When Betsy Gorman is working on a real estate contract, she sometimes will drop an e-mail to her partner seeking details. Other times, she’ll send one of her children across the street to pick up the paperwork. Her partner fills in for her during pediatrician visits while Gorman takes over their Long & Foster practice in Alexandriaso her partner can take three-week vacations to Europe or Arizona.
“She jokingly referred to me as her retirement plan,” said Betsy Gorman. All that makes perfect sense when you realize her partner is also her mother, Bette Gorman, who has practiced real estate for 43 years in Northern Virginia.
With real estate’s competitiveness and falloff the last three years, both appreciate having a familial bond and a partner who can be trusted completely. “We don’t have her clients or my clients; they’re our clients,” said Bette Gorman, whose voice still carries a slight southern accent. “It really has worked out beautifully.”
A few minutes later in a separate interview, Betsy concurs. “Now it’s like we’re the same person. We’re interchangeable really. We communicate 100 times a day and we share everything. We think the same way.”
Years ago, it was rare to find mothers and daughters in business together. Though she has no statistics, Nell Merlino, chief executive of Count Me In, which offers training and support for women in business, said she noticed anecdotally that the trend is picking up. “Women who had mothers who were entrepreneurs are further along in what it takes,” said Merlino, a creator of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. “They’ve watched a female take risks and meet payroll and all that.”
Merlino said she believes the collaboration works many ways — mothers with established businesses inviting in daughters who have new skills to advance the company; daughters debuting a business and asking Mom to join; and the two starting one together.
“I’ve met a surprisingly large number of mother-daughter combos,” said Sharon Wildstein, who joined with her daughter, Wendy Meltzer, on an online toy, baby and gift boutique in Northwest Washington called Cattiwampus. They even buy batik baby clothes from one such duo in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Wildstein arrives at her daughter’s apartment in Dupont Circle at 9 a.m. to start work — taking the elevator from another apartment in the building instead of the Metro for her commute. Mom’s in charge of the packing and packaging, plus she goes to most of the gift markets in New York, where she visits other children. Daughter handles bookkeeping, the Web site and technical matters, which she squeezes in around her full-time job as an editor at a health journal.
“We’re pretty much together 24/7,” said Meltzer. Wildstein sometimes helps out with her children, ages 6 and 9, saying she moved from Atlanta partly to assist her daughter.
While they love their business and their ability to see buying and other decisions with intergenerational perspectives, they both acknowledge work can get co-mingled with their lives. When an order shows up at 10 p.m., “we’ll both see it on our computers,” said Meltzer. “Sometimes we’re bickering about the store. In a mother-daughter relationship, we’d be bickering about something.” Sometimes one gets annoyed at the other because they cannot find a little stuffed blackberry bunny or a gumball pacifier clip that needs to be shipped.
The Gormans started working together when Betsy was a baby and her mother took her along to show houses or install lock boxes. “She’s doing with her kids exactly what I was doing with mine,” said Bette Gorman, who said the best part of having her daughter as her partner is the connection with her, her husband and two children, ages 4 and 7. “Her kids are absolutely great. They know a lot about houses.”
Betsy said her mom’s more liberal about having kids in the conference room, while she prefers to be more selective. “I remember it being not very much fun” as a child, she said. Now “it’s distracting to my clients and me, and the kids are bored.”
Yet she appreciates the flexibility for family that the job provides. She joined her mother’s real estate practice in April 2005, when her first child was a year old. She had been working as a lawyer — work she loved but the hours didn’t suit her life. So she turned to Mom, who was very busy selling homes in Alexandria and throughout Northern Virginia. “She could use my help and I thought we could be a good team,” the daughter recalled.
At first they worked as mentor-mentee while Betsy was learning the real estate business. Now they’re equals, though Betsy uses a GPS and Bette maps and memory. They take vacations separately; Bette is gone more, visiting her mother in Arizona or easing into retirement a week or two at a time. Yet even then, she said, “we’re talking three or four times a day,” Bette said.
Betsy noted that her mother is still teaching her the importance of letting go of business for a few hours or a few days. “She’ll go and leave the business with me. Fine. When she comes back, she steps right into it.”
If you’re thinking of going into business with your mom — or any close family member — consider this advice from the Gormans and the Metzler-Wildsteins:
1. Make sure your family relationship is strong before you start a business relationship.
2. Everyone needs to share a vision of the company’s future.
3. Communication, especially an ability to discuss differences without hurt feelings, is crucial.
4. Get comfortable mixing clients and company with personal time.