One challenge for family members who work together is recognizing the difference between family and business roles, and knowing which “hat” to wear when. When everyone gathers around the dinner table or at a family reunion, there should be a balance between “shop talk” and catching up on family news.

Longo Brothers Fruit Markets Inc., based in Vaughan, Ontario, was founded by brothers Tommy, Joe and Gus Longo in 1956 with a single location and today is a chain of 32 grocery stores.

Rosanne Longo, the company’s spokesperson, connects with customers; her nephew Jesse Longo crunches numbers in finance. We asked them both: How do you transition between roles as colleagues and family members?

Rosanne Longo, G2, spokesperson and brand ambassador:

“I think working in a family business means that entrepreneurial spirit is in your blood, and sometimes that alone makes it difficult to turn your mind off of work.

“Since it’s constantly on your mind, you are naturally inclined to talk about work when you’re around family who you work with. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it has its limits. Every family needs to find the right balance. Some families might have a rule where business talk at the table is unacceptable at a family gathering. Some might say a bit of shop talk is OK, but it cannot monopolize the conversation.

“The reality is, you have to make sure you involve everyone sitting around the table (and sometimes not everyone who is sitting around the table works for the business). There’s a lot more to talk about than work. You might be surprised how interesting your family can be outside of work.”




Jesse Longo, G3, senior financial analyst:

“I think for my immediate family, definitely work stuff comes up. Generally, when I’m talking to my dad or something, then it’s more, ‘Hey what are you working on?,’ that kind of stuff. Or if he notices I’m stressed, he’ll say, ‘Oh, what’s going on, and how can I help?’

“But for the most part, in my family, we’ve all got a lot going on in our lives personally, so a lot of time when we chat it’s about what’s going on in life. I coach hockey, so [my parents] ask me a lot of questions about that, and then we all play golf, so we ask about golf and that kind of stuff. So we try not to talk too much shop.

“And we also have my brother and sisters who don’t currently work for the business, so we don’t want to make them feel left out when we’re talking about work stuff. For the most part we try to keep it out, but when it’s just me and my dad, then yeah, we’ll talk about stuff at work. I’d say for the most part we keep it to what’s going on in our lives instead of just what’s going on at work.”

Copyright 2019 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact





No matter how well your relatives bond at family meetings, these gatherings have limitations. If your family is large and dispersed, it's impractical to meet more than once a year and, inevitably, some family members won't make it to the meeting.

Though there's no substitute for face-to-face encounters, family newsletters can be an effective way of strengthening connections between meetings. Whether they're delivered electronically or in print, these communications keep attention focused on the extended family and its shared enterprise.

Carolyn Campbell Brown, chairperson of the Campbell Family Council and a director of her family business—Mannington Mills Inc., a flooring company based in Salem, N.J.—started a newsletter, "Campbell Connection," in 2014, the same year the family council was established.

"Does it move the needle? I think so," Brown says of the newsletter. "I do believe it improves communication so people better understand what's happening at Mannington." There are about 105 Campbell family members, about a third of whom are shareholders. Brown's brother, Keith Campbell, is the fourth-generation chairman of the company.

What to write

Early issues of "Campbell Connection" focused on the nascent family council. Now, "we've kind of matured into not only a message to the family, but also a message about the business," Brown says. "One of the goals is to communicate how Mannington is doing, what's new and exciting, who's new to Mannington, etc." Updates on family members' activities and milestone celebrations are also included. "We have got a very big potpourri of topics for the family," Brown says.

Charlie Shepard, a director of his family's business—Menasha Corp., a Neenah, Wis.-based provider of packaging, logistics and marketing services, founded in 1852—says his family's newsletter evolved over time. There are about 240 family members in the fourth through seventh generations of the Smith family, which owns Menasha. About 140 of them are shareholders.

In the early years of the family council, which was established in 2003, communications to family members were strictly "information-oriented," says Shepard, a fifth-generation family member and former chair of the Smith Family Council. Eventually, updates on family members' milestones and activities were added.

When sixth-generation member Nick Shepard—Charlie's nephew, who is a photographer and graphic designer and the current co-chair of the Smith Family Council—got involved, the newsletters became more visually appealing. The content grew more compelling, too, as Charlie, a former journalist, began profiling family members. He also developed a feature called "Our Family Roots," which informs readers about their ancestors.

Today, "The Smith Family Newsletter" has the look and feel of an alumni magazine, attention-grabbing cover and all.

"Interviews are a nice way to enrich people's knowledge of a particular family member, and often tell a piece of family history along the way," Charlie says. He recently interviewed descendants of Theda Clark Peters Smith (1903-1970), who in 1967 established a foundation to support schools and organizations that help underprivileged youth. One of her four children, Tamblin Smith, passed away in 2011 and left a large bequest to what is now known as the Theda & Tamblin Clark Smith Family Foundation.

(Related media: Newsletters video)

"It's a very serious effort," Charlie says. "They've got staff, they've got an office, they're making millions of dollars of grants a year. It's a really terrific accomplishment that extends back to this person who none of us in the broader family knew much about."

Mitzi Perdue, widow of Frank Perdue, CEO of Perdue Farms Inc. and star of his company's chicken ads, started "Perdues' News" around 1995, when Frank was 75 years old. On a long car ride, Frank told Mitzi he had advice for his children and grandchildren. "He said that he felt there's so much he could share with them that would help them have happier lives," she recalls. "But how do you do it? Because he couldn't just call them together and lecture at them. It wasn't in his nature to lecture them. And then on top of that, they were too geographically dispersed."

Mitzi realized a newsletter would be a good way to convey Frank's lessons. "I would interview him as if I was a reporter, and ask him questions [on] philanthropy or stewardship or what to do if somebody comes to you with an absolutely can't-lose idea for an investment."

The project branched out from there. She began interviewing other members of Frank's family and Perdue Farms employees, in addition to presenting her own thoughts on family unity. Today, "Perdues' News" is sent monthly to the family's 65 members.

Perdue also has created a monthly newsletter for children. The children's newsletter pairs a lesson on the family history or values with a related activity for the young readers and is sent along with a gift connected to the activity. The projects are designed to be done with parental supervision and to last about an hour. "That hour is the time for the parents to talk about the values mentioned in the newsletter," Perdue says.

Perdue has written two books for families interested in creating newsletters like hers. The books are part of a three-volume set on creating a family business culture (see sidebar).

Appealing to readers

Nick Shepard says it's important for family newsletters to look polished and attractive. "If you just have a Word document that's hastily thrown together, it looks like it's hastily thrown together," he says. On the other hand, a professional-looking publication signals that "we take the family seriously, the same way we take the company seriously."

Nick says his work on the family newsletter has given him "an even deeper respect for how important communication is." Readers have expressed appreciation for the in-depth articles, particularly the family history pieces. "I think people are quite interested in that kind of information, but that's not something that they would necessarily seek out," Nick says.

The family updates are also an important component of the newsletter, Nick says. If someone reads that a second cousin recently moved to a new city for a job opportunity, maybe the reader will remember that fact and will congratulate the cousin at the next family gathering.

Carolyn Brown says she's benefited from her work on "Campbell Connection." "It has helped me on several fronts," she reports. "I've gotten to know the key leaders at Mannington a lot better. And, obviously, if you're writing about market analysis and/or product strategy, you get to know the business a lot better."

Some families find it useful to distribute their newsletters outside the family circle. "Campbell Connection" is sent to board directors and executives; Brown says it receives high praise from executives' spouses. The newsletter is also occasionally sent to key distributors and customers to highlight Mannington's status as a family business, Brown says.

The Smith family newsletter is sent to directors and some company executives and to administrative assistants who communicate with the family. These staffers appreciate the opportunity to learn what family members look like, and what they do for a living, Nick Shepard says.

Delivery options

Many families produce both print and electronic versions of their newsletters, ensuring that each recipient can read the publication in his or her preferred format. These families also post their newsletter on the family website, making it easy for everyone to find and providing an alternative way of accessing it.

