My CAFÉ Symposium 2016 Top 10 List


Returning from Calgary after attending my third annual CAFÉ Symposium in a row, I thought I would try something a bit different in this blog, and with a hat tip to David Letterman, here is my Top 10 List of memories.

Number 10Tony Dilawri’s Dad stories

A second generation family business leader who opened the Symposium with his family story.

Favourite parts: His Dad announcing “We’re all moving to Regina”, as well as his Dad telling him he was not working hard enough because he did not work on weekends, and his reply that he had multiplied the size of the company many times over while working less hours.

Number 9Dinner conversation

At the Family Enterprise of the Year Award dinner, I was seated next to a retired criminal lawyer, Larry Hursh (accompanied by his wife Carolyn) and I had the chance to exchange views with him on the Oland trial that I had attended in November.

Number 8Another Molson please

After the FEYA dinner, author Gordon Pitts interviewed Andrew Molson, who shed light on how their family has remained strong over the generations, including 3 separate times that they have owned my favourite hockey team.

Number 7Old Friends, New Friends

Like any annual conference you attend, it just gets better every year, because you know more people and more people know you. It was great to see old friends and meet other new ones, and hopefully we will all see each other again in Halifax in 2017.

Number 6Paint by Numbers

An old friend was Sarah Tkatchuk of KPMG, and she and some colleagues lead a workshop called “Painting a clear picture of long term family success”, which was surprising to me because “painting” and “accountants” are not necessarily two words you think of together. Of course, it was essentially a “paint-by-numbers” exercise.

Number 5 You are getting sleepy

Wayne Lee’s hypnosis show was hilarious and very memorable for the performances by a couple of participants, old friend Trudy Pelletier and new friend Margaret-Jean Mannix. I will just leave it at that.

Number 4Brett Wilson’s unique ways

The former Dragon shared a few of his stories and philosophies to end the conference.

Favourite parts: He admits attending the University of Saskatchewan because he did not realize that (in theory at least) he had other choices of schools. Also, the methods he is using to get his children to be financially responsible, which sound like they are working, even if they are clearly not for everyone.

Number 3 Prepare those heirs!

The mother-daughter team of Kathy Reich and Nicky Scott shared lots of great ideas during their workshop. It is nice to see that more people are getting into what they called “Preparing Heirs for Assets (not the other way around)”.

Having read “Preparing Heirs” myself, and also having the pleasure of speaking with author Roy Wilson on a recent conference call, I am glad to help spread this message to more people.

Number 2A new take on Core Values

Keynote speaker John DeHart spoke passionately about how he co-founded Nurse Next Door and how defining their corporate values was (and still is) their key to success.

It only hit me after he was finished that his real innovation was getting away from the staid old “one word” values like integrity and replaced them with sayings, taglines or catchphrases like “sunny side up”, which was both a personal value of his and a value of his company.

Number 1The Bermingham Story

Patrick Bermingham recounted the tale of his 119-year old family business, and what a tale it was.

Favourite parts: How he purchased the company from his father, they shook hands, and Dad never said another word, he was now fully in charge. How he went about raising cash at a time where he had no other choice, and how he offered shares to key employees to ensure the company’s growth would be sustainable.

Many inspirational stories were heard and enjoyed by the hundreds of attendees, and I was glad to be one of them again.

I hope to see you all in Halifax next year!



Steve Legler “gets” business families.

He understands the issues that families face, as well as how each family member sees things from their own viewpoint.

He specializes in helping business families navigate the difficult areas where the family and the business overlap, by listening to each person’s concerns and ideas. He then helps the family work together to bridge gaps by building common goals, based on their shared values and vision.

His background in family business, his experience running his own family office, along with his education and training in coaching, facilitation, and mediation, make him uniquely suited to the role of advising business families and families of wealth.

He is the author of Shift your Family Business (2014), he received his MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business (UWO, 1991), is a CFA Charterholder (CFA Institute, 2002), a Family Enterprise Advisor (IFEA 2014), and has received the ACFBA and CFWA accreditations (Family Firm Institute 2014-2015).

