All in The Family

The ties that bind help build strong businesses


When I started my agency, I never imagined my son would one day come to work here and develop such a passion for the business,” says Nancy Lazkani, CEO of Icon Media Direct. “He was not in my future plans for the business, and [at the] time, I was just trying to survive.”

Nancy’s son, Jeff, is director of Business Development and Strategy for the Van Nuys, Calif.-based media planning and buying shop. Her surprise at finding herself working with a family member is echoed by three other multigenerational direct response marketing leaders Electronic Retailer recently interviewed, with the goal of discovering the secrets to their enduring success. The clans include the Lazkanis; Hal Altman and his children, Tony Altman and Andrea Stuhley, of Motivational Fulfillment & Logistics Services; Tim Hawthorne and his daughter, Jessica Hawthorne-Castro, of Hawthorne Direct; and Ayal Latz and parents Sarah and Gary Latz, of a2b Fulfillment.

Icon Media Direct CEO Nancy Lazkani had mixed feelings about her son, Jeff, joining the business, but he quickly proved to be skilled at building client relationships.

Unintended Consequences
While the company founders may not have set out to work with their relatives, the dynamic evolved organically. “Our employees watched the kids grow up around the company,” Hal Altman says. After graduating from college, his daughter, Andrea, worked on the hit TV series Full House. During a break in production, she decided to come to work for her father, starting in customer service. “I got sucked in,” Andrea says with a laugh. “I got married here, and had my kids here.” Now, more than 20 years later, she is Motivational’s executive vice president in charge of the DR business.

Her brother, Tony, took a different path. After a successful law practice, he joined his father and sister to head up Motivational’s Retail division and provide the company with legal and financial guidance. “When I made the move, I knew it was going to be either the worst decision I ever made or the best,” he says. “Fortunately, it has been the latter. The time we get to spend together is invaluable.”

The benefit of working with a family member is that it’s somebody you know very well. —Ayal Latz, CEO, a2b Fulfillment

“My daughter, Jessica, left Fairfield, Iowa, attended UCLA, and became a prominent Hollywood agent,” says Tim Hawthorne, founder and CEO of Hawthorne Direct. “When we first started talking about her coming to work at the agency, I thought, ‘Do I really want my daughter to get into this? Please have an easier life. Don’t do this!’”

But Jessica, who interned with Hawthorne Direct as a teen, was drawn by the idea of working with clients representing some of the world’s biggest blue-chip brands. She discovered that their professionalism—compared to some of the vagaries of Tinseltown excess—to be a refreshing contrast. “There is a saying, ‘Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life,’” she says. “I never thought that was possible. But it is.”

Lazkani, who raised Jeff and his sister Sarah while building her business from the ground up as a single mom, harbored a similar ambivalence about her son coming to work with her: “Like any other parent, you want to see your kids spread their wings of independence.” Jeff says, “Growing up, I was exposed to many people from the industry and had a sense of my mom’s impact. After going through college and spending some time in banking and retail, I figured out what I was good at.”

What he was good at was building relationships, but Nancy insisted he start in an entry-level position in the Traffic Department to “learn from the ground up.” Eventually, Jeff was tapped to join Icon’s Client Services group, where he had the opportunity to work with many of the agency’s flagship clients as well as in new client development. Throughout his tenure, he has honed critical-thinking skills that serve him well today as he leads the agency’s business development and strategy.

In a2b’s case, the firm evolved from a toy company that was started in the family home. “I did not imagine I would be working with my parents,” says CEO Ayal Latz, whose mother and father have since divorced and work for the company from separate locations. Sarah Latz, who heads up human resources and works alongside Ayal at the company’s headquarters in Greensboro, Ga., says, “Surprisingly, it feels very natural to me, because you’re working with a person you like, you love, and trust, and you know very well. You know what you need to do to get along with that person.”

Father Gary Latz, who lives in Houston and runs a2b’s marketing, admits that working for his son has sometimes been a humbling experience. “Everything Ayal wanted to do, I told him not to do, and he did it anyway,” he says. “And it has turned out very well.”

“Besides,” Sarah adds wryly, “Ayal was an only child and he always got what he wanted, so in a way, we’ve always worked for him.”

As members of the same family, Motivational Fulfillment’s Andrea Stuhley, Tony Altman, and Hal Altman use verbal and nonverbal communication in running the business.