Trusted Family, a company that provides a secure online platform for managing family office and shareholder communications, offers its clients an email newsletter template. The firm, founded by two NextGen members of business families, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

Frank Tobé, a communications adviser at Trusted Family, helps clients to create and format their newsletters. Tobé is the grandson of the founder of a discount pharmacy chain that operated stores in the U.K., Germany, France and the Netherlands. The operating company was sold in 2001. Today the family enterprise, The Kruidvat Holding, has three foundations active primarily in Eastern Africa.

Tobé created a video newsletter to educate his family about the foundations' activities. He joined Trusted Family after a conversation with its co-founder Edouard Thijssen about how to bring the communication platform to life.

Tobé says many clients ask for advice on how to engage the next generation. "Our answer is, 'Through content,' " he says. "What do you want your content to achieve, and what media and what form do you want to present it in? Do your topics drive home your mission and your purpose?"

The Trusted Family platform, which looks similar to a Facebook news feed, offers multiple levels of permission that enable users to restrict access to postings as warranted. Some posts can be made accessible to all family members; others can be available, for example, only to directors, or shareholders, or NextGen family members.

Trusted Family's newsletter app is modeled after the popular MailChimp email service. "We advise, 'Take the best stuff that has happened on your platform, or in your company or family office, for the past three months, and put that all in a newsletter,' " Tobé says.

Trusted Family sends statistics to clients so they can assess the success of their newsletters at driving family members to the communications platform, where they can chat with each other, share photos and find more information about the family enterprise. "Newsletters increase the chance of having good traffic numbers," Tobé says.

The right people for the job

Regardless of format, the key to the success of a family newsletter is a family member with the talent and energy to do the job well.

The Smith family is especially fortunate in that regard. Charlie Shepard spent two decades as a journalist for the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer and the Washington Post, and his reporting for the Observer on misuse of funds by the PTL television ministry won the Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service in 1988. He also was a history major and has a deep interest in the subject. He created an online family tree that now has nearly 650 names.

Nick Shepard recently became an assistant professor of photography at California State University, Sacramento. He has expertise in digital imaging and conceptual art as well as photography and graphic design.

Charlie and Nick volunteer their time to produce the newsletter. The family council allocates funds for design, printing and mailing. "This is a very, very small part of our annual family council budget—but, I think, a very important part," Nick says.

"What we've tried to do in our family is tap the talents that we have," Nick says. "And we definitely understand that people bring different kind of sets of experience and interests and skills, and also that people have windows of time where they can be really involved in the family."

Nick's new job will take a lot of his time, which will present challenges for the Smith family newsletter in the future. "As I taper down in my involvement in the council, and I ramp up my career, it may be that the newsletter becomes a less important part of [family engagement efforts], and other stuff becomes more important," he says.

Perdue was a syndicated columnist for 22 years and has written newspaper and magazine articles on a wide range of topics, including family business, food, agriculture and philanthropy. She has also hosted and produced TV interview shows.

"Frank left me money for what's called 'family glue,' " Perdue says. Most of those funds are used for family vacations, but some goes toward newsletter postage and the gifts included with the children's newsletter.

During her career, Brown worked in product development and project management at NCI and AT&T. In these positions, she developed customer communications.

Mannington Mills' corporate communications department assists in the layout and production of "Campbell Connection." Brown meets with Betsy Amoroso, the director of corporate communications, three months in advance of the publication date to brainstorm about content. "It's fun to think about what the family might like to read," Brown says.

Feedback loop

Successful family newsletters involve a positive feedback loop of sorts. News about family members helps increase family engagement. And family members who are engaged want to read about their relatives' activities.

"As you start to unite the family, people become more interested in hearing news about who's getting married, or who's had a kid, or who's come to work for the company," Charlie Shepard says. This interest "reflects the progress we've made, breaking down the divisions between branches and between generations."


Campbell Connection

Produced for: The Campbell family, owners of Mannington Mills Inc., Salem, N.J. (founded 1916).

Produced by: Carolyn Campbell Brown (G4), chairperson of the Campbell Family Council and a director of Mannington Mills Inc., with assistance from the company's corporate communications staff.

Frequency: Three or four times a year.

Distributed to: Family members, board directors, company executives, occasionally key distributors or customers.

Content: The front page contains messages from Keith Campbell, the company chairman, and Brown, the family council chairperson. Campbell's message focuses on industry and manufacturing topics; Brown describes family council activities.

A feature article profiles some aspect of the company—the opening of a new plant or insights into a marketing strategy. Q&A interviews with company executives from the featured area are included.

Each issue of the newsletter centers on a theme, such as the company's centennial, a newly acquired facility or a sales strategy. The newsletter has presented a deep dive into the company's board of directors: why the company has a board, the history of the board, information on board committees and director profiles. Because this content was well received, updates on board news are now regularly presented, Brown says.

A history section, which appeared in early editions of "Campbell Connection," is on hiatus to avoid repeating information included in a book commemorating Mannington's December 2016 centennial but will return in the future, Brown says.

Recurring sections cover new products, bios of new Mannington associates and recent award presentations. Family members are encouraged to submit news on their milestone celebrations or recent interesting activities.

The Smith Family Newsletter

Produced for: The Smith family, owners of Menasha Corp., Neenah, Wis. (founded 1852).

Produced by: Charlie Shepard (G5), former chair of the Smith Family Council and a director of Menasha Corp., and Nick Shepard (G6), co-chair of the Smith Family Council, along with other family ­contributors.

Frequency: Twice a year.

Distributed to: Family members, board directors, some company executives and administrative assistants.

Content: The publication has the look and feel of an alumni magazine. There is a front cover, which highlights a main feature article.

Readers are briefed on family council business, the upcoming family gathering (tourist information about the venue, details on events taking place at the gathering, a recap of the last event) and philanthropic activities.

A series titled "From the Web" highlights lively comment threads from the family's various social media platforms.

A recurring section presents an interview with a family member: someone who has an interesting job or hobby, is active in an exciting charitable venture, etc.

"Our Family Roots," a feature written by Charlie Shepard, profiles an ancestor.

Family members are encouraged to submit news and photos for the popular "Family Updates" section.

The back page presents news from Menasha, often repackaged from the quarterly corporate newsletter and sometimes augmented with historical information contributed by Charlie Shepard.

Perdues' News

Produced for: The Perdue family, owners of Perdue Farms Inc. (founded 1920).

Produced by: Mitzi Perdue, widow of second-generation CEO Frank Perdue.

Frequency: Monthly.

Distributed to: Family members.

Content: Each edition starts with a letter to the family by Mitzi, often followed by a Q&A. Interviewees include company executives or experts, family business advisers and family members.

A series called "Chicken 101" centers on the family business, drawn from a list of topics the family has expressed an interest in learning more about.

Sometimes, the newsletter presents a cautionary tale of how a quarrel can tear a family apart or offers an example of how a shared activity can keep a family together. Other topics are classic lessons from Frank Perdue and anecdotes from Mitzi Perdue's family—the Hendersons, who founded the Sheraton Hotel chain. Family recipes have also been featured.

Children's edition: A newsletter created especially for children is distributed monthly to young family members from birth to age 12. Each edition emphasizes a family value or encourages pride in the family or its business.

In addition to an opening letter to the young reader from Mitzi Perdue, each issue includes an activity for the child to do under parental supervision, which relates in some way to the theme of that edition. Examples include food preparation, magic tricks and science experiments.

The children's newsletters are sent in a package that includes supplies for the activity and related fun items, such as a chef's hat and apron or a scientist's goggles, gloves and lab coat.

Creating a newsletter your family wants to read

1. Assess your needs. What are your communication goals, and is a newsletter the right vehicle to achieve these goals? Consider a family survey to help answer these questions.

2. Identify your audience. Do you plan to send the newsletter to family members only, or will you share it with others (directors, top executives, key customers)? If the news is being disseminated outside the family, do you need a policy on what types of information should and should not be included?

3. Choose the right format for your audience. More people are reading their news online these days, but your senior generation might prefer the printed page. Making the newsletter available in both formats will cover all the bases. Also determine the frequency of the publication. Should you send out a four-page publication each quarter, or an eight-pager twice a year?

