Looking back and ahead

By Bill Rock

This 30th anniversary issue of Family Business has been a delight to put together. Our editorial team, led by Barbara Spector, has done an excellent job of highlighting how the field of family business expertise has advanced over the past 30 years and has masterfully spotlighted 30 families who have made exceptional progress in governance. Our team could have easily included hundreds more families, and choosing only 30 proved challenging. Perhaps when we celebrate our 100th anniversary — as many of the companies we have profiled over the years in our Celebration Corner section have — the job of our editorial team will be easier.

While reading our timeline of key events in family business history on page 40, I was particularly struck by both how nascent the field was 30 years ago and how rapidly the industry has professionalized in recent decades. It made me think about what the future for family businesses might look like and how they might be viewed 30 years from now.

Family businesses are the backbone of the American economy. Family firms have been estimated to account for more than 60% of U.S. GDP, and they employ tens of millions of people. However, despite their importance to our nation, they are sometimes viewed as conflict-driven, risk-averse and ripe for disruption. But on the fundamental issue of what a company’s purpose is, I find that family businesses’ attitudes, outlook and values are at the forefront of a national discussion on good governance.

Over the last year, we’ve heard Fortune 500 CEOs, politicians and academics denigrate many public companies for their short-term, shareholder-centric focus. In response, they outline ideal characteristics for all companies, including a long-term focus, support of multiple stakeholders — employees, customers and their communities, in addition to shareholders — the creation of a values-driven culture, the recognition and acceptance of ESG responsibilities and a close relationship with investors. When I hear these traits, I am quickly reminded that this view is one that many family businesses have held for generations. 

If my young daughters decide to join our family business one day, and are qualified to do so, when they sit down and write a column for our 60th anniversary, I think they will reflect on how over the last 30 years business in general has embraced many of the views espoused by family firms. I think they will spotlight how family businesses have effectively built and leveraged the “family” aspect of their brand as a competitive differentiator to drive client engagement, attract and retain talent, and be viewed as a trusted partner. I think they will highlight how family offices and enterprises have become a global force in deploying private capital. I think they will identify 60 family businesses that underscore how good governance can both benefit the business and lead to better family relationships. And I think they will joke that their grandmother still shows baby pictures of their dad at board meetings. 

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 bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

Article categories: 
September/October 2019

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