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The Ties That Bind
The UMass Amherst Family Business Center celebrates a decade of service

—Deborah Klenotic

Randall's farm
Karen Randall ’76 (far left) bought Randall’s Farm in 1996, about 10 years after her dad passed away. He and his wife, Elsie, (second from left) started the business as a roadside egg stand in the 1950s. Karen, with help from her sisters, Anna Arciszewski and Tammy Marquis, has turned it into one of the top 100 women-owned businesses in Massachusetts, according to Babson College. photo by Ben Barnhart
THEY HESITATE TO NAME ONE another in public and sometimes meet in undisclosed locations. While sipping aperitifs in business suits, they learn about intelligence gathering from former CIA operatives. They strategize on buyouts, takeovers, partnerships.

Mafioso? Disney’s board of directors?

Not quite. They’re members of the approximately 75 family businesses in western New England that have joined forces through UMass Amherst’s Family Business Center (FBC).

Under the guidance of director Ira Bryck, the center recently celebrated its 10th year of educating family businesses. Topics range from how to collect from delinquent customers to whom to have on the board of directors. The center serves as a confidential forum for members to bring their family dynamics to the table, to consult with others who know what it’s like to have Dad decide on your promotion or have your sister sign your paycheck.

“The Family Business Center is one of my favorite things,” says Cindy Johnson, the energetic young owner of Fran Johnson’s Discount Golf and Tennis in West Springfield. She has been a member for over 10 years. Johnson bought the sporting goods business from her father. Together they recently sat on a panel about business succession plans. Thanks in part to the FBC, says Johnson, “my father and I have come a long way from when I first approached him about buying the business, when he kept saying, ‘you’re pushing me out!’ Family time was not fun then.”

Money. Family relationships. Office politics. Considering what bumpy territory each can be, it’s a wonder that anyone braves a family business, which requires charting these all at once. Yet 80 to 90 percent of the 24 million U.S. companies, including one-third of the Fortune 500, are family owned or managed. We all know some of them: Wal-Mart, Cargill, Mars, Ford, Crane Paper, Disney.

“Many family businesses get along well, especially if family-ness is their message, such as ‘We bring good things to life,’” says Bryck. On the wall in his office, a 1977 Polaroid shows Bryck and his father in front of a rack of boys’ suits. Bryck’s compassionate sense of humor about the foibles of family businesses stems from 17 years of experience with his family’s store.

“Family businesses also break up more often than marriages, with two-thirds failing in the second generation,” Bryck notes. “Almost no business schools in the United States teach family business. University-based family business centers—there are about a hundred—try to fill the educational and support gap.”

Members of FBC gather for formal dinners, where they’re enlightened by business visionaries as well as by plays written by Bryck that dramatize family dynamics. They regularly meet in smaller roundtables for specific subsets such as siblings or presidents. In addition, the center provides pro bono consulting sessions with Bryck for individual companies, and free technical information sessions from six corporate sponsors. (The FBC, a Continuing Education program, receives no state funding.)

“When members first start coming to our dinners,” says Bryck, “they say how they felt normal for once. Every day, many of these people are thinking, ‘Our family is screwing it up; we’re so dysfunctional.’ For them to walk out feeling normal—that’s a big thing.”
Member Karen Randall ’76, owner of Randall’s Farm and Greenhouse in Ludlow, Mass., says Randall’s doesn’t have any family issues right now. “Probably because I’m single and don’t have children,” she says, acknowledging the gigantic workload of the business owner, “and am the sole owner by mutual consent of the family,” including two sisters who work for her.

“For us,” says Randall, “the Family Business Center is more an opportunity for growth, a chance to step back from what we do every day and to listen to intelligent people speak about entrepreneurship, such as Stu Leonard, who owns the biggest dairy store in the world. Because the roundtable is a very confidential venue, you’re not afraid to vent to other business owners, to talk about sales, anything,” says Randall. “It definitely inspires me.”

Even though she began washing and packing family-grown squash and scallions at age 11, “I never thought I wanted to come back to the store. I got my degree in elementary education, but I always felt a commitment to it,” says Randall. She bought the business in 1996, about 10 years after the death of her father, who had started it as a roadside egg stand in the 1950s.

Ambivalence toward the family business is common, says Bryck. So is inadvertent commitment to a Mom-and-Pop mentality. “In many family businesses, the founder is likely to have started it because he hated his job and wanted the American dream of owning a business,” explains Bryck. “Children come in because they want to or because they lost their job or decided they didn’t want to be a dentist after all.”

For this and other reasons, says Bryck, “many families have a hard time treating the business like a business. Some employees may not start at the bottom, but others have to. Employees who are not family may be treated too informally, or, conversely, required to follow rules, like punching a clock, that family employees ignore. The owners may not be sure how much to pay themselves, or how to decide who should
be president.”

Fran Johnson’s was a case in point. “When my father began selling sporting goods out of our basement, he never would’ve said he was an entrepreneur,” says Cindy Johnson. “He’d say he had a family to feed and needed more money than he was making at his job at Western New England College.”

Her father liked the “thrill of the deal,” she says, buying on the cheap “300 pairs of golf shoes with leather soles and uppers, all in one god-awful color, or a thousand number 1 or 2 irons—things you’d think nobody would buy. But he sold them.” He was less interested in long-term goals, Johnson realized after she graduated from college and along with her brother began working full-time at the business.

“In contrast, I was always looking ahead, thinking, ‘how can we improve?’ And the longer I stayed, the more I got into it,” says Johnson. “In the late 1980s I realized I wanted to take over the business some day.”

A few years later she experienced “the longest nine months of my life,” says Johnson, when her father tried to sell the store to an outside party. “I couldn’t leave; I needed the paycheck. But I didn’t want to be in the same room with him.”

Drawing on the advice and resources of the Family Business Center, Johnson created a business plan that would transfer ownership of the store to her over 10 years. “I gave it to my father and said, if your other deal doesn’t go through, here’s my plan.”

The deal did fall through. And now Johnson is a member of the presidents’ roundtable of the Family Business Center. “I like the setting and the structure,” she says. “Ira brings fantastic dinner speakers to address what we want to learn. In the roundtables, I get fresh outlooks from 12 people who I trust. It’s just an awesome group of people.” One that sounds a lot like family.

Related links:
http://www.umass.edu/fambiz/


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