4. Tap your family talent. Your newsletter will most effectively enhance family cohesion if family members are the ones who create it. Who in your family has a talent and a passion for writing, editing and graphic design? Do you have illustrators and photographers who can contribute? Can anyone create a cartoon or a puzzle? Can the keeper of the family recipes write a food column?

5. Get outside help if you need it. Although family members should do much of the heavy lifting, you may need some assistance in design, layout or editing. Can your company's communications department help you out? If so, make sure to schedule your issues so production doesn't take place during the staff's busy periods.

6. Pay attention to the look. Spend the time and, if needed, the money to produce a publication with a professional feel. Few people want to read a long, unillustrated Word document, a sloppily designed piece or something that's full of typos. Include a mix of longer and shorter features. The more images you can include, the better. Can you create (or hire someone to create) a logo to personalize the design?

7. Develop a budget. Even with an online-only newsletter, there are bound to be costs involved. Will these costs come from the family council budget or the corporate budget?

8. Ask family members to send in their news. Encourage submissions of news about big birthdays, engagements, weddings, births and graduations. But don't stop there. Who got a new job? Who's moving to a new city? Who won an award? Who ran a marathon? Don't forget to ask for photos, too.

9. Don't make it strictly business. If all you do is list family council agenda items, you won't succeed at creating family engagement. You need compelling content that educates and excites your audience.

10. Take a deep dive into your history. Even if everyone knows how the family business got started, there are other treasures from your shared past that have yet to be uncovered.

11. Promote important events. Drum up excitement for the next family meeting or philanthropic activity.

12. Report on the business and the family. Try to include both types of news in each edition.

13. Set the right tone. Review your content with a critical eye. Pair an educational article (about the business or philanthropy, for example) with a lighter piece (such as a profile of a family member with an interesting hobby).

14. Get feedback. After the first issue or two, survey your family members to see if they've taken the time to read the newsletter and what they think of the content. Are they learning things they didn't know? What are their suggestions for future articles?


Trusted Family:

Books by Mitzi Perdue:

How to Strengthen Your Family Legacy with Newsletters: Examples, Stories, Techniques, and Resources

How to Use Children's Newsletters to Strengthen Your Family's Culture: Templates, Activities, Tips, Research, and Resources

How to Make Your Family Business Last: Techniques, Advice, Checklists and Resources for Keeping the Family Business in the Family

For information, see

Copyright 2017 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact

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When he was in fifth grade, Will Lyles wrote a paper outlining his future career path in his family's business. Although he didn't end up taking time off to get an MBA, as he had predicted at age 10, his career has largely followed his childhood vision.

Today Will Lyles, 57, is senior vice president of Lyles Diversified Inc., an S corporation that oversees the Lyles family's construction businesses and provides management and administrative services to the family's other holding companies. The broader Lyles Family Enterprise consists of various California businesses and ventures in construction, real estate and agriculture, as well as investment partnerships.

The family is working to establish a family governance system that will see the business and family through a tricky generational transition.

"We're in the early stages of the journey," Will says.

Will's grandfather, Bill Lyles Sr., and grandmother, Elizabeth Lyles, founded a pipeline-building business, originally called W.M. Lyles Co., in the oil fields of Avenal, Calif., in 1945. Today, Lyles Construction Group, now headquartered in Fresno, is California's second-largest contractor specializing in environmental and water treatment plant work.

Construction remains a key part of the business: In 2015, the companies generated construction revenues of $267 million. The construction division has about 150 salaried employees, plus about 500 unionized workers who work on specific projects.

Two members of the second generation work in the business. Gerald Lyles, 74, is senior vice president of Lyles Diversified and president of two LLCs through which the family makes investments, Lyles United and Lyles Investments. Gerald's brother, Bill Lyles, is chairman of the joint company advisory board that oversees all of the family's business enterprises and president of Lyles Diversified.

Along with Will Lyles, two other third-generation members are active in the business: Will's wife, Tami, 53, runs one of the family's construction companies, and Kathy Porter, 51, the daughter of Gerald and Bill Lyles' sister, Marybeth, is shareholder services manager.

Although the ownership structure varies slightly among the three companies, more than 90% of the business is owned by members of the second and third generations. No single person has a majority stake. The companies' salaried employees are also owners through an employee stock ownership plan.

A storied history

Gerald Lyles was 2 when his father founded the company. "By the freshman year of high school, we were working in the fields in the summers with the crews and also doing office work, breaking down the costs of each element of the work," he recalls. He joined one of the company's subsidiaries full-time in 1966, after college and a stint in the Navy. After a few years, he returned to school to get an MBA, then worked in finance for a number of different manufacturing companies outside of the family business.

In 1973, Gerald's brother Bill, who had been working at the company since their father's death in 1965, asked him to return to the family business to help it expand.

"That was a big turning point," Gerald says. When he returned, the company started investing in multifamily housing and development. In the 1980s, Lyles bought its first manufacturing company. In 1987, Lyles became a 50% partner in Pelco, a security camera maker that 20 years later would provide a large cash boost when it was sold. The family has invested the proceeds from the sale primarily in apartment buildings and agriculture.

Now the family is looking to the future, making the transition from the second generation to the third. Family members are also laying a foundation that will allow the fourth generation, and those that follow, to continue steering the family enterprise.

"They are facing some of the classic issues that most family businesses encounter: how to support their ownership goals, how to position themselves as an ownership group to grow the company and add value, and the ever-present challenge of generational transition," says Joshua Nacht, Ph.D., a consultant with The Family Business Consulting Group who has been working with the family.

Will Lyles prepared himself to meet those challenges by following three generations of his family to Purdue University. During the summers, he worked at the family business, laboring on construction crews. He majored in civil engineering with an emphasis on construction—all steps designed to prepare him for a career with the family business.

"I have always loved the construction business," Will says. "To have been born into a family that does something you really enjoy—it's given me opportunities to do things at an earlier age than I would have otherwise."

During summers in high school, Will worked for the company in a variety of capacities, from accounting to pulling up tumbleweeds from the field outside the office. He joined full-time after college as an engineer in training, moving up to project manager, then to division manager and eventually to company president.

Family council formation

The most recent family member to join the business came on board partly to help with the generational transition.

Kathy Porter knew about the business growing up, but her parents pursued their own careers outside the family business, so she did not have the same up-close look at the company as her cousins did. She spent 25 years working in commercial real estate in Los Angeles. In March 2014, she joined the company to provide enhanced shareholder support and communication.

"For a transition to happen 10 years from now, you have to be contemplating it now," Porter says.

It has been a long, slow process.

The Lyles family first realized in the early 1990s that as the family grew with successive generations, they would need a more structured way to keep everyone involved. They formed a nascent family council at that time, but because generational transition was not an immediate concern, its activity gradually tapered off.

About five years ago, Will Lyles realized that the family had both grown and changed—and that it would take some effort to make sure the business transitions were smooth.

"My cousins and I had grown up knowing each other," Will says. "My sisters and cousins have been extremely supportive of my efforts at the company. But they're spread out all over the country, and our kids don't know each other the way we knew each other. If we really wanted to keep what's been created together as a family, we needed to work on it."

The family council was reborn, and this time was stronger.

"As the family and businesses grew, and when we had fourth-generation teenagers, we realized it was time to get more serious about coordinating, educating and engaging the family," says Annarie Lyles, 55, the family council president.

Today the council includes representatives of seven of the 10 third-generation families. The extended Lyles family gathers once a year. "We have started reaching out to Generation 4 to be involved in the family council also," Will says. The council's early goals are to focus on family events and education.

A weeklong event for fourth-generation teenagers was updated. Instead of staying in Fresno, as they had done in the past, they toured various sites in Northern California. This gave the next generation a clearer picture of all the industries the company is involved in, not just construction. They saw one of the company's apartment buildings in San Jose, for example, and visited a tech startup that the company has invested in.

