Playing the hand you were dealt

What happens when a small family business is struck with multiple illnesses or injury? LimeLite almost crumbled when two generations were simultaneously sidelined – but they soldiered on.

As Rebecca Ryan tells it, family businesses need to know when to hold them and when to fold them. Four years ago, her family business was about to be sold. But a closer examination of the numbers and a turn-around in personal circumstances changed that.

Ryan is the office manager at LimeLite, a commercial lighting company based in Melbourne that turns over $2 million per year. The company was set up by Ryan’s father, Paul Hearn, a former boiler maker who got into the lighting trade and was working in lighting sales. Hearn and a partner, Rick Dockerty, set up a lighting sales business, LED in Brunswick in the early 90s.

But in 1996 when Collins Place was being built in Melbourne, an order came in for the kind of lights that just didn’t exist. No problem, said Hearn. With his contacts in the metalware business from his boiler maker days and his knowledge of the product, he drew up sketches for Collins Place, put it together and then created LimeLite.

The business grew but then in 2009, Hearn came down with sarcoidosis, a disease that usually starts in the lungs and which comes from the growth of tiny collections of inflammatory cells in different parts of the body. It can also affect the lymph nodes, eyes and skin. Doctors believe sarcoidosis results from the body's immune system responding to an unknown substance, most likely something inhaled from the air. There is no cure for it but most people seem to recover with modest treatment. Sarcoidosis often goes away on its own. With Hearn, the company’s visionary incapacitated, LimeLite was in trouble.

At the same time, Rebecca had nerve damage to the ligaments in her neck which paralysed the left side of her body.

“I was on pain killers, Dad couldn’t get out of bed, Mum was here trying to hold the fort and at that time it was all a bit crazy.”

“Each morning Mum would come and pick me up from home, wheel me in, I would sit in the chair and tell her what to do and by the end of the year, everyone was exhausted and we sat down with our accountants and said: ‘That’s it, we’re done. What can we get for the place?'”

Ryan says it was an emotional time. “I would have been devastated that I wouldn’t be able to sustain it,” she says.

And then, the ground started shifting again. “We got to that Christmas and I realised how sad it was going to be and over that Christmas period we went away and got the figures back for the year and we had actually doubled our turnover. But it was at such a cost physically.”

“We had a three month period where we were putting together the information memorandum for buyers and wrote down a 10 point plan for where we could see LimeLite going for the buyers because it was a growing business.”

It was around then that father and daughter’s health started to recover. Ryan had an operation on her neck and got better and Dad started getting his energy back. Looking at the figures, and feeling more together, they held on to the business. But it wasn’t just the financials that swayed it, she says. It was also the vision of where the business was going, so closely aligned with the family values. And in the end, she says, it all comes down to health.

The moral of the story: anyone running a family business has to stay fit and well.

“My point is that health is your wealth. If you don’t have the energy or drive to do it, it’s extremely hard,” Ryan says.

Ryan is heavily invested in the business because she has been there right from the start. When Dad first got that order from Collins Place he set up a factory – right underneath the family home in Montmorency. “We were working underneath there – myself, my three sisters and my mother,” says Ryan. “It was on the weekends and after school, we earned our board. We were the factory workers.”

After two years, the business had outgrown itself and had moved to a factory in Thomastown (it has since moved to larger premises). Ryan went to university and ended up working as a dealer’s assistant at Shaw Stockbroking. After five years, she decided equities wasn’t for her and decided to start work at LimeLite.

 “That entailed a big wage cut,” she says. “They put me to work on the wiring line, there was no hierarchy whatsoever.

“He [Hearn] wanted me to learn the business from the ground up. I had a panic attack the first day I got into work, going from working at 90 Collins Street to a freezing factory, with a pay cut, working with my Mum and I was thinking what am I doing? I had put lights together because I was doing it part time while I was at uni but I never thought it would be a career for me.

“I went in and sat with Mum and she said 'this is what it is, you have the ability to make it something that is yours if you work it the right way.' So the next day I kicked off the heels and came in in the right outfit and worked on the wiring line for six months. I knew the product that we were pushing.”

Ryan has since settled in well. Being part of the family business means you’re never switched off. Even after she had her son 15 months ago, she kept working. “From the time I got home from the hospital, I was remotely accessed and kept on working and kept my brain switched on to what was happening with the business,” she says.

And the business is growing. “If people aren’t building they still want to renovate and the tap has turned back on over the last six months. We have a seen a huge turnaround in the building side of things.”

Ryan is in Thomastown four days a week and works remotely the rest of the time. “Dad and I are on the phone all day and he is pretty much back and forth from here and LED,” she says. “You are more emotionally invested in the company and there isn’t a Saturday or Sunday that you’re not off the clock for Dad to give you a call about something. There is no off time and if you’re sick they’ll turn up and say get on your computer. At the same time, it’s celebrating with them and I wouldn’t want to work with anyone else.”

“For me it doesn’t feel like work, I feel as though I am building something for my future and for my son. It’s something that I can pass down to him that my Dad has passed on to me.”

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