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Family Business Ownership Perspective

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14 April 2014

Family Business Ownership Perspective

Dani Saveker was a guest panelist at an event hosted by Winckworth Sherwood at their London offices. The discussion centres around family businesses and the ownership perspective.

The following is the following report prepared by Winckworth Sherwood.

  • Emma Rogers, Chief Executive, Little Bridge World – a digital education business that provides language learning systems for 4-14 year olds.
  • Dani Saveker, Chief Executive, Families in Business – a private business created to ensure a go to place for family businesses. Professionals, suppliers and advisers sit within the community providing a network of support for family businesses.  Prior to this, she ran her family’s 106-year old engineering business.
  • Ben Kent, Managing Director and Founder, Meridian West – a research consultancy that helps financial and professional services firms become more client centric.  Ben is also a non-executive director of Kent Blaxill, a family-owned builders merchant.
  • Chair: Grant Gordon, Founding Director of the IFB Research Foundation and former Director General of the Institute of Family Business

There are some three million family-owned businesses in the UK, employing between them more than nine million people and contributing approximately 25 per cent of the UK’s GDP.  They are, in short, a critical component of the UK’s economy.

But most family businesses do not start out as a ‘family business’ – they start as owner-managed businesses.  It is only when future generations ‘inherit’ a role in the business that it makes the transition to a family business.  Add in a few further generations and extended family relationships and it can become incredibly complex. And all owner-managed business, family or otherwise, have to think about the transfer of control.

The importance of culture and values in family owned businesses, growth and financing growth, and ownership structures all came under the speaker panel’s spotlight.

Values

The values and culture of family-owned businesses are unique and are, more often than not, formed around the dining room table.  They encompass things like fairness and respect, said Dani Saveker.

However all businesses can benefit from the values on which family businesses are based. ‘Running a SME is like being the head of a family; you give your people the freedom and responsibility to get things done and to grow the business, yet they know you are there holding the rudder.  Staff, as with children, like to know that ‘mummy is there and everything is OK!’ said Emma Rogers.

Getting the right team in to support the business owners is critical.  Passion is the one thing that is at the heart of most family businesses – business owners want people around them who understand and share that passion.

Strong leadership is also required, said Ben Kent, and this is achieved through trust and good communication.  Transparency between management and staff is often at the heart of good communication, particularly with the younger generation.

The values family businesses hold are rarely written down, but when they are, as seminar chair Grant Gordon reminded delegates, they can be enormously helpful when entering into joint ventures, acquiring other companies or seeking investment.

Growing a business

Growing a family owned business and passing it on to future generations is one of the biggest challenges faced.

It is important that family members involved are clear about what they want from the business before any decisions can be made, said Ben.  Different stakeholders will want different things.  Growth often comes through constant innovation and developing new product lines and in this economic climate diversification may for some be vital.

New generations should not be afraid of questioning the role of incumbent advisers.  The example was given of a family-manufacturing firm where its new MD ‘inherited’ its accountants, who had not once taken the time to tour the factory and ask questions that might help that business save money.

First generation businesses often face the problem of financing rapid growth.  Commenting on her own experience with banks, Emma said that they are typically reluctant to lend and not all business owners want to go down the private equity route. Ben added he felt the banks didn’t easily understand knowledge based businesses, which needed to change.

The banks in the audience were quick to defend themselves, reminding delegates that owner managed and family owned businesses often carry a high degree of risk; what, for example, happens if a key person was to get sick?  Better conversations between customers and banks are needed, said the bankers in the audience.

Family businesses are looking for trustworthiness with their banks and advisers said Dani, and trustworthiness is based upon reliability, credibility and intimacy.  Intimacy is often missing. Advisers often jump to the solution before understanding and exploring what’s at the heart and the key issues. Gathering sufficient information to create the whole picture is vital.

Ownership

Ensuring a business successfully passes from one generation to the next is enormously challenging, often testing and stretching family relationships to breaking point.

Advisers should be brutal in their advice, said Ben.  A family member may not necessarily be the right person to sit on the main Board and it is the advisers who can step in and suggest alternative roles.  Many family businesses will have a ‘family board’ that sits alongside the executive Board to manage such an issue.

Family members must be aligned, always doing the right thing for the business, said Dani, and that sadly doesn’t always happen.  It is here that relationships can break down.

It goes without saying that businesses should anticipate the next generation and plan and prepare them should they wish to take on the family business.  It’s no good appointing a family member to the Board if they do not know how, for example, to read a balance sheet.

The seminar concluded with Grant Gordon citing recent research that broadly showed family-owned businesses to be fairing well, with strong balance sheets supported by conservative decision making.  The UK has a much stronger and richer economy because of our family businesses.