In the summer of 2016, the entire family gathered at Tumbling River Ranch in central Colorado for a week of meetings and family bonding. Activities included whitewater rafting and horseback riding, as well as a video presenting the second generation's hopes for the future of the business and the family. A session on cyber security was presented. The family also broke into generational groups to discuss some governance issues.

"We were introducing [the younger generation] to all the things we do and trying to create excitement about opportunities with the family enterprise," Will says.

The family has developed a family employment policy, recommending though not requiring that family members work outside the business before joining it.

"One of the challenges we have today is, if someone in the family is interested in construction, how do you create a leadership path in a reasonable time?" Will says. "Construction requires a lot of experience. The company's size has grown, as has the complexity of our jobs and our market—as well as the diversity of our company beyond construction."

The family council is looking at potential career paths within the company. Historically, there has been only one path, through construction. "We're recognizing that we have lots of other paths, potentially, but they need to be developed," Will says.

Improving communication

As the family looked for ways to coordinate, it found that communication was a challenge. The third generation is spread out all over the country, and only a few third-generation members work for the company.

Steve Titus, 47, a married-in member of the third generation, researched the use of an intranet portal that would function as the family's communication hub. Titus—whose wife, Jennifer, is Gerald Lyles' daughter—recommended the online platform offered by Trusted Family, a technology firm; the family council accepted Titus's proposal. (Titus also joined the family council around this time.) The Lyles family has been using the Trusted Family platform as a centralized system for family communications for about two years.

The site serves as a secure repository for financial and other documents. The family is also building an education module that explores the history of the business and its accomplishments.

"It has completely changed the way we communicate," Titus says. In the past, family members might leave a meeting of the family council or family assembly full of plans and good intentions, but it was complicated to keep work going. The intranet site makes it easier for family members to keep collaborating on the documents they have started.

Titus, who formerly owned a display design/manufacturing business, saw strategic value in developing a family brand to engage family members and inspire family loyalty.

Titus says one key change was expanding the extended family's view of the business beyond construction. "We're not just talking about the family business—we're talking about the family enterprise," Titus says. "It's social, it's philanthropy, it's the businesses."

The Lyles Family Enterprise brand centers on the family's core values, the key benefits of being a Lyles family member and the family development plan. The family development plan focuses on five main areas: governance, education, family/social activities, philanthropy and entrepreneurship. Core values and benefits are currently under discussion as part of the family development plan process.

The family worked with Nacht to create the family development plan, which includes building their capabilities as a group of owners as well as the transition to the fourth generation. They recognized that each of the five areas is important for their long-term sustainability and for the development of the family as an ownership group, Nacht says.

Nacht calls the Lyles family "a very friendly and open group" that communicates well. "This is a family that genuinely likes to be around each other," he says.

Nacht notes that family members, including those who have pursued careers outside the family business, bring an impressive breadth of education and experience to the ownership group and the family council.

"Most of them have other jobs, but they recognize that they're part of a remarkable business," Nacht says. "They are really willing to put in the time to do the work of the family council."

Will Lyles says the family's short-term plans are to keep working to enact the plans they have made for family governance.

"Five years ago, I felt that I was carrying a lot of the load just by myself," says Will. "Now it is spread across a broad spectrum of the family. It's allowing me to focus a little more on the business as opposed to both the family and the business."

Margaret Steen is a freelance writer based in Los Altos, Calif.

A family retreat at a family-owned ranch

When the Lyles family needed a place for a fun but productive multigenerational retreat to focus on the future of their family business, they turned to another family-owned business: Tumbling River Ranch in central Colorado, 62 miles southwest of Denver.

The ranch has room for 50 to 55 guests per week. Guests stay in individual cabins or in one of two historic lodges, including one that was built in the 1930s by the Coors family.

The Lyles family booked all the rooms in the ranch for their weeklong retreat. The ranch's owners, Megan Dugan, 43, and her husband, Scott Dugan, 45, worked with the Lyles family to accommodate the technology they needed to run their meetings, find a service project for the kids to do and consider the accommodations that would work best for the second-generation family members.

Megan and Scott Dugan are buying the ranch gradually from Megan's parents, Jim and Mary Dale Gordon, who decided in 2000 to retire after having owned the ranch since 1975. Megan and Scott are expected to complete the purchase in 2018.

Megan and her three brothers were raised on the ranch.

"My earliest memories are of being with my dad all the time," Megan says. "We would go on jeep trips with my dad, to the horse pasture with my dad. My parents absolutely stressed that this is a family effort. At 9 years old, we were expected to work like other staff members."

Megan started out helping clean cabins, and by high school she was taking on more leadership roles as a wrangler and a waitress.

"I get the question every week: How did the youngest daughter end up with the ranch?" Megan says. "It was timing—and marrying someone who was so passionate and excited about it."

Megan and her brothers all went to college "ready to find our own identities," she says. She studied speech communications in college with a minor in general business. "My dad made sure I did some accounting courses, which have proven to be very beneficial," Megan says.

Scott Dugan was born and raised in Atlanta. He came to Tumbling Ranch one summer to work because a friend from college was working there. He discovered that "he loves the Western lifestyle," Megan says, and he stayed in Colorado.

Taking over the ranch was intimidating at first, according to Megan.

"We were very young, and we were buying into a business that had year-round employees that were much older than us and had worked for my parents," Megan says. "Our strategy was to just keep it going."

Still, the Dugans had ideas for expanding the ranch's programs. They added a nanny program, guided hikes and shooting sports.

Just as Megan's parents did, she and Scott are raising their three children, ages 14, 12 and 7, on the ranch. "People constantly ask me, 'Will your kids take over?' " Megan says. "We just go season to season." — M.S.

Copyright 2017 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact

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At Laboratory Testing Inc., an independent testing company in Hatfield, Pa., steel, iron and other materials get pushed, pulled, dropped, squeezed, stretched, smashed, dissolved and shattered. LTI's reports advise clients on whether the materials will remain intact when they are used in aircraft, building, medical or military applications.

While LTI's employees are busy breaking things apart, the company's owners, siblings Mike and Joan McVaugh, are committed to keeping the family stakeholder group together. "If you communicate, it keeps people out of trouble," says Mike McVaugh, the company president. "If you don't, people assume things."

Communication—among family members, management and employees—has helped LTI to grow and succeed. Even though the company is relatively small (it has 144 employees) and is still in its second generation of ownership, the McVaughs have set up governance structures and family policies as meticulous as those in place at sprawling later-generation firms with thousands of employees and dozens of owners.

"We communicate more than most non-family businesses," says Mike with a laugh. "We use our five family values—people, profits, integrity, leadership and learning—to guide us in every decision." (See sidebar.)

Mike, who has been with the company since its inception in 1984, became president of the company when the siblings' father, Robert W. McVaugh Sr., died ten years later in 1994. Joan joined in 1998 as finance manager and soon became part-owner. She now is transitioning from the finance manager to chair of the family council, with the title of "Family Relationship Officer." Mike, as president, holds 60% of the company shares, and Joan holds 40%.

Lessons from the past

Not everything that comes into LTI gets destroyed. The company's facilities span 91,500 square feet across three buildings in a business park in Hatfield, about 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The main building, at 66,000 square feet, has a large area dedicated to non-destructive testing, which was the company's original focus and where Mike got his start as manager. A recent visitor to the company saw a technician patiently running an ultrasound machine over giant metal plates to ensure the material contained no microscopic flaws.

The destructive testing area can be noisy. Periodic loud bangs signal that a material has hit its breaking point. Workers in protective gear operate a variety of machines and computers, ranging from small desktop meters that track chemical corrosion to large pulleys that stretch materials apart, to a giant press that stands more than 10 feet tall and weighs hundreds of tons. The press has its own room to keep workers safe from flying debris. Tests are observed through a special shatterproof window; workers measure how much time and effort is required to break the material.

Two adjacent buildings, called LTI South and LTI East—12,000 and 13,500 square feet, respectively—contain smaller testing equipment for magnetic particle and corrosion testing.

LTI also tests the testing equipment. The company's metrology division, in its LTI East building, is an accredited facility dedicated to calibration, where clients can send their own measuring tools and instruments to ensure they are accurate. Mike calls this part of the business "the cold room." The area must be kept at an absolute constant of temperature, light and humidity, resulting in a room that's a little chilly.

