There’s an expression that says, “Do what you love, and the money will follow.” And while the business leaders you’re about to meet have built substantive enterprises that are a testament to economic success, this article is about a different kind of love—the kind that combines a passion for work and a foundation of trust and tenderness unique to families.
“My children have always worked with me because I forced every one of them to be in my commercials,” Collette Liantonio, CEO and creative director of New Jersey-based Concepts TV Productions, admits drolly. “They grew up in the business, and I thought it was such a fabulous, exciting industry, it would appeal to them.”
Daughter Collette Stohler, named after her mother in the tradition common to their Italian heritage, agrees. “I was drawn to it and loved having an entrepreneur and go-getter as a mother; it was an inspiration to me. There were always commercial shoots in the house, and when I came home from school, I’d be the talent.” Stohler, who acts as the regional director of Concepts’ West Coast offices, recounts, “At around the age of 11, I appeared on Good Morning America with my mom, and I smiled and flashed my braces and announced I was going to take over my mother’s company one day.”
This kind of certainty isn’t always a mainstay for intergenerational family work alliances. “I went to school for business management and wanted to work in the fashion industry,” reveals Lindsay Fontaine, vice president and associate media director at Woodland Hills, Calif.-based direct response powerhouse InterMedia Group. Lindsay is the daughter of InterMedia president and CEO Robert Yallen, who had hoped his child would one day carry on a family tradition that he began with his father, Sydney Yallen. “I grew up an only child and always wanted to be in business with my dad,” he says. “We had a very tight relationship, and I would sit around the dinner table as a kid and actually listen to him as he talked about his pioneering days in the media industry.”
But like his daughter Lindsay, Robert wanted to chart his own course, and pursued a law degree before joining the agency. As Lindsay grew up, the elder Yallens conspired to entice her to join their operation, even producing a video for her bat mitzvah with the theme “What do I want to do when I grow up?” But it was only when Robert stopped pushing her to join the company that Lindsay followed in his footsteps. “I took an advertising certification class and discovered I really liked it,” Lindsay recalls. “I decided to come to work at InterMedia for a year, and I fell in love with the business.” She has now been with the agency for nearly nine years.
A chance route into the family business is how Larry Moulton, president of fulfillment leader Moulton Logistics Management, describes his foray into what would be a lifelong career. “It was my older brother, John, who started the company in 1968. I came out to California to do some selling six months later. As we struggled to make ends meet, John, who was married, had to get a ‘real’ job. I was single, so I bought the business from him for $100.” Nearly a half a century and some 600,000 square feet of warehouse space later, Larry jokes, “Now it’s worth twice that.”
In the intervening years, John returned to work for Larry for more than a decade, beginning a pattern that would see Larry employ various family members including his wife, Donna, whom he first met when she was the COO of Ronco. “The Ronco Food Dehydrator was our first big DRTV hit in the 1990s,” he says. Nowadays, she still works three days a week, overseeing human resources, payroll, and accounts. Other family employees include his son, Patrick, and Joel and Loren Crannell, Larry’s “cousin’s kids.” Together, they form a troika that leads the company’s business development efforts.
Complementing One Another
While one might assume Patrick Moulton would be the proverbial chip off the ol’ block, Larry says all members of the extended family have strengths that complement one another. “I have an affinity for programming and production, whereas Patrick is a strong people person and is a natural fit for the sales and marketing side of the business.”
These sorts of differences are evident in the way that Lori Zeller and Fern Lee, partners in business and life at THOR Associates, begin their typical Manhattan day. “Fern gets up at 4:30 a.m. and tiptoes out to the gym,” Zeller says. “She doesn’t drink coffee, so I know I’d better have at least a couple of cups in me by the time she’s returned, because she’s going to walk in the door ready to download me on everything that has happened with our clients overnight.”
“Once we figured that out, everything else fell into place,” Lee laughs.
THOR, named after the Norse god of thunder and storms, is apt for the company, since the duo describe themselves as “rainmakers extraordinaire.” This allusion to extreme weather patterns is also applicable to Lee, whose direct style might well be described as a force of nature. She admits that Zeller, an artist with a sensitive side, “makes me a better person” and acts as a kind of buffer between her partner and the staff.
The yin and yang of their roles fit together seamlessly as Lee is “editorial” and Zeller is “operations-minded.” “Fern says what has to get done, and I get it done,” says Zeller, and allows Lee to focus on big-picture concepts to produce the best possible results for their clients. “She is so brilliant and thinks so fast that I have to make sure that the rest of us can keep up with her.”
A Balancing Act
The executive team at THOR admits that finding the right balance between work and their personal lives took some time. “It’s been a learning curve,” Zeller says. “We have many professional colleagues who are also friends, so it’s easy to fall into a pattern where even at a dinner party, we might tend to talk shop.”
