Keeping it in the Family

Alyce and Janelle Parsons Give Traditional Apprenticeship a Woman’s Touch

Entrepreneurial genes run deep in the Parsons family. “All of the kids got our MBAs at the dinner table,” says Janelle Parsons.

“And that is literal, we weren’t the kind of family that left our jobs at the door. We just worked it out at the dinner table every night,” laughs Alyce Parsons, President and Chief Operating Officer of Parsons Group Inc., a Santa Barbara-based company, which owns and manages independent and assisted-living communities around the country.

Janelle–the oldest of Alyce’s four children and her only daughter– manages Parsons Group’s three properties in Texas and oversees marketing for the company, which also includes a property in Arizona, as well as the nonprofit Garden Court in downtown Santa Barbara, the nonprofit Friendship Manor in Goleta, and The Gables of Ojai, a swanky retirement community nestled in the foothills of the Santa Ynez mountains.

Alyce says her daughter was destined to go into business. “Janelle didn’t play with dolls, she played office. She said, ‘No dolls, give me a tablet!'” When Janelle was in sixth grade she opened a candy store at the Carrillo Hotel, a low-income senior housing project, which the Parsons owned until it was demolished and replaced by Hotel Andalucia in downtown Santa Barbara (now Canary Hotel).

“When all four kids lived at home we’d have a family meeting every morning. We called it ‘Logistics.’ Janelle would chair the meeting, figuring out who was going to be where when,” says Alyce.

Alyce says she views her business relationship with Janelle as similar to men that have traditionally had sons as apprentices. “I happen to be her mother and she happens to be my daughter but the dynamics of the relationship are very similar in the sense that I have a responsibility to my business to produce an employee that has the skills necessary to do the job. From a business perspective I have to be able to be a leader to Janelle, I have to be a mentor to her. I have to be developing her as an employee to take on a pretty big responsibility. Guys have been doing that since the beginning of time.”

“The family rule is you have to prove yourself outside of the company in order to be invited in,” says Janelle, who worked elsewhere for six years before her mom invited her in, “after she saw I could do it somewhere else.”

“I just feel privileged to be able to be a woman in that position to be able to give her really the skills at a pretty high level. I mean we’re a $24 million company. … It’s not pretend, it’s real and to be able to do that for my daughter, it’s so exciting to be able to share it with her,” says Alyce. “Not only from a professional standpoint but also from a work standpoint. I mean she grew up with me being a fulltime worker woman. So she knows how to do that too.”

While Janelle and her husband Kevin Nimmons don’t have children, they plan to have them someday. When they do, “I’m going to work,” she says. “My mom worked the whole time when we were growing up and we’re not worse for the wear because of it. It worked out really well because we all are part of the business because of it, so I feel like I can do that too.”

The Parsons have managed to combine business with family very successfully. Janelle’s father Bob (Alyce’s husband) runs the real estate development side of the business and her brother Blake will come on board this year.

” I think that if you go into a family business you just have to be prepared to work twice as hard as everybody else because there is that stigma, you’re the daughter, there’s a lot of stuff that goes with that, so you need to prove to everyone that you’re there because of what you can offer the company, not because of who you are,” says Janelle.

The younger Parsons sons, Gavin and Cameron, are still in college, but Alyce says they may be interested in coming on board someday and she wants them to be prepared. “I want everybody to at least understand the business because at this point, they’re stockholders. They need to be able to make intelligent long-term decisions as stockholders, so they need to know the business from that perspective. Whether or not they contribute professionally is really up to them. They may or may not have the skill set.”

Even when they’re not working side by side in their Victoria Street office, Alyce and Janelle talk several times a day. And yes, sometimes they do disagree.

“Janelle has her way of telling me, ‘Look I’ve had enough of that subject, drop it,'” laughs Alyce. “Then that’s followed sometimes by tears and then we go into mother daughter mode.”

Janelle says the hardest part is having a bad day at work. Normally you might call your mom to vent about work. “…You hear your mom’s voice and then you immediately start crying because it’s your mom and then you think gosh, I shouldn’t be crying in front of you.”

Switching between work and family mode can be pretty funny sometimes. “She’ll call me and say, ‘you haven’t been my mom for a week now. Will you just be my mom? Can we just talk?'” says Alyce.

Janelle says it’s a balancing act. “There are a few different hats that my mom and have to have the whole time. So it’s mom, I need you to be my mom right now. Mom I need you to be my mentor. Mom can you be my boss? And we preempt everything with those labels and we’ve learned the balance and the dance, I guess, that it is to work together.”

While the Parsons women are all work when they need to be, they also manage to fit in some play. “Sometimes when we go on the road we’ll be a little bit deviant and we’ll plan a shopping trip,” says Alyce. “We love shopping at the Galleria in Houston so we’ll go a half day early and shop for the afternoon. I don’t think men do that.”

Originally published in Coastal Woman on June 1, 2008.

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