Family businesses are important contributors to the economic sustainability of their local communities—and often to the regions' social, cultural and charitable activities, as well. Several of the companies featured in this issue are pillars of their communities.
At Woodward Funeral Home in Spartanburg, S.C., featured on our cover, fourth-generation member Stinson Woodward Ferguson says she takes time to visit with community members who stop by to chat. The business makes its limousines available free of charge for weddings and offers complimentary notary services.
The Hillenmeyer family, who operate 175-year-old Stephen Hillenmeyer Landscape Services of Lexington, Ky. (profiled in our "Celebration Corner" column), told me that most people in town have some connection to the business and the family. That's not surprising, since both have been around for six generations. Many locals treasure their memories of picking out Christmas trees from the Hillenmeyers year after year after year, sixth-generation member Chase Hillenmeyer told me.
These strong community connections often result in fierce loyalty among customers. Local business names (such as Wawa and Yuengling here in Philadelphia) are hallmarks of civic pride.
But there are challenges, as well. Fifteen years ago, I interviewed an Indiana family in the jewelry business who filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy amid adverse circumstances in the 1990s. The local newspaper put a story about their situation on the front page—with a headline in a font size most editors reserve for declarations of war.
If you make a business decision to execute a reduction in force or move your headquarters out of town, be prepared for a local outcry if you are well established in your region. If your next-generation members who have moved from the company's hometown redirect their charitable giving to organizations in their new home base, those who traditionally received the grants will criticize the decision.
Likewise, if family members misbehave in public, the name of the family business will be included in the local gossip. And if relatives sue each other over ownership of the family business or shares in the departed leader's estate, the family's personal heartbreak will be fodder for armchair psychologists all over town.
Many family business members would say that the benefits of their brand's status as a household name outweigh the drawbacks. With ample forethought and family education, the downsides can be reduced or at least managed.
Your family meetings—and parental discussions with young family members—should include conversations about the responsibilities associated with stewardship of your family's legacy, and warnings about the high stakes involved. A brand can survive a corporate misstep, but in the electronic age, a family embarrassment will live forever.
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