“We’ve developed the discipline to say ‘We’ve got to stop talking about work now,’” Lee adds. “We’ve learned the boundaries.” Zeller spends several hours a week pursuing fine art (www.lorihopezeller.com) and hones her skills in mixed media at the Art Students League of New York, which boasts such illustrious alumni as painters Georgia O’Keefe and Jackson Pollock. For Lee, finding a diversion was more challenging. “I told her she had to find a hobby, so she started watching Friday Night Lights—like that’s a hobby,” Zeller laughs.
Identifying clear lines of demarcation between roles is a rule to which Liantonio also ascribes. “I’ll call my daughter and be very specific and say, ‘This is Collette, your employer and boss calling,’” she says. “That means ‘Call me back immediately.’ When I’m calling as mom, she can roll her eyes and call me back two days later.”
To delineate herself from her mother, Collette Stohler coined the nickname “OC”—Original Collette—to describe her mother, whereas her own self-styled moniker is “Coco.”
Cheeky sobriquets aside, there is no question that Coco, who previously worked at Beachbody, VH1, CAA, and The Huffington Post before joining the Concepts fold, has the utmost respect for her mother. “It is so rare to find a mentor in any industry,” she says. “She treats me like both a daughter and an employee. I do a lot of writing, and she takes the time to go over why certain things work and others don’t. I’m learning the craft from somebody who loves me and cares about my future. But it’s really not so different from how she treats all of her employees.”
“I like to think of us as akin to a theatre company, where there’s opportunity for everyone to grow and try different roles out,” Liantonio adds.
“When you hire your loved ones, they really have to earn their way or you run the risk of ruining morale,” Larry Moulton warns. Son Patrick, who started by sweeping floors and driving forklifts in high school, understands why there might be skepticism. “With lots of different family members as part of the mix, it hasn’t always worked,” he says.
Larry, who strikes a decidedly patriarchal figure, intones, “If you delegate something to somebody and they’re not ready for the responsibility, it can be a recipe for disaster. Blood relatives have to work harder, otherwise it’s always suspect. Business is business, and what we do personally is another story. We look out for each other’s backs. But we still need to run the business.” Recently, the elder Moulton found out how significant relying on a family bond can be when he had to undergo open-heart surgery. “I trusted Patrick to take over a lot of my responsibilities, and he did a really good job,” Larry enthuses.
Yallen echoes that sense of trust in his professional relationship with his daughter. “Lindsay is my confidante, and I am hers. She’s tough. The last thing on my list is to aggravate her. I don’t know if it comes from my father or my wife. I see a lot of combinations of family members in her.”
Lindsay apparently agrees: “Sometimes he’s tough, but what he says is usually right. It’s really cool for me to see how everyone within the agency trusts him and respects him.”
“I don’t have ‘dad’ glasses,” Yallen continues. “Lindsay worked her way up through data entry, media assistant, and media buyer—wherever she was needed. She did a really good job of integrating into the company and ultimately has won the support and respect of her peers.”
A Gift That Keeps Giving
Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of the seminal self-help book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, advised his audience to, “Live, laugh, leave a legacy.” And it’s evident that these direct response colleagues have taken this counsel to heart. At InterMedia, a painting of founder Sydney Yallen hangs on the wall, and in the shadow of the portrait’s gaze, Robert Yallen has the unique opportunity every work day to, as he puts it, “kiss my daughter good morning and kiss her good night.” He does so confidently, knowing that together, he and his daughter are continuing to build upon the tradition his father started over four decades ago.
For Liantonio, the legacy is creating a culture of ongoing learning in which her daughter is part of a creative entity that feels like a bigger, organic family. Judging from the commitment and longevity of her staff, they understand that they get to play in a tent that the ringleader has made truly unique. “We are committed to training people so that they are empowered to realize their potential,” Liantonio says. “You want everyone to be self-actualized.”
And while fulfillment may not have been what he thought his life would be dedicated to when he started out nearly 50 years ago, Larry Moulton can stand today on both coasts and proudly survey his operations with the unique sense of achievement that is natural when an entrepreneur has shared success with so many loved ones. “I’ve had a lot of people with me on this journey,” he muses.
And “journey” is a term Lee also invokes to describe the nature of the partnership she shares with Zeller. “It is a pleasure to share the journey in every way,” Lee says. “We were life partners for two years before we launched THOR. As we evolved our agency, we realized how lucky we were to bring different skillsets to both work and our personal agenda. We have now been together for 10 years and this past New Year’s, we eloped to Napa and tied the knot.”
Working together “isn’t for everyone,” Yallen admits. It takes patience and a willingness to work through differences. But, in talking with these families, it is apparent that the foundation upon which their business relationship is built is transcended by an enduring affection that can overcome any challenge. At the end of the most difficult day, a wife is still a wife, and a daughter remains a daughter. As Stohler puts it, “It’s great that family and work can mix together in a loving way.”