He prides himself on his ability to help families create the harmony they need to support the legacy they want. To learn how, start by signing up for his monthly newsletter and weekly blogs here.


Vermont, a Global Hub? What the FECC?

Burlington Vermont is not a place most people think about when globalization is the subject. But once a year, that all changes, and people involved in Family Business congregate there in January for a one-of-a-kind experience.

The Global Family Enterprise Case Competition (FECC) just wrapped up this weekend, and the fourth annual edition was better than ever. The folks at the Grossman School of Business at the University of Vermont can truly call their event “Global”.

I had the privilege of serving on the judging committee at this competition for the third year in a row, and as always, it was an enriching experience. So how global is it?

Well on Thursday I served on a panel with another Montrealer, but he happens to hail from Mexico (as did a couple of the Undergraduate teams participating). That same panel featured a woman from Switzerland, who was born in Czechoslovakia (which is now 2 countries!)

There were 24 student teams competing, with 16 in the Undergraduate section and 8 in the Graduate portion, and these teams hailed from 10 different countries, but if that weren’t enough, the students themselves came from even more diverse geographic and cultural backgrounds.

I don’t have vital stats for all of the participants, but from just the eight teams that I saw, here are a few examples:

A team from Sweden featured at least 2 competitors who were German, which they clearly used to their advantage on the case of the Juchheim company, which, suprisingly (or not) was about a Japanese family enterprise.

Another team, from Texas, featured students with both Latin American and Asian roots, and a team from Spain featured one presenter with a Middle Eastern background.

I could go on, but I think that I have already given you a flavour of what the event is like, and I have probably already used some terms that will have offended some people who are more politically correct than me.

So what is it that makes Family Enterprise such a great field for a global competition? That’s an easy one.

The languages and the culture change from country to country, but the prevalence of family business is pretty well widespread around the world. And not only that, what parents want and hope for when they go into business with their family members is not very different from one location to another.

Furthermore, the issues that come up in family enterprise situations that you can find in one country will invariably show up in just about every other country too.

The good news here is that you can learn a lot about the big issues and how you may want to handle them simply by studying what has gone on elsewhere. You know, learn from other people’s mistakes.

The field of family business as a discipline, to be studied, researched, and taught in schools is still relatively new. The related field of family business advising is also still considered pretty new.

What this means is that the families who are eager to get involved with examining their own situations by opening their eyes and themselves up to what is going on with other families, are still part of what one would term the “early adopters”.

Family Business is not yet seen as “mainstream”, and is not taught as a separate discipline in very many business schools yet.

Likewise, many people like me who call ourselves Family Business Advisors are still looked at as a little bit odd (OK, I confess, you got me there) and we are sometimes met with questions like, “Is that a thing?” when we describe ourselves as such.

Things are changing, slowly but surely, in the right direction. If you have any interest in the field of Family Enterprise education, I invite you to check out the FECC at UVM and get involved in next year’s 5th annual edition. I know that I am already planning a return trip.


Que faire avec les jeunes?

En juillet, j’avais écrit un blogue qui répondait à une question posée par une participante lors d’une session du cours Triomphe, de l’École d’Entrepreneurship de Beauce, à laquelle j’ai eu le plaisir de participer comme invité.

Cette semaine, en emménageant mon nouveau bureau, j’ai tombé sur le dossier dans lequel j’avais gardé les autres questions auxquelles je n’avais pas eu le temps de répondre, et le “timing” était parfait, puisque j’avais déjà décidé que j’étais dû pour écrire un blogue en français, et je n’avais pas encore trouvé un sujet à mon goût.

J’ai choisi une question venant d’un homme qui approachait la soixantaine, et qui avait des enfants adolescents.

Voici la question: “J’ai deux enfants qui sont trop jeunes pour la relève, mais qui sont intéressés aux affaires, et à être dans l’entreprise dans le futur. Que faire?”

