More than anyone else, John L. Ward developed the field of family business. 

When he wrote Keeping the Family Business Healthy in 1987, it was the first book on the subject that was informed by scholarship and, at the same time, approachable to the leaders and owners of family firms. And over time, he produced dozens more. For 10 years, John wrote monthly columns in Nation’s Business, the magazine of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reaching an audience of three million, and played a key role in producing the monthly Family Business Advisor newsletter. 

As a teacher, he had no peer and he reached thousands of students at Loyola University Chicago, IMD in Switzerland, and for the last 20 years of his academic career, at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. All the while he circled the globe, speaking at events and programs at universities and trade associations, YPO programs, and conferences everywhere.  

Consulting provided constant exposure to the real world of family business and demanded that knowledge generated be articulated in ways applicable to challenges and opportunities. As a consultant, he was in such demand that he created The Family Business Consulting Group (FBCG) to assure that there would be an adequate supply of professionals who could provide the quality consulting that he believed family businesses deserved. FBCG continues to project his philosophy and values. When the Family Firm Institute (of which John was a founding member) created the Richard Beckhart Award for contributions to family business consulting, Ward was selected as its first recipient after Dr. Beckhart.  

As a researcher, he began early, looking at strategy in smaller firms and then crunching the numbers in the PIMS database. A tally of the citations in Family Business Review articles from the inception of the field’s leading academic journal would certainly show him as the discipline’s most quoted scholar. He produced dozens of family business case studies providing means by which students and family businesses themselves could reach deeper understandings through discussion and analysis.

Research, inquiry, observation and listening are among John’s most distinguishing characteristics. Add in remarkable energy, a great sense of fun and the ability to build enduring relationships. His experiences with family businesses, in John’s words, “opened my mind and heart to family businesses. Learning about them, knowing them and helping them became my passion.”

Those who benefitted from John’s passion included Indonesia’s Tanoto family. They donated $10 million to Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management to honor John by renaming its Center for Family Enterprises for him. The gift will support the Ward Center’s efforts to: share research with leading family businesses around the world; conduct groundbreaking research; engage scholars and family enterprises to inform the disciple more fully and to enhance scholarship and capabilities of the field; and augment  the family enterprise case and history library — with an emphasis on older, larger global families that have achieved generational continuity.  In other words, to continue and enhance the work John has been doing throughout his career.

John has now retired from Northwestern and from FBCG. In both these organizations, however, John’s spirit and leadership are still felt, as they are in hundreds of family businesses and in the hearts of thousands of individuals that he touched and shaped and helped along their ways.