"Chilly"—if not "frozen"—is an apt description of the relationship between the owners of Laboratory Testing's predecessor company. Robert McVaugh Sr. was a metallurgist at SPS Technologies in Jenkintown, Pa., when he founded a lab called Metals Testing Company together with his brother, Ted, in 1962. The two brothers didn't get along, and after the original company was sold in 1976, they stopped speaking to each other, according to Joan.

Growing up, Mike and Joan weren't aware of the friction between their father and their uncle. Mike, now 55, and Joan, 59, were young children when the first lab was founded. But they do recall when the two stopped speaking. To this day, Mike and Joan don't know what caused the brothers' falling out. After the rift, they lost contact with their uncle.

Their father next partnered with a man named Frank Carson to start a company called Carson NDT, a division of Carson Helicopters. Robert McVaugh, who started with a 10% ownership stake, bought the remaining 90% from Carson in 1984 and renamed the business Laboratory Testing Inc. Carson's helicopter company remains a customer of LTI.

Though Mike and Joan don't know why their father and uncle stopped speaking, they know they don't want to repeat the pattern or have toxic feelings poison the company or the next generation. The key, they realize, is transparency.

"We operate on the open-book concept," says Mike. "Everything is very transparent. We even share finance information with all our employees."

Third-generation McVaughs working in the business include Mike's sons Brandon, 32, and Brad, 27, and Joan's son Mike Hiller, 33. Mike's daughter, Brittany McVaugh Lukens, 30, used to work in the human resources department and now is a stay-at-home mother; her husband, Nick Lukens, 32, works at LTI, as does Mike Hiller's wife, Angela, 34.

Mike's son Bryan McVaugh, 24, is employed at UBS, the global financial services firm, in New York City. Joan's son Christopher Hiller, 32, was an IT specialist in the Navy and now works for a digital marketing contractor to global pharmaceutical firm Merck.

Mike and Joan McVaugh have two brothers, Rob (Robert McVaugh Jr.) and Tom McVaugh, who both worked at LTI in the past. Rob left for a career in the insurance industry and Tom moved to Rochester, N.Y., to pursue a variety of other business interests. Rob's son and daughter both have worked at LTI during college summers—his son, Austin McVaugh, currently works at the company part-time—and his stepdaughter also has worked in the business. Tom's children have worked at the company from time to time, as well.

Objectivity and outside help

Mike and Joan created a family council in 2010 and an advisory board in 2007. The council meets at least quarterly; the advisory board convenes five times per year. The council consists of Mike, Joan and their six children. All are voting members.

The family council doesn't make major business decisions; that's the role of the advisory board. Council meetings focus on ownership decisions, family education, philanthropy and the like. "This is really about preparing the next generation to become future shareholders," says Joan. "We know many family businesses don't survive the transition from G2 to G3. A family council ups the odds of surviving the transition from second to third generation."

LTI's advisory board, meanwhile, helps the owners with business and policy matters. Three senior business executives from the community serve on the advisory board. Lee Delp, the chairman, has a background in manufacturing and insurance; Paul Litwack has experience in both manufacturing and finance; and John Gallagher's area of expertise is manufacturing operations. An HR consultant, Karl Buehler, also works with the advisory board to address compensation and hiring issues.

"The reason we're so successful is that we treat [the advisory board] like a fiduciary board," says Mike.

"We take their advice seriously and act on it," adds Joan.

Key non-family members, such as CFO adviser Loretta Tubiello-Harr, are brought into advisory board meetings, and third-generation McVaughs—including some who aren't working at LTI—participate as observers. Some board meetings are open to spouses as well.

Mike and Joan McVaugh say they have never had a major disagreement. The first step in their dispute resolution plan is to consult the outside advisory board. If the board can't help them settle the issue, both siblings acknowledge that Mike, as 60% owner, would have the final say. Such a situation has not arisen, they note.

Family members and key LTI managers attend many courses and conferences on family business and leadership development. Networking with peers from other companies and sharing strategies for addressing challenges is valuable, family members say.

"It doesn't matter the size of the business; everyone goes through the same struggles," notes Mike Hiller.

"It's a really good to hear businesses at a forum that are going through what we are," adds his cousin Brandon McVaugh. "We value our relationship as cousins as well as colleagues, and a lot of that began because we go to these meetings."

Rules for participation

The McVaughs instituted a family employment policy in 2004 and revised it in 2009. Since then, there have been a few minor wording changes, but no major revisions, says Joan. All changes were shown to the third-generation members before they were implemented. Under the policy, next-generation family members who desire a career at LTI must first work somewhere else for five years. The five-year rule doesn't apply to summer jobs during school, which all of the third generation have had.

The five years needn't be spent working in a related field, but during those years, the family member must demonstrate success, get promoted and show professional development. Military service also counts toward the five-year requirement.

Even after five years somewhere else, employment at LTI isn't guaranteed. A family member must apply for a job and be interviewed by the advisory board. In addition, there must be an appropriate open position—a job won't be created for a family member. And if a better-qualified non-family member applied for the same position as a family member, the most qualified candidate would get the job, Joan says.

LTI's advisory board reviews family employment applications together with Karl Buehler. The family council also gets involved in family member hiring decisions. It hasn't happened yet, but should there be a reason not to hire the family member, the objective opinion of the non-family members would take the burden off the family, Joan notes.

Brandon McVaugh worked at financial giant Vanguard for five years before joining the company, while Brad McVaugh worked for Baum Precision, a family-owned machine shop in Pipersville, Pa. Mike Hiller was a teacher and then briefly ran a restaurant his father had bought.

"It was a pizza shop, which meant a lot of long hours and weekends," Hiller says. "I learned a lot, and I learned what not to do."

At LTI, Hiller is in charge of marketing and new business development. Brad McVaugh, sales supervisor, is in charge of customer services, such as providing quotes and making sure jobs are delivered on time. Brandon McVaugh is the manager of the machine testing and machine service department.

"I spent ten or 12 summers in the lab, so I have a pretty good feel of what to do," he says. His role is overall operations, while the technical staff handles the fixing and servicing.

Brittany McVaugh Lukens's husband, Nick Lukens, is a facilities supervisor at LTI, and Mike Hiller's wife, Angela Hiller, works in the company's human resources department.

Mike McVaugh is firm about the employment rules, and says none of the next-generation members ever objected to them. "We educate early that there's no entitlement," Mike says.

The only deviation from the five-year rule was the incident that taught Mike and Joan a valuable lesson about communication, they say. One of the non-family managers had worked with Matt McVaugh, the son of their brother Tom, during Matt's summer stints at LTI. The manager wanted to hire Matt full-time. Though the family five-year policy was in place, Mike and Joan had never communicated it to non-family managers. They agreed to allow Matt to accept the full-time job offer, but the experience taught the family what happens when someone is out of the loop. Matt now works for a nearby water treatment plant, but he has come back to help out at LTI during busy times.

Building a successful team

Four times in the last ten years, LTI has been named to the list of Best Places to Work in Pennsylvania. In 2011, the company received an honorable mention from the "Philadelphia 100" award program, which recognizes the fastest-growing private companies in the Greater Philadelphia region. In 2012 and 2013, LTI was named one of the Greater Lehigh Valley's fastest-growing companies. Revenues have increased from nearly $7.7 million in 2003 to $17 million in 2013.

The average tenure of an LTI employee is 12 to 14 years—almost half the life of the company. The company promotes from within wherever possible, and Mike McVaugh says a large percentage of supervisors and coordinators rose up through the ranks.

Surpassing sales goals can bring big rewards; the company has taken its employees and their spouses on a Bermuda cruise and a vacation in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. The trips are open to all, and all are encouraged to go for the team bonding experience. "We want everyone to go and be together," Mike McVaugh says.

Employee input is encouraged and acted upon, the McVaughs say. In fact, a team of employee coordinators is tasked with suggesting ideas to improve processes and save money. And last year, the winner of the company's annual Innovation Award received two weeks' pay for an idea that saved both time and money. The company's incentive program includes a performance bonus based on meeting both company and personal goals as well as a profit-sharing program.