J’aime beaucoup cette question, surtout parce que le questionneur l’a déjà séparée en deux pour moi, ce qui la rend plus facile à répondre. Je m’explique.

Les jeunes sont “intéressés aux affaires”, et ils ont un désir à “être dans l’entreprise” un jour. Remarquons les différences.

Aider nos enfants à développer leurs intérêts, que ce soit aux affaires, aux sports, à la musique, etc., est un des plus gros plaisirs qu’un parent puisse avoir, surtout si le sujet en est un dans lequel le parent a aussi un fort intérêt.

Mais soyons clairs ici; un intérêt “aux affaires”, c’est-à-dire le commerce, les finances, l’achat et la vente de produits et de services (en général), ne doit pas être confondu avec MA compagnie, qui produit et vend quelque chose dans un marché (en particulier).

Je vous suggère fortement d’aider vos enfants à developper et explorer leurs intérêts et leur compréhension de tout ce qui est connecté avec les affaires, l’argent, leurs finances personnelles, le marketing, l’immobilier et les hypothèques, etcetera, sans les limiter aux activités de votre entreprise.

Les opportunités pour ce genre de discussion se produisent litéralement à chaque jour, et dans une variété de circonstances. À la maison, écoutez la télé ensemble, prenez le temps d’enregistrer les épisodes de “Dans l’oeil du dragon” ou Dragon’s Den ou Shark Tank.

Il existe également des émissions axées sur la restauration, l’immobilier, et toutes sortes d’activités commerciales. Il y en a peut-être moins de ces programmes à la télé francophone, mais c’est une autre bonne raison et occasion de faire un peu d’immersion anglophone, ce qui les fera aussi du bien à long terme.

Quand vous vous promenez en ville, en auto ou à pied, remarquez les annonces et les commerces, et parlez ensemble des enjeux, des stratégies, des prix, de tout ce que vous voyez.

Les occasions de découvrir et de développer les forces et les intérêts particuliers de chaque enfant ne cessent de se produire. Il s’agit simplement de les reconnaître et d’entamer une discussion.

“Pourquoi McDo met l’emphase sur ses trios? Est-ce qu’on sauve vraiment de l’argent en choisissant le trio versus l’achat des trois items séparément?” Et, “mais pourquoi ils veulent me faire ‘sauver’ de l’argent quand ils essayent de ‘faire’ de l’argent sur la vente?”

Avec ces discussions, vous apprendrez beaucoup sur vos enfants, et aussi à vos enfants. Et en même temps, ils deviendront, malgré eux, ce qu’on appelle en anglais “financially literate”, c’est-à-dire, ils seront plus à l’aise avec tous les sujets entourant l’argent et les affaires.

Selon moi, c’est un des plus beaux cadeaux qu’on peut offrir à nos enfants, même s’ils décident un jour de poursuivre leur carrière dans un autre domaine.

Si les enfants démontrent un jour un désir de devenir entrepreneur et de se lancer en affaires, vous pourrez certainement regarder la possibilité de les engager dans votre entreprise. Mais ne soyez pas surpris ou déçu s’ils décident plutôt un autre marché ou opportunité, qui s’enligne plus avec leurs intérêts et forces.

Votre entreprise est un actif que vous pouvez vendre à quelqu’un qui ne fait pas partie de votre famille. Après, si vous voulez aider vos enfants à se lancer en affaires dans une business qui les motive vraiment, allez-y. Et ça sera leur entreprise! 

There Is No “Rewind” Button

Those Hollywood movies that involve the ability to go back or forward in time rarely catch my interest, to the point where I would be hard pressed to name one and say anything good about it. Whether it be a romantic comedy or a sci-fi thriller, I just cannot suspend my disbelief long enough to make it work in my head.

In the same way, if you ask me the proverbial “if you could do it all over again” question, you would probably have to push me pretty hard to get me to say anything besides “I wouldn’t change anything”.

