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Soft Touch

When an entrepreneur's daughters took control of his business, fear of failure was a great motivator. But deciding who did what was the hard part.
Entrepreneur Catherine Pilbeam (Product Development Manager), Helen-Mary Pilbeam (General Manager) & John Pilbeam (Managing Director)
Company J & M Pilbeam Textiles
Business type Wholesaler of manchester and homewares
Founded 1975
Employees 7 full-time; 2 part-time
Head office Abbotsford, Melbourne
Contact details +61 3 9417 5755


Key Learning Points

Prior knowledge 

Prove yourself and get experience away from the family company before joining it.

Role rigour 

Determine who does what in the business - and give them the authority to carry out their job without sibling or parental interference. This is business.

The Pilbeam Story


Despite 17 years as a sales manager in the textile industry, John Pilbeam was given an ultimatum by a new supervisor in 1975: manage the warehouse or leave. He left. John says: "I thought everybody would want me. But when the phone didn't ring, I decided to start my own business."

John began working as agent, selling products on a commission basis. But he says: "I worked out that I wasn't going to get rich running an agency so I started selling my own range of boxed towel sets."

The Pilbeam family home doubled as the business office and warehouse. John's daughter Catherine says: "If you sat down to watch television, you would also be folding boxes. Dad had us surrounded." After two years of working from home, John's family issued another ultimatum: "Either the business moves out of the house or we will."

The Challenge

Succession in a family-owned business.

The Solution

Pilbeam Textiles grew quickly. By 1977 the workload was becoming too much for John. He says: "I was working through my statements and I said to [my daughter] Helen-Mary ‘I'm going to give this away, I can't keep track of all the people who owe me money'. She offered to help me out." Helen-Mary had finished business studies and was working in retail.

She began managing Pilbeam's new premises in Collingwood, Melbourne, allowing John to spend more time visiting customers and seeking new business. In 1993, sister Catherine joined the company after spending seven years at a clothing retailer. She says: "I always thought I might end up working in the family business but it was all a matter of timing - I needed to get my own experience. Everyone should do that."

The hardest part for the sisters was defining their roles. Helen-Mary found it hard to delegate and relinquish control. She says: "Catherine was begging me for things to do." It took the sisters two years to work out their separate responsibilities and duties.

Their roles play to their natural strengths. Helen-Mary says: "Catherine had been here six months when she had an idea for a range of towels with a bathing box motif. She followed this through and it sold like hot cakes. She really proved that she knew what she was doing."

Helen-Mary manages finance and Catherine runs product development. Catherine says: "If we don't agree, we submit to each other's roles. I have the final say on product development; Helen-Mary has the final say on finances."

In 1996, John was diagnosed with a tumour in his neck, forcing Catherine and Helen-Mary to take more responsibility for the company. Helen-Mary says: "We had to step up and take on some of Dad's duties." Catherine says that fear of failure was a big issue. "We were taking responsibility for a business that Dad built from the ground up. We wanted to make it succeed and not let Dad down."

There are two other siblings in the Pilbeam clan but they are not involved in the business. John says: "Michael worked here for a year and figured out it wasn't for him. Anne-Maree works in human resources and although she doesn't work with us, she is great at advising us on employment." Catherine says: "Helen-Mary and I often ask each other ‘Are we still going to be doing this at 70?' Anne-Maree's  daughter has shown an interest and we encourage her to become involved." Catherine's children feature as models in the advertising for Pilbeam textiles.

Helen-Mary and Catherine say it is essential to treat the staff as equals. Catherine says: "Just because you're family, you can't expect to walk into a cushy job. This is a family business but our team need to know there are opportunities for them in the company too."

The Result

In 2003, Pilbeam introduced a range of children's and babies' bed linen. Helen Mary says: "Once Catherine started having kids, we saw a whole new product range." Turnover has increased by 100% in the past ten years and has grown by 10% a year for the past four years. John says: "My daughters made me more money in three years than I made in 30. We're all bosses now."

Author Credits

Case study by Performing Words.

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