Looking toward the future

Mike and Joan McVaugh have no immediate plans to retire, but they've started a transition plan for when that time comes.

"It's important for the employees to know the business will continue; that it will go from second to third generation," Joan says. "Employees love security, to know you're not going to bail and sell."

Despite the McVaughs' intention to keep LTI in the family, Mike says they continually receive offers to buy the company. "It's crazy—we get e-mails, voicemails, et cetera," he says. "But we are so crystal clear on the direction of the company: we want to continue as a family business."

In June, LTI celebrated its 30-year anniversary. "We certainly hope to be here another 30 years," says Joan. 

Hedda T. Schupak is an editor and analyst specializing in fine jewelry and luxury retailing. She is the editor of The Centurion Newsletter, a weekly e-news magazine in the luxury fine jewelry industry.


Family Values

Every action taken at Laboraory Testing Inc. is governed by five family values, according to the company’s owners, siblings Joan and Mike McVaugh.

1. People: We treat everyone like family, with dignity, fairness, and respect.

2. Integrity: We report accurate and reliable test results and maintain honest and open communication, while holding ourselves accountable for our actions and responsibilities.

3. Leadership: We expect everyone to be a leader in their area of responsibility, as we work together toward common goals.

4. Learning: We support each other in lifelong learning and self-development through education reimbursement, seminars, cross-training and professional development.

5. Profits: We work hard to achieve our goals so everyone can share the profits, together with fair compensation, profit sharing and competitive benefits. We support our community and reinvest in our company with new equipment and technology to keep us competitive into the future.

For example, as part of LTI’s commitment to integrity, all financials are available or any employee to see, and as part of its commitment to learning, the company will reimburse 85% of the cost of college tuition for any employee who maintains a B average or better in a field related to his or her job.

“We work hard so we can give back and keep the business going into the future to keep giving back,” says Joan.

Copyright 2014 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact

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Effective communication is one of the keys to happy, healthy and thriving families, so it behooves family members to try to become better communicators. This is especially important for families who work together around shared ownership of family assets. That said, communicating effectively can be challenging even when the message appears simple. Add the unique dynamics of family members running a family business, and communication becomes exponentially more difficult. Yet communication is the key to the success of every interaction, whether personal or professional.

Communication is an essential factor for cohesion in families and sustainability of family wealth. Roy Williams and Vic Preisser note in their book Preparing Heirs: Five Steps to Successful Transition of Family Wealth and Values that more than 70% of families are unsuccessful at multigenerational wealth transfer. Further, according to Williams and Preisser, 60% of the time this failure is attributed to lack of communication and trust within the family. The importance of communication cannot be underestimated, and the difficulty of communication cannot be overstated.

Family communication

Family communication is complicated by relationships and history. Family wealth and family business issues add another layer of complexity. Positive and negative interactions among family members over the years have an effect on subsequent interactions both inside and outside the family business.

Kenneth Kaye, a clinical psychologist and leading scholar in the field of family business, points out that conflict within families is fundamentally different from conflict between unrelated parties. Conflicts between parties who lack any long-term relationship tend to be linear; there is no attachment to one another. After the dispute is resolved, both parties can walk away. By contrast, conflicts within families are circular, creating a chronic pattern of escalation, de-escalation and re-escalation.

Keys to enhancing communication

Be conscious. Most of our communication takes place without much thought or effort. The following recommendations sound like common sense but often are not put into practice:

• Think before you speak.

• Be conscious about how your message may be heard by the other party.

• If you think your message is being misinterpreted or is not clear, check to confirm what you are saying is what is being heard.

• Beware of messages that trigger emotion; they might be surfacing unresolved issues from your own past experiences.

This is especially important when communicating electronically, often the preferred mode of communication in both family and non-family businesses. If you feel sensitive about an email or text message you are writing, consider verbal communication instead. If you read or hear a message and it affects you negatively, check out the intention by asking for more clarity. Many times misunderstandings result in incorrect assumptions that lead to more tension and can strain relationships.

Be aware of non-verbal communication. As the saying goes, "You get only one chance to make a first impression." Within moments of your first interaction with a new person, you have formed an opinion. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the conclusions we reach instantly using our intuition. Appearance is a very important component of non-verbal communication. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all make judgments and inferences based on the way people dress, their hygiene, their hairstyle, how they accessorize and whether or not they polish their shoes. Those judgments are based on life experiences and can be influenced by culture, geography, social status and individual worldviews.

Researchers estimate that up to 65% of what is communicated between the speaker and listener is non-verbal. Communication specialists tell us that if the listener feels there is a contradiction between what is being said and the speaker's body language, the non-verbal message wins. Have you ever encountered anyone whose body language clearly indicated that something is wrong, but who denied that a problem exists? Did you believe what the person told you verbally over what you noticed in his or her behavior?

Improve your listening skills. Many experts consider listening to be the most important component of effective communication. You may believe this comes naturally and easily, but we are not born with active listening skills. Active listening takes practice and is learned over time. Strong listening skills are often critical to navigating potential pitfalls when family members work together.

One of the keys to becoming a better listener is to remove the barriers to listening. Examples of barriers include planning your response (which impedes hearing what is being said), judging the speaker and interrupting to give advice. Here are some tips to help you become an active listener:

• Lean forward.

• Make eye contact.

• Eliminate distractions.

• Manage body language.

• Convey a positive attitude.

Look at each interaction as an opportunity, and try to stay in the moment. Check your engagement by asking questions and restating key points back to the speaker. You want to be able to comprehend the major theme of the conversation, retain the information and intelligently respond to the speaker. A piece of good advice is to stop talking. This seems simple, but it can be very difficult to do, especially in highly charged situations. Staying calm and empathizing with the speaker will go a long way toward ensuring the result of the interaction is positive.

Listen empathetically. Empathy is said to be a key component of quality relationship building (both personally and professionally) and effective leadership. Learning how to listen empathetically can go a long way toward improving your overall communication success.

Listening empathetically is different from active listening. Active listening is making a conscious effort not only to hear the words but also to understand the complete message. Empathetic listening is a more generous form of listening; it involves "listening from the heart."

Many people are compassionate and sympathetic, especially when the speaker is describing something the listener is familiar with. Empathetic listening requires you to put yourself in the speaker's place and feel for that person, even when he or she is discussing something you have not experienced. You must put your own needs aside to see the situation from the speaker's point of view. This requires a non-judgmental openness that establishes trust and allows the speaker to open up further and share in a more vulnerable manner, which results in greater transparency and greater understanding on the part of the listener.

Empathetic listening allows family members working together to see options not considered at the outset of the communication. The good news is that empathy can be taught and learned. Like most skills, it requires practice. Especially relevant for family members working together in a multigenerational business, parental modeling of empathetic behavior goes a long way toward instilling empathy in the next generation.

Here's how you can practice empathetic listening:

• Find an appropriate setting for the conversation. Seek a safe environment away from distractions.

• Ask how you can help. Does the speaker want you to just listen, or is he or she seeking advice?

• Ask for clarity whenever necessary. Use phrases such as, "Please help me to understand" or "I need a little more information."

• Prepare for accepting and managing emotional moments. Remember that genuine and open communication can often be emotional. Learning how to remain calm and objective while managing a wide range of emotions can go a long way toward achieving better understanding and building trust.

• Be agenda-free. Put yourself in a listening mode and try to imagine yourself in the speaker's position.

• Remain objective. Don't judge or personalize. Be open.

Follow the Platinum Rule. Across all cultures and religions, people have been taught a similar version of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. We suggest a higher standard, the "Platinum Rule": Treat others as they would like to be treated. In order to do this, you first have to take the time to get to know the person enough to know his or her preferences around behavior and communication.

Putting the Platinum Rule into practice takes time and effort. It is likely impossible and, truthfully, not necessary to follow this rule with everyone, but it can be critical in significant relationships. For example, understanding the communication style of the employee at the Starbucks drive-through is far less important than understanding your family members' preferences.

