Engaging in Learning about the Business: Insight from a Fifth-Generation Family Member
In working with family enterprises, I have often had the pleasure of collaborating with family members who want to learn and be engaged in the process of stewardship, even if no one in their generation actually works in the business. As the facilitator for the fifth-generation meetings of one particular family, I was struck by their dedication and asked if they would share their story. Fifth-generation family business member, Stacy, generously agreed to be interviewed:
CJR: Stacy, let’s start with some background on the current cousin group.
Stacy: There are 10 fifth-generation cousins ranging in age from 15 to 32; we live all over the U.S.
CJR: Are any of you currently owners?
Stacy: Yes, we are owners. However, we cannot exercise our ownership rights until we are at least 18. We were encouraged in high school to come to family meetings, but encouraged more after we were 18 or older.
CJR: Stacy, do you recall any other messages of encouragement about the business when you were younger?
Stacy: Mostly to learn a bit about the business, and to get comfortable with the language that the family used when talking about the business. My dad is the president, so the business was discussed around the family dinner table. I also went to company picnics. We lived by the home office, so it was easier for me to do this than it was for some of my cousins.
CJR: Did anyone work in the business? Summer jobs?
Stacy: My brother did, and the message there was always that if you wanted to work there over the summer you could. I never wanted to, but some of my cousins did take summer jobs with the company.
CJR: So as a kid, how would you sum up your experience with the family business?
Stacy: I don’t remember thinking of it as a family business. It was just where my dad worked. When we were kids, we did a lot of vacations together, big vacations with everybody. I do remember as a kid being proud of my dad, but not because of my last name, but because he was the president of this company. I didn’t see how it had anything to do with me; it was about what he had accomplished.
CJR: So there was not a big push about business, but great focus on the family. I want to shift gears here. Let’s talk about what you are doing now.
Stacy: Well, we definitely are working on the education piece now. Over the past few years, I had been feeling frustrated at the family meetings; like I was always playing catch-up. I wanted to ask questions, but I didn’t want to interrupt and slow the meetings down just because I didn’t know what was going on. I found out some of my cousins felt this way too.
CJR: What did you do about it?
Stacy: I asked if we could put together a reference manual. Something for the fifth generation, so that we could understand the business, the history behind it, the products – we weren’t even sure what the company made!
CJR: And you did put together a manual. I have seen this manual; it’s a thing of beauty. Could you share what is included in this document?
Stacy: It was mainly for the fifth generation. I started with the processes we use to manufacture our products. I included what we make, what our “tubes” are used for, gave some examples of products that you find our tubing in – the one I really like is the pumps for ketchup at McDonald’s.
I spoke with plant managers and people at the company to understand what we do and how we do it.
I added information on reading a financial statement, bios on our board of directors and our senior management, and I put together our family history with pictures. The aunts and uncles had done a great job gathering the information. It had just never been put together in any formal way.
The cousins all have copies of the manual, and each family has a copy. Some of the senior generation told me that even they learned things about the company!
CJR: Do you think this manual has been useful to attach the fifth generation to the family?
Stacy: It definitely helped me, and I think for the fifth generation it’s going to be valuable to us. It’s helping now that we finally know where and how our products are used!
CJR: What else do you think will help to make your generation engaged and interested in their roles?
Stacy: Twice a year we have family meetings, and a year and a half ago we started meeting as a separate group before the larger meeting. But the one thing that I think has made the difference is that we added “family fun.” The meetings, especially for the younger members, can be very businesslike and difficult to engage in, so we went to our parents and said that we really needed to make part of the meeting about having fun as a family. Our parents thought it was a great idea, and we have been doing that ever since – it makes us feel that we are contributing.
Another thing we did that engaged our generation was a retreat about two years ago. We toured one of our plants, had (FBCG member) Steve McClure come in and do some family communication exercises with us, and we went water skiing and had a great time.
CJR: What I think is interesting is that you all have done so many things that our group talks and writes about, and I recently sent you our latest book on family education (See Family Business Leadership Series book: “Family Education for Business Owning Families: Strengthening Bonds by Learning Together,” available at our web site: www.efamilybusiness.com), so I do want to talk to you a bit about the book and what you found helpful.
Stacy: One thing that resonated with me in this book was the Bancroft case – I thought that could be us if we don’t do anything. None of us work in the business, and at this time don’t see ourselves in traditional positions in the company. So I worry that the fifth gens could go this route if we don’t find ways to engage ourselves in the business. I think we should be thinking about ways to work in the business.
Some of the ideas in the book we have done, and I was glad to see that. But I was also aware that so much of the work done was done by our parents, and even though they have done this work, we are still going to have to revisit these topics. Our entry into the system changes the dynamic, so it’s a never-ending process; when we have kids we will have to do the same thing. The book made me realize that we are never done.
I also saw some items that I had never even thought about as areas for discussion. One was personal health; it was interesting to me as a future topic. I also like the idea of career planning – and not just career planning to work in the business, but planning for careers no matter what. Living with wealth also is an interesting issue. It would be a good topic to discuss in our fifth-generation meeting, where we feel safe and not judged by anyone.
CJR: Yes, and you could probably devote a whole meeting to that topic. Stacy, any final thoughts or advice for others?
Stacy: I would say that my involvement in the family meetings, the reference book and retreats have made me start to think that I really want to be involved in the business and that maybe my generation should be thinking about non-traditional and non-obvious ways to be a part of the business. We don’t have to do it like our parents did and we can still be involved.
And I would say when I think of the family business now, I am proud of what my family has accomplished. I have something tangible to be proud of, and I also think we are lucky because our families never pushed us, yet they encouraged us to be a part of the business. And lastly, for the younger kids, try to remember to keep it fun and engaging and with some immediate reward. When you are younger you just don’t think in terms of 10 years from now.
CJR: Well put, Stacy! Thank you!