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The Myths About Family Business Growth

By Jennifer M. Pendergast, Ph.D.

Most of us assume that growth for your family business is good, but that's not necessarily true. When they choose to grow, family businesses need to pursue healthy growth, which means growth that is sustainable and profitable. Growth though can have its dark side. Some family business owners pursue growth for the wrong reasons. They set on a course of expansion and, because they have not planned carefully enough, soon find the business is out of control.

Healthy growth requires finding a balance between growth (to keep up with the competition) and sustaining a high level of quality, service and profitability. Family businesses often learn that while they can grow quickly in the short term, they may not be able to sustain growth over a longer period. They may get ahead of themselves discovering that while they are able to double the number of customers, they are unable to maintain customer service standards or they can't manufacture enough product to meet the demands of a vastly enlarged customer base. Cash-flow problems can occur. More people want our products than we realized, the owners say. Now what are we going to do? What seemed like a great idea growth can lead to a host of sales, marketing, production, personnel or financial problems that can jeopardize the very continuation of the family's business legacy. One well-known brand of fast food restaurants introduced a new product that was so popular with the customers, the restaurants ran out in the first week of the promotion. Franchisees were unhappy; customers were unhappy; and marketing dollars were wasted advertising a product that couldn't be bought.

Here are three particularly popular myths surrounding business growth. Each has its own implications and requires careful thought as family business owners consider growth strategies.

MYTH #1: GROWTH WILL MAKE US MORE PROFITABLE.

Maybe, maybe not. Happily for many business owners, growth does result in greater profits. However, growth also requires taking on more risk. For most businesses, growth necessitates looking for new customers, new geographic locations or developing new products or services. Attracting new customers or creating new products or services often requires substantial investment, exposing the company to additional risks. While growth can lead to additional profits, it generally takes money and time to achieve. Investments may be required which provide returns only after a period of time. So, increases in the top line, which is most often what people characterize as growth, doesn't always mean growth in the bottom line.

MYTH #2: GROWTH WILL CREATE JOBS.

True if the business grows, you usually need additional employees. But what business owners often overlook is that growth also puts a burden on existing personnel and possibly on family relationships. What if, in expanding your business, the needs of the company outgrow the talents of your current management team? You may feel loyalty toward a long-term key employee because she helped the business grow to its present level. You now recognize that she doesn't have the skills and expertise needed to take the business to the next level. Are you ready to put her out of a job or choose to promote over her? What if a family member is being bypassed? Many a family business owner has had to say, My son s not capable of running a business this big. That s a scary prospect. You might find that the business exceeds even your ability to manage it. Will you be able to face the possibility of bringing in a CEO from outside the family who can do a better job?

As a business expands, existing managers including yourself will have to delegate more responsibility to others and focus less on the daily operations and more on the long term. When a family business grows beyond the managerial capabilities of the next generation, family owners are faced with multiple dilemmas. Can non-family executives be identified, recruited and motivated to lead the business? Are owners, through the board of directors, prepared to provide necessary oversight and accountability? Does the family want to continue its ownership absent a family member running the company? Can family members handle the complex dynamics of dealing with such issues and reach agreement about growth, leadership, governance and ownership issues? Finding answers to these questions can take years of discussion so family businesses must be able to think well into the future, anticipating the potential implications of growth in relation to leadership issues.

MYTH #3: GROWTH WILL GIVE ME MORE FREEDOM.

If I had a bigger business, it would generate more cash and I could have time off to go play golf. Sound familiar? Many owner/managers see growth as a path to freedom and a means to enjoying hobbies, travel, or a vacation home. If our company was larger, they think, I could hire more employees to help me. And, I could also take more money out of the business for things that I've always wanted to do.

If healthy growth is achieved, a business owner can indeed realize his or her dream of greater freedom. But getting to that level of growth can require giving up freedom, not gaining it. It may necessitate adding debt or getting money from outside investors and then having to report back to them. It almost always requires giving up some managerial control because you can no longer run the business by yourself. Growth means more challenges, more problems, more people, and more money.

Consider the Stress of Growth

The downsides of these myths point out that growing a business can be just as stressful as it is exhilarating. You may have to bring in outside money. You may have to risk wounding the feelings of loyal key employees if you have to bypass them in search of executives more able to run a larger operation. Growth constantly requires you to do things differently, never allowing you to rest comfortably on your accomplishments.

Growth is not just stressful for the owner, managers and employees. It s also stressful for the whole family system. There are no easy answers here, just things to consider.

Reprinted with permission of the author from Healthy Growth for the Family Business. ©2006 Family Enterprise Publishers, www.thefbcg.com. All rights reserved.

 

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