Make the effort

Effective communication requires dedication and practice. This is certainly the case in family businesses, where family history and past interactions may come into play. In addition to being open to learning about your own communication styles and preferences, think about how best to communicate with your family business partners and other important people in your life, and commit to becoming an active, empathetic listener.

As noted earlier, research points to the breakdown of communication as the No. 1 reason for loss of family wealth. If sustaining family wealth is the agreed-upon mission of a family, the family members owe it to themselves to develop strong communication skills.

Daisy Medici ( managing director of governance and education and David Herritt, J.D. ( is director of governance at GenSpring Family Offices.







Copyright 2014 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact

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In the life cycle of a family enterprise, contentious issues will arise. These include naming one sibling over others as the future business leader, appointing outsiders to the board, planning to lower family dividends so as to invest in a new business opportunity, and instituting a policy on family employment or prenuptial agreements.

It’s inevitable that some family members won’t like these decisions, so family business leaders can work in advance with their advisers and board members to frame family discussions in a way that minimizes conflict. (Of course, some business leaders opt to simply ignore these matters—but that’s another story.)

Yet even the most proactive planners get can blindsided. When business and family are intertwined, conflict can occur when you least expect it.

I know of a few business families who dealt with dissent that centered on what most objective observers would consider a trivial matter. Oddly enough, in some cases a dispute flared up over an activity that was supposed to be fun, such as a group vacation.

Spats like these may be a symptom of a larger problem. For whatever reason, one family member, or one branch of the family, feels underappreciated and reacts by picking a fight.

What can you do to avoid this? Here’s one suggestion: Don’t just communicate—overcommunicate. There are many ways to do this, such as family newsletters, family websites, family meetings, company annual or quarterly reports and group e-mails. It’s a good idea to combine several of these methods to be sure everyone gets the message. Send multiple “save the date” reminders before family events. If someone doesn’t reply, follow up.

Another way to ensure everyone feels included is to encourage broad participation whenever possible. Rotate membership on planning committees. Be sure all your e-mails contain a request for input. If your company is holding a grand opening or sponsoring a charitable event, invite your extended family to attend.

Requests for participation and input reinforce the message that all family members are valued. While there is some information that must be restricted (shared only with board members, company employees or family members over age 18), it’s important to explain why that information is confidential.

Encouraging participation from your extended family gives you a chance to discover someone’s hidden or dormant talent, and to learn something about your family that you didn’t know before. And it can help prevent inconsequential disagreements from morphing into major disasters.







Copyright 2012 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permssion from the publisher. For reprint information, contact

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The platform for modern communication has radically changed over the past decade. Countless articles and opinions have been offered on how to best reach your audience, in particular a younger audience. A whole new set of communication verbs and nouns have emerged in our vocabulary: “blogging,” “social networking,” “Web 2.0” and, most recently, “tweeting.” This new vocabulary is a testament to the changing landscape of information delivery.

Yet while we clearly need to understand how to use these new vehicles of information delivery, there seems to be less thought or discussion around what we are actually saying to one another. What seems to have been lost in the discussion about the medium is some renewed thought on the message.

Message is particularly important in a family business. “Who we are, and what we stand for” is often the key differentiator and competitive advantage of a family enterprise. As you think about the message you are crafting for your customers, ensure that no matter what platform you use to communicate, the essence of who you are is not lost in translation.

This is not to suggest that your business identity must stay stuck in the age of the dinosaur. Family business brands and identities (like those of any company) do well to evolve and stay current with the times. However, if your clients perceive value in the “personal touch” of your company, you want to be sure that any new communication platform you embrace will not take that away from your customers’ experience. The point is not to get so distracted by the rush to jump onto the latest platform, or message system, that the communication you put out there is inauthentic to your business.

More chances for miscommunication

In addition to communicating with customers, families that are in business together must communicate with one another on a regular basis, and many are making use of more contemporary methods. Increasingly we see families setting up Facebook pages or Yahoo groups to share information and encourage the involvement of the younger generation. Some families have set up blogs to journal the activities of a family member or chronicle important events involving the company. While one could imagine how more channels of communication might facilitate the flow of information, it is also true that these additional channels can provide more opportunities for miscommunication—especially if they are used to deliver the wrong message.

Given the emotional load of both business and family issues, communication is a struggle for many family enterprises. Even just on family matters, the different generations’ varying communication norms (for example, notions of confidentiality) are a potential source of problems. In fact, poor communication is the undoing of many otherwise strong family businesses, and has often also spelled the demise of family unity. Yet the worst kind of communication is no communication at all.

This represents a challenge: We want to maximize the flow of information and communication, but we must be mindful of communicating in a productive and healthy manner. What to do?

1. Assume good intentions. Language is limited, no matter what the platform. When you are reading or listening to a communication from a family member, assume he or she means well and does not intend to cause harm. Not everyone is a skilled communicator and it is easy to be misunderstood, so it is important to actively seek the most positive spin you can put on a communication.

2. Be straightforward. No one likes to feel someone is trying to keep important information away from them—and the younger generation is particularly sensitive to this. If there is information you cannot share, or that should not be communicated through a particular medium, simply state this and explain why. It is reasonable to indicate that financial results should not be shared via e-mail (who knows where that information can end up?), but you must then clarify how or when this information will be made available.

3. Understand the protocol. Different platforms of communication have different norms. For example, if you use CAPITAL letters in an e-mail message, you will be perceived as yelling. Be sure that when you use a given communication tool you have good knowledge of how your message will be “heard” or interpreted on this platform.

4. Be authentic. This comes back to the “flavor” of the message. When communicating with clients, ensure the personality of your business is shining through, no matter what platform you use.

5. Ensure your tone fits the message. When you are communicating with family, the tone or flavor of the message should vary, depending on the content you are communicating. There are some messages that should be delivered with a sense of professionalism—information about the company, minutes from a board meeting, etc. Yet communications about the date of the annual family barbecue should not be formal, or the message will be interpreted as cold or odd.

6. Clarify norms and expectations. It is important that all recipients of a communication understand what they are expected to do or not do with this information. If a reply or response is required, the family should establish norms around the time frame within which how fast responses are expected. Some people feel a three-day delay is fine, whereas others perceive a lapse of more than 24 hours to be rude. Likewise, when information is sensitive or should not be shared with others, it is important to explicitly clarify (especially to the younger generation) what this means.

7. Don’t sacrifice the human touch. While modern technologies can allow us to feel more connected, and certainly can facilitate the frequency of communication, electronic platforms should never replace face-to-face interactions. If you work down the hallway from your sister, walk over there to chat rather than send an e-mail every time. Do not get so seduced by the facility of information exchange and light communication via technology that you forgo regular family meetings, shared vacations or other opportunities to more deeply reconnect with your family.

Integrating the old and the new

This challenge of modern communication is an example of a paradox we often encounter in family business: the tension of the old versus the new. We want to be able to stay current and embrace new technologies in ways that will work to our advantage, but we need to be mindful of valued traditions or the “old way” of doing things that may continue to have some currency, and should not be discarded lightly.

Certainly the human touch and close family connections are a vital ingredient in family business success. While you should embrace all the communication technologies that will help you in the business, don’t let these technologies damage the positive “family feel” for your clients or your family!

Stephanie Brun de Pontet, Ph.D., is an associate of the Family Business Consulting Group Inc. She specializes in advising family enterprises facing important transitions (

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Technology helps to connect members of a large family

With dozens of cousins scattered across the globe, how can a later-generation business family keep its diverse group of shareholders informed about the business and strengthen ties among relatives who rarely see each other?

Edouard Janssen and Edouard Thijssen, each a shareholder in a large Belgian family business, have developed a secure, web-based communication platform to help achieve these goals. Their online tool allows family members to access information about each other or the family company 24 hours a day; to share information with relatives; and to interact with each other through photos, comments or videos.

