"Never go into business with a relative," the axiom warns — although odds are, whoever said that was unemployed.

According to the Family Firm Institute's Web site (ffi.org), the vast majority of all U.S. businesses are family owned, including many major corporations. Further, it's estimated that family businesses generate about half this country's gross domestic product, half its total wages, and are responsible for 77 percent of all new job creation in the United States.

So, achieving success in a family business is not only a matter of familial pride, it's a very important contribution to this country. But the same kinds of questions that any business asks itself, also should be asked of family enterprises. Is a sound business foundation realistic or already in place? Is the enterprise well positioned in terms of the marketplace and demographics? Are the company's leaders knowledgeable with diverse specialties? Are they committed? Do they have a strong work ethic? Is there a defined structure that precludes conflict. Is there mutual trust and confidence that greed won't creep in and become divisive — even destructive?

The answers to these questions were all a resounding "yes" when Shelly Claffey-Broder, Charlie Claffey and Brian Claffey decided to take the plunge a little over a year ago. They took over Southlake, Texas-based Claffey Pools, which had been owned by parents Paul and Barbara Claffey since 1987.

And yes, everyone's still on each other's Christmas lists and talking to each other at family functions.

"I'd say the main thing that makes the business tick for us as family is that everyone is responsible for their own area," says Shelly, who specializes in sales, advertising and marketing. "No one crosses that line. Everybody realizes that if that happened, we could have chaos."

At Claffey, the three siblings are at the head of the decision-making process. Shelly's older brother, Charlie, is general manager; younger brother Brian is manager and field supervisor in charge of quality control and construction. But the success of the operation involves contributions from top to bottom.

"It's a team effort," Charlie says.

"We break teams into small work groups. Having three people run a company the size and scope of ours is not feasible."

Work groups also maximize communication, a priority at Claffey. "Disagreements do come up," Brian says, "but everybody is really open about it. We all listen. We pay attention to what the other person is saying.

"If there's a problem or a key disagreement, we don't let it fester. There'll be a meeting within a few hours. With everybody."

Adds Shelly: "We're lucky in that we have great compatibility. We meet regularly to ensure we're on the same page. There has never been an issue we did not resolve."

TEAM CLAFFEY

No one can argue with that or the bottom line, which shows that Claffey Pools has gone from a business with $1.5 million in revenues in 1993 to $17.5 million 10 years later. And the Claffeys have taken the family concept to another level: Spouses, cousins and aunts are among the others who make the 50employee business a success.

"My husband, Dan Broder, is our CPA," Shelly says. "Charlie's wife, Marla, works part time doing payroll. Jane Sullivan, my aunt, is our service manager. John Citta, my cousin and Jane's son, manages our retail store; and my mom's brother, Bobby Brzozowski, is our specialized construction superintendent.

"But they're not here just because they're family. They're here because they're good at what they do and we value their contributions. It couldn't work any other way."

Trust in family must run in the blood. Claffey Pools patriarch Paul Claffey says he never had second thoughts about passing the reins to Charlie, Shelly and Brian.

"The big thing is, they have that work ethic," he says. "They're very hard workers who go the extra mile every day. You've got to have that commitment because someone else is always waiting to take your customers."

Paul Claffey started the pool business in 1987 after working as a masonry contractor. As some of his jobs took him to pool sites, he would see some of the work being done and knew he could improve on it. His business went from a handful of employees to the 50 it has now.

"The company has gone from being just a pool builder to a builder, service company, remodeling company and retail center, and sprinkler and irrigation company," Charlie says. "There was obviously a lot involved, but mostly my dad laid the groundwork with hard work."

Adds Brian: "My dad is a very simple man, and that's a compliment. He always impressed on us that if you take care of the small things, the big things will take care of themselves. He always told us, 'Don't worry about the money. It will always be there. We all will have shoes and a shirt on our backs.'"

"We always felt the business would be in good hands when we passed it along," says Barbara Claffey, who worked as an office manager for 10 years. "And really, the timing worked out well. Paul had a heart attack early in 2003 that required bypass surgery, and it was kind of a blessing that it happened at a time when the kids already had the reins."

Paul and Barbara, who still work part time at Claffey, know their children also inherited their hunger to always find a better way. "It's a comfort to know they're still here for their input," Shelly says. "And they know we want to take this a step further."

THE NEXT STEP

"We feel we can't build more pools until our internal process is smoother," says Shelly, who has a background in marketing and fashion merchandising. "We are currently making changes, and one includes updating our Web site (claffey pools.com). We are making it more all-encompassing.

"Also, we currently build about 300 pools a year and would like to double that someday. We'd like to make our building plans more detailed and precise in order to make it easier for our construction team to build the plan. A lot of our work involves massive water features, caves, slides, etc., creating a total backyard experience. We want to get our process down to the point where everyone knows what his or her responsibilities are in that process" — just as the main Claffey brain trust knows theirs.

Shelly explains how the current process works: "We have a full CAD team in place. We also have a sales team that sells and designs the pools. They take the design to the CAD department, which puts all the detail on the drawings and gets it ready to be built. From there it goes to our pricing department, and we produce a proposal with contract-detailed drawings.

"Then we make a second appointment with the customer in our office. It takes a lot of people to get to the final stage."

"Their organization is pretty impressive," Paul says. "I started this business with my back, and now they're doing it with their brains."

Heart helps, too. Claffey Pools' success is measured not only in execution and numbers but in its standing in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Charlie ticks off the company's awards in 2003 alone: Texas Small Business of the Year in the community service category, awarded by Baylor University; Golden Torch Award, from the Better Business Bureau; and a candidate for a national Better Business Bureau award for business ethics. "We're the only pool company in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that has never had a Better Business Bureau complaint," he says.

Shelly agrees that sound business ethics are as important as a hearty work ethic. "The first thing I see go wrong with businesses is greed," Shelly says. "After that, it's respect for each person's position and letting them do what they do best. Just because you think it's supposed to be one way isn't always true. When you feel you're respected, that's the most important thing."

Shelly says she'd love to see those ideals passed along to yet another generation. "Charlie has two sons, I have a daughter, Brian has a son," she says. "They'll be involved in the business until they choose real jobs, because they have to do something and there is so much work here for them.

"But they're going to need to go to school. If they choose to have careers here, they will have to work their way up."

So already, the kids' kids know what is required of them. Mom and dad certainly got their message across — along with all the right qualities that render foreboding axioms irrelevant.