When it comes to looking to the future, I must admit that I have a tendency to start to plan a few steps ahead of everyone else, and it drives my wife crazy. It isn’t always easy to “stay present”, but when you think about, that’s where everything happens.

The title of this post refers to an expression that I often use when talking to families about where they are, and how they got there. Some members have difficulty letting go of their feelings about past events, when someone else “wronged” them.

If we did have that Hollywood “Rewind” button, things would be so much simpler, right? You could just press the button and that stupid thing you said, that accident that you had, that decision that you made a bit too quickly, could all be erased, and you could go back and make things better.

I have not found that button anywhere, and I don’t think anyone outside of Hollywood has either.

One of the problems with dwelling on the past is that it often allows old feelings to stay with you well beyond the point where they are useful or helpful to you. This happens way too frequently with people in a family business, whether it is between siblings, or among members of different generations.

Let me address this issue of “useful” and “helpful” a bit more. If someone says something or does something that you don’t like, it is can be very helpful to remember it in the short term, because your immediate response and reaction should keep these recent events in mind, for your own good.

But twenty years after your sister said something off the cuff that was meant as a joke, you may want to cut her a bit of slack if she has otherwise not been mean to you. (If she could hit “rewind”, knowing how much it hurt you, she just might.)

Many years ago, Dad may have told someone that he did not think you had what it takes to follow in his footsteps, and maybe you weren’t even supposed to hear it. Letting that affect you and hold you back ten years later is not very helpful. If you have been making great progress, and even if he never complimented you on it, well, that just might be his style and his way of keeping you hungry.

Too many business families get “stuck” and have trouble moving forward because some family members are still dwelling on things that happened many years in the past. These people often tend to blame others for their misfortunes, and think about how “if only” something else had taken place, they would be much happier today.

There is no Rewind button. You can’t go back and change the past. Sorry, this ain’t Hollywood.

So what can you do? Today really is the first day of the rest of your life, and only you can make the rest of it better. If you can start to change your attitude, and focus on how you can help yourself TODAY, you can start to move in the right direction, day by day.

And please don’t start looking for the Fast-Forward button, because that doesn’t exist either.

(I will tackle the Fast Forward button in next week’s blog.)

Understanding your Misunderstandings

The two key words in this blog, “understanding” and “misunderstanding” are rather long in and of themselves, and while they might appear to simply represent opposites, it is actually a lot more complex than that.

The topic is a very important one, in my eyes at least, which is why I have had it on my blog subject list for weeks now, before finally getting up the nerve to make an attempt at adding some valuable insight to this tricky issue.

I don’t remember what book I was reading when the idea of “understanding the misunderstanding” came into my mind, but I do remember that I was struck by the phrase enough to grab a pen and make a note, even though I was walking on a treadmill at the time.

So here goes.

We all go through life looking at things from our own point of view, which we see as the “real world”. And every other person also goes through life seeing things from THEIR point of view, which they in turn see as their “real world”. It is very rare for any two points of view to be 100% the same.

The differences in these points of view are quite often the root causes of differences of opinion, which in turn are the causes of misundertandings.

If and when you actually take the time to try to understand the causes of misunderstandings, you will likely learn a great deal about the differences in how you see the world versus the way the other person sees the world.

Too often, we do not take the time to even notice or acknowledge these different points of view, let alone investigate what lies behind them and have a meaningful conversation about them. But these are the most useful and meaningful discussions we will ever have, especially among family members.

In the context of family members working together in a business, it is very easy to just keep your head down and move through your day without stopping to think or talk about these kinds of things.

But every once in a while, maybe once a week, it is good to set some time aside to make sure that everyone is on the proverbial “same page”, that everyone has a common view of what is on that page, and that everyone has a clear understanding of the roles they are supposed to play.

There really is no good excuse for situations where someone, after weeks or months of working on something, says something like “Oh, I thought you were supposed to take care of that”, or “What? Nobody ever told me that I was supposed to take care of this”.

These examples are clearly the result of at least one misunderstanding, but nobody took the time to even notice them until it was too late.