Janssen, 31, is a sixth-generation shareholder and deputy treasurer at Solvay Group, a $10 billion chemical and pharmaceutical company. Thijssen, 23, is a fifth-generation member of the family that owns Aliaxis, a $2.5 billion group of companies that manufacture and sell plastic products for transport of fluids. The two Edouards met in 2006 at a Belgian family business program; their small talk about having cousins they barely knew sparked the idea for their venture.

Inspired by the “Web 2.0” interactive tools they used every day to communicate with friends and colleagues, they created, which combines elements of Wikipedia, Facebook, LinkedIn, Youtube and Evite, plus security features adapted from online banking. Security and data-protection features were especially important to the family business leaders who offered feedback prior to TrustedFamily’s launch, the company says. is marketed through Janssen and Thijssen’s company, Younited SA, which they formed in 2007. Investors in Younited include the founders’ families as well as José Zurstrassen, who founded Skynet, a leading Internet access provider in Belgium, and KeyTrade Bank, Belgium’s first online bank. The company was formed with long-term stability in mind, Thijssen says. “Our families have about 100 years of history,” he points out.

The application enables family members to share information and collaborate on projects, offer e-learning tools for the next generation, develop and manage an online archive, and communicate via a social-networking system. Families can make a wide variety of family and business information available on the TrustedFamily platform: a family tree, a family member directory, Facebook-type pages, LinkedIn-style professional profiles, calendar listings, company information (history, board meetings, press releases, internship opportunities, etc.), e-newsletters, family member blogs, photo albums, videos, polls and invitations to company or family events. Access to privileged information (board or committee meeting minutes, for example) can be limited to a select group of users.

Thijssen notes that the array of offerings and the look of the web pages can be customized to fit a family’s needs and objectives. “Some families are very concerned about archiving, some families are concerned about very transparent communication, and others are interested in educating the next generation,” he says. Younited’s clients include family offices as well as business families, some of whom have sold their operating companies.

Younited’s clients pay an annual subscription fee that varies according to the number of users, level of security and level of service. For information, see






Helping ultra-high-net-worth families keep track of their complex assets

Ultra-high-net-worth families, whose holdings tend to be spread across various asset classes with different managers, may have trouble keeping track of what they own, contends Norman Jones, CEO of WealthTouch Inc., a Denver company that provides independent financial reporting services for the wealthy.

Because of the complexity and diversity of high-net-worth individuals’ holdings, “When they ask a basic question, it can take two or three days to get an answer back,” Jones says.

To meet the demands of information-age clients, WealthTouch offers a web-based platform that gathers financial and investment data from all sources, asset classes (including alternative investments like hedge funds, private equity and real estate as well as personal property like art or jewelry), geographic locations and currencies. The company says its system, designed to meet wealthy clients’ data-security needs, differs from off-the-shelf accounting programs because it was created specifically for the high-net-worth market rather than for a small business. Features include reports on partial or multigenerational family ownership structures, such as limited partnerships and trusts.

Large families, multifamily offices and private banks outsource investment reporting, expense management and bill-paying services to WealthTouch, which was founded in 2001. The company has about 370 families on its system, according to Jones. Clients’ total assets range from $20 million to more than $1.5 billion, with an average of about $100 million, the company says.

Jones says that since the exposure of Bernie Madoff’s fraudulent scheme and other investment scandals, high-net-worth individuals have been more proactive in managing their assets. “We’ve seen a far greater need for clarity and transparency,” he says. The WealthTouch system makes it easy for a client to notice, for example, that three different managers have bought a particular stock, resulting in a portfolio overweighted in that particular investment, Jones explains.

Since mid-2008, WealthTouch’s assets under management have ballooned from $400 million to $15 billion, the company says. In late January, the company reported that it had received an infusion of $11 million in capital from international private investors to fund its expansion in response to client demand; most of the funding came from families using the WealthTouch platform, according to the company.

Many multifamily offices are outsourcing financial reporting services to WealthTouch as a way to cut costs in the wake of the economic downturn as their client roster and assets under management have declined, Jones notes. In a typical multifamily office environment, he notes, “costs are very, very difficult to scale down” because financial services are labor-intensive, he says. “If you get rid of a couple of people, the entire machine breaks down.”

WealthTouch’s pricing varies depending of the complexity of a client’s account structure; costs can range from $80,000 to $150,000 per year. For information, see

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This is undeniably a time of great stress and uncertainty. Financial advisers are making every effort to keep their clients updated about the markets during this volatile time. Financial advisers speak to what they know best—the behavior of financial markets. We are not financial advisers, but we’ve heard from our clients and their advisers about some of the challenges they are facing, and we thought some of our observations about human behaviors in uncertain times might be helpful.

Our experience in working with families who share assets has taught us that trying to be purely rational in addressing economic uncertainty is not completely satisfactory. We encourage our clients to acknowledge the emotional stresses they are facing, and we suggest ways in which families who share assets can deal with the stresses that they are experiencing.

At times like these, an opportunity presents itself for the family to reaffirm their reasons for staying together. We find that it may help to focus on a few guidelines for decreasing the tension and restoring a greater sense of calm and safety.

Here are some guidelines for families:

• Understand that people react with fear, doubt and distrust in the face of economic uncertainty, but families must resist temptations to make impulsive decisions that can only make things worse.

• Strive to restore a sense of calm and security among family members and follow established processes for effective analysis and decision -making.

• Identify opportunities—such as family meetings—to open communications, acknowledge that all members are in this together, and gain a common understanding of the situation.

• Avoid tendencies to blame your financial advisers. Instead, work with them to assess both short-term and long-term risks to the family and to thoughtfully consider options

• Acknowledge that the family’s human capital—the value of each individual and the power of positive relationships—is equal in importance to its financial capital.

We believe that families can benefit from affirmations of emotional support in times of uncertainty such as the one we are currently experiencing. Our experience in working with families through both financial and non-financial transitions leads us to be optimistic about the power of families to emerge from times of crisis like this with stronger relationships and more effective communications and decision-making processes.

Fredda Herz Brown, Sam Davis, Dennis Jaffe and Fran Lotery are partners in Relative Solutions LLC, a consulting firm to family enterprises (

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Come January, for the first time in my life, the President of the United States will be younger than I am. In reflecting on this bit of depressing, personal trivia, I noted that Barack Obama—though born in 1961 and thus too old to be a member of Generation Y—had strong appeal among young voters. Perhaps not coincidentally, he raised millions of dollars through the Internet, an avenue less important to the mature McCain camp.

If there ever were a valuable New Year’s resolution for family businesses, it might be to keep abreast of changing technologies. In fact, we hear from many patriarchs about the benefits of instant and constant communications. Families have set up websites with family-only passwords, as well as blogs (short for “web logs”) to help far-flung members stay in touch.

According to Ann Dugan of the Family Business Consulting Group, “Many of today’s progressive business-owning families have developed Internet-based communication tools such as Facebook groups, Ning, listservs and communal newsletters.” Dugan notes that increased communication “keeps a shared vision alive,” but adds that “rules need to be developed” to govern matters such as appropriate topics to be discussed online and how disputes will be resolved.

Webcasts and webinars help family management teams gain the tools they need for daily operations without ever leaving their offices. One third-generation business leader, Scottie Mayfield of Mayfield Dairy Farms (see FB, Summer 2007), started a company blog for his staff to communicate with customers and obtain valuable feedback on the company’s products.

Being an effective manager these days requires sophisticated performance tracking measures. “One of the greatest advancements in the use of technology beyond the Internet is the active development and adoption of business dashboards or scorecards that allow managers and owners to track both the objective and the qualitative performance of the business,” notes the Family Business Consulting Group’s Mark Green.

I have written here on the role of older-generation family businesses members as mentors to the next generation. Technology is one area where young members can teach the seniors. When I was growing up in Kansas City, my Uncle Pat would send out a weekly “Dear All” letter to family members around the world. For almost 40 years, Pat wrote this colorful letter, which related family news, updates on our family’s flour business, and social events around town. A conservative to the core, he regaled us with his political observations and his love of history.

Today, Family Business reaches thousands of family business owners and advisers not only with our magazine, but also via our e-newsletter. No one can deny that the Web is a major communications channel, and it makes good business sense to keep up with the technology.

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