Company histories offer valuable business lessons

By Yvonne Hundshamer

There are bottom-line rewards for family businesses that choose to document their histories and cultures.

Family businesses deserve a special role in the corporate world. According to a September 2003 report in Family Business Review, family firms accounted for 59% of the U.S. gross domestic product and employed 77 million people, or 58% of the U.S. work force, in the year 2000. Family-owned companies tend to have more loyal employees, a greater level of clarity about expectations, and a higher level of growth and investment.

Based on their collective successes, family businesses can teach many valuable lessons about management, decision making, leadership, innovation and business philosophy. By documenting and articulating its culture of vision and growth—and its legacy of dedication and hard work—a family company can help others better understand the lessons learned from its past.

Bottom-line impact

A family company that initiates a history project can gain more than the opportunity to educate others—it's likely to improve its own bottom line as well. Organizations that reach milestones, celebrate successes, plan for transition or embark on new initiatives generally have important stories to share. These anecdotes, when put into historical context, have the power to inspire, excite and support those vital to a company's purpose. Revisiting a company's best practices—its innovations, challenges and successes—is especially valuable when setting a course for the future.

Many companies commission historical publications to mark a special landmark, such as a 50th anniversary or the evolution of a particular product or brand. Family businesses might consider taking on documentation projects at other periods as well—for example, prior to a leadership transition, merger or key acquisition.

The process of generating a corporate history can be enlightening and valuable and can generate material useful throughout the company:

• Sales professionals gain greater access to the company story and heritage and thus are better able to present a consistent message to customers.

• A document that encapsulates the corporate philosophies and culture can be useful for employee recruitment. The text can also offer current employees a better understanding of how company leaders envision using their resources for future growth.

• Marketing and communications efforts benefit from the volume of interviews and one-on-one feedback that is central to the process. The corporate history can help marketing staff to effectively reach the company's key audiences, both internally and externally. In many situations, they learn nuggets of information that become central to their company's core messages.

• Executives and leaders get a synthesized version of the company's best practices and defined areas of expertise for use in strategic planning, designing new initiatives or examining new opportunities.

For family businesses, history/culture projects provide opportunities to define and articulate an organization's uniqueness, the benefits of family ownership, the particular values of organizational leaders and the special strengths that have contributed to success. At the same time, employees get a better understanding of how the past and future guide current leaders, and feel welcomed into the family circle as valued participants.

In some cases, growth means bringing in managers from outside the family and the company to provide guidance and leadership. When fears of bureaucracy or dilution of family values are valid, culture projects—which emphasize storytelling as a means to communicate information and illustrate values—can help to keep everyone connected and involved.

Finally, history and culture projects promote the long-term perspective of business in a world that seems so influenced by short-term factors. Family businesses have held their own thanks to a more patient model of growth. The family legacies behind these successes can be articulated and captured in ways that are highly valuable to current and future users of that information.

Yvonne Hundshamer is president of Blue Grotto Inc., a Minnesota business that works with organizations to document culture and values, celebrate milestones and articulate vision (www.bluegrottoinc.com).

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Autumn 2004

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