Change is opportunity
Running a family business post pandemic
There has never been a better time to be a family-owned business in the United States than right now. We know, it’s a counterintuitive view, but given the pace of change linked to digital acceleration plus the reopening of the economy, it’s true. In a digitally accelerated and post-pandemic economy, characterized by unprecedented disruption, we will seek the familiar, the familial, the human.
The “digital first” economy is not only forcing transformation but also accelerating the speed at which we do business. Now, over 14 months into the pandemic, business leaders find themselves living in the future — it’s 2025, today. Trends that were in motion pre-COVID-19 have been accelerated, and we have collapsed three to five years of trend adoption into a five- to 10-month period. Businesses that were experimenting with remote work or planning to enhance their e-commerce offerings, or that had tools for automating their business on their nice-to-have list, are now finding their needs to be urgent and essential.
Family-owned businesses must now operate in a dual track mode that preserves and enhances what is working while planning and innovating for the future.
Most of the innovations compelled or inspired by the pandemic are unlikely to go away. Consumers have come to love the functionality of PayPal, Amazon Prime and Netflix. They value the convenience and flexibility of curbside pickup and a long Peloton ride. They tolerate endless Zoom meetings and Slack collaboration. Many of these innovations affect family businesses as well:
1. Digital Acceleration & Direct-to-Consumer
Even the most digitally “resistant” industries have adopted digital pathways to efficiently communicate, collaborate, explore, educate and transact. Further, industries are being transformed and businesses are skipping normal distribution channels and going DTC (direct-to-consumer). This increases the importance of establishing a strong brand position and greater awareness of products and / or services. Today’s consumer expects not only the option for self-service, but also the ability to bypass the “brokers” in any industry — to get to the source of what they need without unnecessary time and interference. This has clear implications for sales forces, distribution partnerships and, of course, service delivery.
2. Work from Home (WFH) & Hybrid Schedules
We are entering a new era of workforce mobility. The rapid adoption of WFH, combined with record low interest rates, is unlocking unlimited geographic potential for where the best and brightest employees will call home. Employers can now recruit from any region and, conversely, employees can now seek employment in any geography. It means that place can become less of a selling point than it might have been not so long ago. And it means that your expectations for your talent pool should increase, not decrease, as the world in which your business lives has expanded. But the demands on companies have also changed — from flexible, hybrid work schedules to defining responsibilities in more meaningful ways than just geography. Fit will matter more than location in every aspect of this new and renewed economic landscape.
3. Millennials & Gen-Z Take Charge
We’ve been hearing for the better part of the last decade how Millennials and Gen Z will transform culture, the workforce and economy. According to Amy Henry, they already are: “Gen Z and Millennials before them have resisted buying into workplace norms, expectations and ‘shoulds’ for as long as they have been working. The pandemic has forced other generations to confront some of the questions they’ve been asking.” Your business needs to be a place where the Millennials’ demand for flexible schedules and their valuing personal identity over corporate homogeneity are not just tolerated but welcomed.
4. Social Awareness and Responsibility
Whether it is social justice, corporate practices or public policy, individuals are all more keenly aware of the risks to our economy, society and planet since 2020. Gen Z’s insistence on meaning and purpose in work has led many companies to better define their real reason for existing, and their real benefit to others, as a critical component of their vision.
Change Is Hard, But Necessary
As much as we would all like to get “back to normal,” family businesses must adapt to a new normal where old ways of doing things are no longer effective.
• Hyper-personalization and omni-channel business models are no longer nice to have, but keys to survival for many.
• Building digital pathways has become the normal course of business for even the least digitally forward industries and their consumers.
• In many categories, white-labeling products and services will take a back seat to establishing brands and/or solution-based selling to avoid commoditization.
As the economy opens up, families and C-suites must ask how the new normal will impact their business strategy and operations.
Change Is Opportunity
• Involve your full leadership team in creating a long-term strategic plan.
• Pull the family story forward — put a face[s] to the company.
• Double down on culture.
• Embrace your past, while leaning into the future.
• Geographic footprint, quality of life and cost of living matter. Make your business and brand a destination for top talent.
• Be innovative. Partner with your employees to reinvent and reimagine ways to engage with customers.
• Reinvent and reimagine new ways to foster employee engagement, innovation through serendipity, connectivity, empowerment and trust.
• Cultivate relationships to optimize both the digital journey and in-person experience.
Family-owned businesses have the advantage of not being beholden to outside investors’ and public markets’ forces and timelines. While the current environment requires speed, families have the flexibility to invest heavily in digital transformation, human capital and their future. nFB
Charlie J. Carr is the president of Big Canyon Advisors, LLC in Flower Mound, Texas. Travis Coley is the director, growth and strategy at Whitepenny in Haddonfield, N.J.