When you take the time to understand the misunderstandings, you will usually be able to see some patterns in them, and when you come up with a way to address the common misunderstandings, you will go a long way to clarifying everyone’s roles.

Unfortunatley, these things rarely happen by themselves.

What works well is having a regular forum in which one person actually goes out of their way to make sure that the entire group has a common understanding of what their goals are, AND that each person understands what their role is supposed to be. Some people call this “leadership”.

Call it your weekly “Goals and Roles” meeting if that helps you focus, but make sure that you try to understand your misunderstandings to get back on track.


Exit Door or Exit Corridor?

Last week’s blog about “Exit Planning” elicited some confusion, and this week’s post will try to clear things up.

To actually exit a family business, especially one that you founded, nurtured, and grew, is not something that is taken lightly. To do so on one’s own terms, and to the satisfaction of all stakeholders, is truly a rare feat. But just because it is difficult, does not mean that we can’t try to pull it off.

One reader questioned the fact that setting an exit date that is too far in the future might actually “de-motivate” the rising generation, if that date was too far in the future. Another asked which date I was referring to when I spoke of the “exit date”, was it management of the business, or ownership?

These are both valid questions, of course, as they invite further discussion. There are no “stupid questions” in my book, the only stupid question is the one that you are afraid to ask, for fear of looking stupid.

The point of last week’s post was that IF we are able to get the founder to choose a date (actually, just a year) in the future, where he would no longer be involved in the company he founded, we could use that year as a reference point, or an anchor.

The idea is that just getting “engagement” is an important starting point, and if we don’t get to the point of engagement, then no real, worthwhile discussion of the issues will ever happen.

The title of the blog, “Under-Promise and Over-Deliver on your Exit Plan”, was used to highlight the fact that once a date is set, the engagement in the process can begin, and THEN, with time, the person would grow into the idea that there would be a future phase when he would leave the business to others.

As the person begins to “get” the fact that he will one day no longer manage, lead, and own the business, he will (hopefully) also buy into a future of great possibilities for himself, and look forward to this reality, and eventually agree to leave sooner than originally planned.

If you are really paying attention, you will have notied that the previous paragraph is actually a segue to answering the second question, that of understanding which date we are referring to.

That is where the title to this week’s post comes in.   An exit door represents a “one step” exit process, whereby the owner sells his business and in one fell swoop goes from “all in” to “all out”.

This does happen on occasion, of course, but is not common in the family business arena. More often than not in business families, when this does occur, it is almost always the result of an untimely death or other tragic circumstances.

A better scenario is almost always a phased approach, where the “exit door” is replaced by an “exit corridor”

The corridor is a place that one goes through on the way to the exit. The first door (to enter the corridor) is most often the day-to-day management of the business. The six-day work -week becomes five days, then four, then three. Eventually, coming in once a week is sufficient.

After management comes leadership; approving all major decisions is often the norm as you enter the corridor, but by the end, there is sufficient trust and confidence in the successor(s) to allow them free reign.

The final hurdle is usually ownership, where the person who was at one point the 100% owner of the business actually gets to be 0% owner.

That is the final exit, and does not always occur while the founder is alive, but that’s okay too. Just getting a founder to understand that they will not live forever can be a big step.

Traversing the corridor is a process that is usually measured not is weeks or months, but in years. That is also okay too, so long as there is a plan.


Family Business HR – Human Resources, or Human Relations?

When people cite statistics about family businesses, they often talk about how many such businesses exist, what percentage of GDP they produce, and how many people they employ. That’s a lot of human resources.

Most of these businesses, however, are actually quite small, so very few of them have a human resources, or “HR” department. Some companies, when they get big enough, will get to the point where they actually hire someone for the role of specifically looking after employee issues.

In my father’s company, we were well on our way to 200 employees before he decided that it was time to hire a “personnel manager”, as the position was often called back in the 80’s.

