Growing up, we have all frequently heard—and profited from—the advice to “listen to our elders.” Indeed, young people can at times act rashly because think they have all the answers, but really need to heed the experience of those who have walked the path before them, and know well where the standard pitfalls of business or of life are and how to avoid them. In fact, one of the enduring values of a family business is the ability of the younger generation to profit from the experience of the generation that came before, gaining the wisdom of these “hard lessons” without having to go through the pain directly themselves.
However, as the pace of life and business ever accelerates, it is also important for a family business to be able to heed the unique knowledge or experience that the younger generation may have to offer. In particular, as technology becomes an ever more critical application in many industries, the rising generation can really provide value in keeping the business current.
The younger generation is often a champion of leveraging technology in a way to reinvent a core aspect of the business model, which can breathe needed new revenues into aging business models. One recent example we read about was from the movie theatre industry. The Loeks family in Michigan, who own 11 movie theatres, just named 32-year-old J.D. Loeks (grandson of the founder) president of the business. While J.D. had been chief operating officer, he made a critical contribution, pushing the family to make a $14 million investment in digital projection technology.
“With film projectors, the only thing you can put on our screen is film stock,” Loeks said. “With digital, you not only have better movies, but you can put anything on the screen, including live TV broadcasts, anything on satellite, or anything on a computer screen.”
This new technology platform has extended the business opportunities for J.D.’s business, to include hosting video-conferencing from site to site, and using the family theatres to host a range of events for large groups. “It’s redefining what we can do in our facilities,” Loeks said. “We’re doing catering, banquets, sports events, business meetings, non-profit fund-raisers. We’re in a period of rebranding right now.”
In fact, the “non-movie events” at their facilities have grown from 1 percent of the company’s income to a projected 10 percent over the next year or two. As Loeks grew up in his family’s business—he clearly understands the core underlying business well, and his proposal was not to radically alter the business model—but rather to use technology to leverage what has worked in the past, and to bring in new opportunities for the future. Had the family resisted this “youthful advice,” then the business might have fallen behind the competition.
The core lesson from this example is that while the younger generation will always have a lot to learn from its elders, it is important to ensure that communication at family meetings go both ways, so that the family can leverage the wisdom available across the age spectrum. The best way to do this is to work to make this a habit: Seek out input from every member of the family whenever possible—when the children are younger, you can encourage their active participation in decision-making such as “vacation plans” or fun family weekend outings.
At family meetings, set time aside in the agenda to hear specifically from the younger generation. Get them used to speaking up and having their ideas discussed for their merits and limitations.
As those from the younger generation join the business, make sure there are learning opportunities in the business that go both ways—where the young people are learning new skills and they are also given opportunities to work on projects where they can bring new insights from their knowledge and prior experience to the company.