Code of Conduct
Part of the evolution these family businesses have had to navigate is just how to strike a proper balance between serving the needs of the company while continuing to enjoy rich interpersonal relationships. “The hardest part is being able to separate motherhood from the business,” Nancy Lazkani admits. “You have to find a happy medium.”

“When we would get together outside of work, oftentimes, the first thing I wanted to talk about was an agency triumph or challenge,” Jeff adds. “I’ve really learned to focus on not talking about business on personal time.”

Another way these owners and managers create a separation between their professional and personal lives is by using one another’s first names in the workplace, a convention they all seem to embrace. “At work, my mom is Sarah,” Ayal says. “But outside of work, she’s Ema—Hebrew for mom.”

As for the whispers of nepotism such intergenerational dynamics must invariably endure, Jessica Hawthorne-Castro, who earned her MBA before taking the agency’s reins as CEO, says, “Because I’m female, a blonde, and look young, I’ve always dealt with people underestimating me. It doesn’t really faze me.”

“The feedback that I’ve gotten is that people have been really amazed at how good she is at her job,” her father adds. “As a result, I think people have rooted for her to become the leader of the company.”

To watch your children grow and help your company grow-well, there’s nothing better. - Hal Altman, co-founder and president, Motivational Fulfillment & Logistics Services

“As the son of the owner of the company, there comes an overwhelming burden to work that much harder to prove yourself to business associates on all levels,” Nancy Lakzani adds. “There’s always going to be somebody somewhere who’s going to think Jeff was simply handed his opportunity, but even Jeff must be held accountable to good work ethics. I have tried my hardest to hold him to a higher standard, and can sometimes be harder on him than anyone else.”

“The benefit of working with a family member is that it’s somebody you know very well,” Ayal Latz says. “You know how they think, you can read their expressions, and you know what is going on in their minds.”

Hal Altman echoes the sentiment: “Tony and I are mirror images of one another. We can read each other’s minds.” Andrea shares the gift of an excellent vocabulary with him, he adds, and a family’s innate ability to understand one another through verbal and nonverbal communication helps engender trust. “We have lots of arguments, but not a lot of fights,” Altman says. “There’s a big difference.”

Jessica Hawthorne-Castro amazed clients before taking over from her father, Tim, as CEO of Hawthorne Direct.

Torch Bearers
“The long-term plan is really where it is now,” says Hawthorne, who now spends large chunks of the year in New Zealand, far from the cornfields of Iowa. “Tim’s legacy as a thought leader, and as one of the founding fathers of the modern-day DRTV industry, remains vital to the legacy and culture of our agency, and that has allowed me to focus my efforts on operations, effectiveness, and profitability,” his daughter adds.

As DRTV has morphed into a more complex, omnichannel paradigm, the perspective of the younger generation is helping these businesses grow and evolve with the times. “Jeff is in tune with the new generation, has a vision, and understands the importance of where the future is going,” Lazkani says. “He plays a key part in bringing our company into the forefront of a new era.”

As for how the future will play out at the management level, she is uncertain. “The ultimate outcome would be to have the legacy live on,” Lazkani says. “It all boils down to what is in the best interest of the company’s growth.”

“Nancy is a very special person in more ways than I can speak to,” Jeff Lazkani says. “To take the torch would be a dream, but only if I could fill those shoes.”

Hal Altman is clearly further down the road to enjoying more free time, but calls retirement overrated. “I’m going to keep working as long as I want, but cutting down [on] my time as I go,” he says. “It’s really Andrea and Tony’s company now. I may be the majority shareholder, but they’ll be running the company long after I’m gone.” Motivational’s business has doubled in the past two-and-a-half years, a testament to the fact that the family’s chemistry is working just fine.

Success is also evident at a2b, where the heir apparent is already in charge. While the traditional roles are reversed, achieving success together is no less sweet. “Working together has really been rewarding in multiple ways,” Gary Latz says. “As a parent, you always want to see your child do well, and our handiwork has turned out very well. To be part of an organization that’s dynamic, bold, and forward-thinking is the icing on the cake.”

“I’m so happy that I have this opportunity in my life—to share this success with my son,” Sarah Latz adds. “It is tremendously satisfying to help build something with my child.”

“I have the best job in the world,” Hal Altman says. “To watch your children grow and help your company grow—well, there’s nothing better.”

Rick Petry is a freelance writer who specializes in direct marketing and is a past chairman of ERA. He can be reached at (503) 740-9065 or online at rickpetry.com and @thepetrydish on Twitter.