Building the Future of a Family Business with Communication and Trust
Mike Ungaro first started working for his family’s business at age 7. Today, as CEO, he is charged with leading one of the largest restaurants in the country while laying a solid foundation for the company’s future in an uncertain time. When Mike began to identify areas where he was struggling and felt stuck, he reached out to longtime friend and business associate Ron Macklin. Mike knew that Ron could help him uncover a path to encouraging team members to communicate more effectively and cultivating the talents of young employees. Below, Mike shares how the Macklin Method coaching program has reshaped the company’s culture and provided tools necessary to move forward with a shared vision.
Tell us about your family-owned business. What are some challenges you face as CEO?
San Pedro Fish Market and Restaurant was founded by my grandfather in 1956 in the seaside city of San Pedro, part of the Los Angeles harbor. The business started in a 200-square-foot space where they sold seafood out of a stainless steel ice chest. Today it’s one of the largest restaurants in the country with six locations, 400 employees, and retail in grocery stores and online. Currently, it's my two brothers and sister who handle the management and day-to-day operations.
I have noticed that family-owned businesses tend to fall apart after the third generation. For us, it’s been six and a half decades, and we have the opportunity to be open another six and a half decades — but the next generation, do they care? Amid all our growth, along with recent complications brought on by the pandemic, how do we continue to innovate? How do we inspire fresh ideas and new leadership? And how do we get on the same page about what we’re trying to do, from the owners to the dishwashers? These are some of the challenges we currently face.
How did participating in the Macklin Method coaching program help you start addressing these challenges?
The Macklin Method has helped our team develop a way to work with each other by building trust and accountability. We have great employees who have a lot to offer, and we want to give them the opportunity to share their talents. It would be really easy for me to say: “Guys, I'm the CEO, and we're going to do things this way.” But what I want is for everybody to collaborate and work together. It’s important for me to create an atmosphere within the organization where people feel safe, supported, and empowered to contribute. Trusting and believing in yourself, being willing to change with blaming yourself, and then believing in others. And, if what you're doing isn't working, be accountable and take responsibility — not blame somebody else.
This is a work-in-progress; it's not magic. But the Macklin Method has given us the language and tools to implement this trust and accountability all the way through the organization, so that it actually shifts the culture. That’s the key: How do we shift the culture so we can be competitive as the world changes?
How do you anticipate the coaching program will benefit the emerging leaders on your team?
What I’m seeing with the young people — our next generation of leaders — is that they have the potential, the capacity, but haven’t previously been empowered to see it for themselves. They are more than the mindset that they just need to come in, do their task, and go home. They are curious. So we have to show them how they can be part of building the pathway to bring our entire company and culture to a better place. We ask them, “Are you open to helping us with that? Are you open to helping other people see it too, so they can help you lead?”
What is the overall value and positive impact the Macklin Method has brought to the way your team handles complex issues and dynamics?
What Ron and his team have created with the Macklin Method is a way for us to communicate more effectively in a manner we couldn't before, especially as siblings and with ourselves. When you have a leadership team that includes family members, there are common concerns among employees who are not family members. They think, “Well, I'm never going to be a family member, so I don't want to speak up. I don't want to take a chance because I could get fired, or offend someone.” The Macklin Method has given us a place to address those concerns being open, dignified and curious. It provides a way to point out someone else's action and say, “This is what I heard, did you mean to say it that way? Oh, no, I didn't see that. Did anyone else see that?” And we can have a conversation without judging or feeling judged in a calm conversation. Instead, let's figure out a solution. Let's move forward.