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The Executive’s Desk: Beyond survival and legacy

Legacy or innovation? What makes a family business successful in America? For many, their competitive advantage flows from strong family values, caring culture, customer focus, patient capital and long-term commitment that can grow into a valuable multi-generational legacy.

Brendan Wall

If your business is prepared to make it to the second generation and beyond, the bigger challenge becomes how to transfer your secret sauce onto your next-gens without controlling it from the grave. How can your family preserve the culture, values and traditions when your rising next gen leaders want to radically transform your business and products to attract today’s millennials and Gen Xers? How do you innovate and grow the business to compete and succeed in today’s hypercompetitive business world, without destroying the golden goose? This is the paradox that will be explored at the UNM Anderson School’s Parker Center for Family Business fall symposium on Nov. 8.

I grew up in a traditional Midwestern Irish family with 11 siblings. My dad was a World War II veteran working hard to put food on the table while building his career across multiple public companies. Eventually, he acquired a small business that he hoped to build into something special. At the same time, Mom and Dad raised us to be independent, competitive, self-sufficient individuals. “Go to college and follow your dreams!” they insisted. That was before dad realized he wanted to keep his business in the family for succeeding generations. His hope was to protect his business from “IRS marauders” and “equity capital vultures,” while using it as glue to keep his big family close. He longed to find a way that his business could benefit his co-workers, customers, community and his family through future generations

Over the next 30 years, Dad built a large, successful business and then installed clever ownership and governance systems to preserve it. While transitioning his business into family ownership, he invested time and money in educating and indoctrinating his “kids” on how to be caring, long-term stewards of his business legacy.

Only after my father’s passing in his 92nd year did my generation realize that stewardship without new vision and risk-taking was leading our business to stagnation and decline. Our challenge was to decide how a consortium of competitive siblings could work cooperatively together as cohesive owners, all outside the operations, to grow our business enough to keep up with our fast-expanding family. By now, our family was four generations strong and 50 members deep.

We like to think that ours is a unique family business. After years of working with, for and around family businesses, I now know that our experiences are shared by many other family businesses. We have survived the challenges of managing and growing a 114-year-old business and owning eight businesses without working directly in any of the operations. My generation (G-2) is working with the next gen (G-3) to innovate and grow our Old World library supply business to evolve beyond “runny paste and book pockets” into a thriving enterprise with more than 600 employees, eight independent companies and 15 diverse product lines. Our market is serving the needs of lifelong education in modern libraries, schools and museums around the world.

I can proudly say that we did survive and Dad’s legacy is intact. Are we, my siblings and I, ready to relinquish control of this business to the next gen? Yes and no. We are working on engaging and educating our third generation of 22 spirited young adults in the mysteries and magic and sometimes maddening messes of our family business, Dad’s legacy. We are all dedicated to growing our business, although our methods and strategies may vary from family member to family member, and generation to generation. Our family business stewardship model and next gen development program are our insurance that this family business will continue to thrive and not just survive for generations to come.

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