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Personal touch is key for small business

Family businesses are driven by a ‘small is beautiful’ ethos, as leaders in the sector explain

Small family businesses need to be agile and nimble where operating in a marketplace dominated by larger global brands.

Holding on to faithful clients over the decades is a process driven by quickly responding to their individual needs and constant upskilling to the demands of new technology and innovation.

Building long-lasting relationships is everything to a small business, particularly one where a significant portion of new business comes through referrals.

Established in 1995, C&L Business Systems is an electronic point of sale service (EPoS) provider operating in Cork and the greater Munster region.


Co-founder John Carroll was followed into the company by his son Rory, who started with C&L in 2015 as business manager.

“We always put our customers at the forefront of everything we do,” John explains. “We appreciate that time is of the essence for many business owners and employees, so we ensure that we are concise yet effective in our approach to the extensive training and upskilling we provide customers on existing or new technology and software.”

Many of C&L’s clients operate in high-pressure environments and, as a result, have need of a streamlined and efficient EPoS function.

“Even though so much has changed across the business landscape over the intervening years since 1995, we are proud of the fact that some of our customers have been with us since the business began,” John adds. “It has been, and still is, a privilege to work with these businesses through the good times and the tougher times, and it has been a real endorsement for us as a business that the people behind these shops, pubs, restaurants have put their faith in us for so long.”

Building long-lasting relationships is everything to a small business, he says, particularly one where a significant portion of new business comes through referrals. “Because ours is a family business – it is built on our name and our reputation.”

In a smaller company, the personal touch is everything, Rory points out.

“We look at every customer who decides to do business with C&L as if they are entering a partnership with us,” he says. “It’s not merely a transaction. We learn about our clients’ businesses and, very often, we learn about the people themselves.”

One of the benefits of being a smaller, family-run operation is that they are always at the coalface, he explains: “We spend our days out meeting our clients – we’re not just a voice on the other end of the phone or a reply at the end of an email. I have absolutely no doubt that it is this approach that has secured us new business year in, year out for the last 30 years, and that has allowed us to retain our existing clients as we go.”

C&L mostly deals with businesses in the retail and hospitality sectors, with each having unique needs.

“And that’s why it is so important to learn how they operate, to really get to know the people behind them and who work there day to day,” says Rory. “Regular site visits are very important both to us and to our customers.”

While operating in a marketplace with much larger competitors is an undoubted challenge, John and Rory have learned to focus on those benefits accruing from a “small is beautiful” business ethos.

“Bigger players will have more resources at their disposal but we don’t spend time worrying about competitors; we just have to lean into what makes us a success in the first place. We focus on what we’re good at and on what sets us apart – best-in-class software and an unparalleled level of hands-on customer service.”

Positive word of mouth and referrals from customers are invaluable to any business, John believes.

“An overseas organisation is not going to be able to offer the on-the-ground interaction that a local operation can. Technology has opened up opportunities that we have embraced – to the benefit of our customers.”

Successfully blending different generations within a company structure is a rock many businesses have foundered upon and it is something to which John and Rory give regular attention.

“The foundations that the company was set upon are respected by both generations,” Rory points out. “We are always in agreement when it comes to our ethos and our approach.”

Smaller operations also have an edge on their larger competitors in adapting with greater agility to changing customer demands and new innovations.

“A smaller organisation like ours has the capacity to pivot to new innovations and technology more swiftly. And there is no bureaucratic red tape – we can make on-the-spot decisions when they are needed,” he adds.

Looking to the future, John and Rory are as one in their optimistic outlook for family businesses, despite the constant challenges in the 24/7 commercial world of 2024.

“All the signs are good. In fact, we are hoping to grow our team this year to ensure that we can keep pace with growing demand from new and existing customers,” says John.

As with any business, the bottom line is important – everyone needs to keep the lights on and the staff paid. Between them, John and Rory have amassed a lifetime’s worth of business wisdom, all vital information learned at the cutting edge of retail.

“Honesty and integrity in running a successful family business are everything,” Rory says. “You build on that honesty and integrity from the previous generation and it is appreciated by your customers in all your business relationships. That – and always respect your elders,” he concludes with a smile.

Family firms very confident for future

The KPMG Enterprise Barometer 2023 found a high degree of resilience and measured confidence in the future among Irish family businesses and entrepreneurs, despite the challenges of inflationary pressures, difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff, a heavy tax burden, digitalisation and sustainability issues.

“There is no doubt that as Ireland matures economically it is becoming more challenging to involve the next generation in a family business as the options available to that generation outside the family business continue to widen,” explains Alan Bromell, head of Private Enterprise, KPMG in Ireland.

“This is, of course, a positive development overall. However, continued prominence of family businesses will always be an extremely important ingredient. The tax regime has always acknowledged the importance of this by applying important reliefs to intergenerational transfers. In the absence of this, it is likely a family business will end up going out of family hands.”

Recent changes to the capital gains tax rules, which place an upper limit on the value that can transfer to children via retirement relief, could have a significant negative impact: “We strongly urge that this is relooked at and any further changes avoided,” says Bromell.

Targeted, pro-growth and appropriate tax policies can significantly influence entrepreneurial investment, he explains: “Ireland’s tax policy should support domestic and family businesses and entrepreneurs seeking to access risk capital and talent, both of which can represent significant constraints for entrepreneurs seeking to build businesses of scale.

“Our personal tax regime must be seen as attractive relative to what other countries offer. How we tax dividends paid to founders also needs to change to remove the bias towards an exit, often too soon. There is also a strong case to be made that entrepreneurs should be subject to a tax regime that would be on a par with capital gains tax, subject to certain conditions and qualification criteria. It is important Ireland gets this right – because, increasingly, founders are well briefed on the business environment and regimes in other competing countries and are mobile.”

Succession planning doesn’t always have to be confined to family members; considering external candidates to manage the business can bring valuable perspectives, explains Camilla Cullinane, tax partner, KPMG Dublin.

“The complexity of choosing successors is amplified in family businesses, where ownership and management roles can differ,” she adds. “While soft skills like vision and passion are crucial, seeking an external perspective can be beneficial.

“Transparency in the succession planning process, whether internal or external, is vital to engage all stakeholders. But the key is to ensure the selected successor aligns with the business’s needs and long-term goals, together with the family’s vision and values.”

For more information visit kpmg.com