…
Because they are very focused, visual and both are exceptionally capable.
Outside of work we have… Lots of raucous family dinners. We have houses on Waiheke Island and we holiday together. We enjoy each other’s company. We get together over a glass of wine and say we are not going to talk business but inevitably we do because we are so passionate about it.
Stephanie on Sonia:
The benefit of working with Mum is…
We can bounce ideas off each other in an open forum that is non-judgemental. There is less fear of failure when you are amongst family.
I’m impressed by Mum’s ability to… Move quickly on a vision. She knows exactly what she wants and she is very focused about getting there.
Vanessa on Sonia:
I’m impressed by Mum’s ability to…
Sell. She is a very clever sales person. She is passionate about what we do and she conveys that passion.
I’m inspired by Mum… Starting her own business at a time when there weren’t many mothers starting businesses – and they certainly weren’t going on overseas sourcing trips alone. She is courageous and was a role model to us.
The benefit of working with Mum is… We have both travelled with Mum for work – it is a lovely experience to travel in different parts of the world with your mother.
Debbie & Nikau Hindin
Business: Moa Clothing
Moa was born 30 years ago from a collaboration of artists who shared a love of screen printing and sewing. The shop opened in 1986 and remained a collective until five years ago when it became the sole project of two of the original owners – Debbie Hindin and Julie Stevens, who have a longstanding friendship.
They were pregnant with their children at the same time, moved in together [with their then partners] and raised their children as siblings. In those early days they ran their individual clothing labels, Juna and Vesta, from their shared home in Grey Lynn, Auckland. Now their workroom is above their shop in Grey Lynn, and one of the children is an integral part of the business.
“As a baby, Nikau would be sitting on my cutting table,” says Debbie, 56. “She and [Julie’s son] Raika were always around – we lived and breathed the business.”
During her teens, Nikau worked in the shop and modelled for photo shoots. Then at 18 she got a camera, taught herself how to take photographs and began shooting Moa’s look books.
“I got the creative freedom to take on big projects that young people wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to do,” says the exhibiting artist who graduated from Auckland University last year with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Bachelor of Arts.
Now 24-year-old Nikau is responsible for the visual content on Moa’s website, she runs its social media and blog and the brand’s seasonal editorial campaigns.
Debbie on Nikau:
The benefit of working with my daughter is…
We communicate easily, effectively and efficiently. Nikau has a real capacity to translate the right elements into a photo because she inherently knows what we want to create. I knew Nikau was creative and focused… From a very early age. She spent hours creating and playing by herself and that was good for us because we were always working! She was an amazing artist at school and put hours into her paintings.
Outside of work… It is really important that we spend time together. Within the business we operate as equals, but we really value that mum/daughter time too. My family is in Christchurch and Nikau’s father lives up in Northland so we do a lot of trips away together, which is great one-on-one time. We also do yoga together.
I’ve learned… To trust and respect Nikau’s work. I can let go and know that whatever she is going to put into play will be of an exceptionally high standard.
Nikau on Debbie:
My career has been influenced by my mother because…
I grew up with her being self-employed. She was constantly producing and having a creative output and that showed me I could do anything I wanted if I worked really hard. It feels very normal to me to be a self-employed artist. I went to art school to get an education, not to get a degree so I could get a job – I am not fearful of the future.I admire Mum’s ability to... Communicate with people nicely, even in a stressful situation. I have learned from her that getting over things quickly allows you to have a good working relationship with people, even if you have a disagreement. That’s really advanced to me. She also works very hard, is scrupulous about every single little detail and treats her staff really well.
I feel grateful that… I can be part of my mum’s business in the capacity I am. Not a lot of people are lucky enough to have as much creative autonomy – that is a real privilege.

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