His job was to look after labour negotiations with the union, as well as benefits, hiring, grievances, and eventually an employee assistance program. The greatest relief in this hiring was experienced by our CFO, because before that, all this stuff was just considered “admin”, and was therefore under his responsibility, by default.

Lately I have been noticing that many people are throwing around the term “HR” more and more. Working in Montreal, I spend lots of time dealing in both French and English, and for some reason I feel like I hear the term (“RH” – resources humaines) quite often.

It could be my imagination, but it feels like it has come to take on a meaning that is broader than the sense of employee work issues. And maybe that’s not a bad thing, because I think it lends itself quite well to my new interpretation.

It is nice that we actually consider people to be a resource, you know, something to be valued and the supply of which you need to spend time and money acquiring and developing. But “resource” also feels pretty impersonal, more like a thing than a living, breathing, feeling person.

So when someone says something like “I don’t like to get into all that HR stuff”, or “our company has been having lots of HR problems”, I like to think about it as if they are issues about Human Relations instead.

There are very few jobs in any company where you don’t need to worry about relations with other humans. We all do it, and we could all do it better too.

You can have one personnel manager whose job it is to deal with major employee issues, but you can’t have just one person in any company worrying about human relations.

Of course like most stuff surrounding the way things work in a business, everything starts at the top and works its way down. The way the owners treat their hired employees becomes a huge part of the culture, and good culture beats great structure.

In a family business, as usual, things are a bit trickier. Do you treat your VP like your VP, or like your daughter? Do people with the same last name as the boss get treated better than others, or worse?

How about the relationships with family members at work versus relations with those same people outside of work? Should they be the same, or should they be different?

There are no standard right or wrong answers, but there are plenty of things to think about and talk about. In smaller companies, everyone knows everyone else, which can be good or bad. As the business grows, it gets harder to know everyone, but communications from top to bottom become even more important.

Culture and communications, and developing good employee working relationships, are not just things that matter in large organisations. They can be even more important in smaller companies, and in family businesses, they can be a key factor in the success of the business and the family.

And you cannot just delegate this stuff to the HR department and the personnel manager.


La communication: au curling, comme en famille

Le hockey est généralement considéré comme LE sport canadien où nos équipes nationales gagnent souvent les plus grands tounois, tant chez les hommes que chez les femmes. Mais il y a un autre sport d’hiver où nos équipes canadiennes gagnent la médaille d’or encore plus souvent que nos hockeyeurs.

Grâce au titre de ce blogue, vous avez sans doute deviné que je parle du curling. Ce sport m’intrigue depuis une quarantaine d’années et, puisque toute ma famille y est présentement très impliquée, je continue à le suivre de près.

Mes deux enfants jouent sur le circuit provincial juvénile, et ma femme est entraîneur de l’équipe de ma fille, donc au cours de chaque hiver, j’assiste à plusieurs bonspiels (tournois). Et quand il y a du curling à la télé, vous pouvez être certain qu’au moins une de nos télés est allumée sur TSN pour regarder les matchs.

Vous commencez peut-être à vous questionner sur ce que le curling pourrait avoir avec la communication, et encore plus sur la communication familiale. Restez avec moi SVP, j’y arrive.

Si vous êtes déjà amateur de curling, vous savez que la communication entre les quatre membres d’une équipe est très importante. Chaque joueur lance deux pierres par bout, pendant que deux de ses co-équipiers balayent (ou non) devant la pierre, et le capitaine (“skip” en anglais) attend dans la maison et crie ses instructions.

Voilà ce qu’on peux voir en regardant n’importe quel match de curling, d’une équipe récréative dans un club le mardi soir, en passant par les juvéniles sur le circuit, et même au championnat du monde.

Dans n’importe quelle entreprise familiale, il y a aussi de la communication de base, mais au lieu du skip qui crie ses instructions, c’est probablement le père qui dit à tous quoi faire. Cela se passe dans presque toutes les familles, de ceux qui ont un simple petit restaurant, en passant par ceux qui ont des centaines d’employés et qui sont à la deuxième ou troisième génération, et même dans les familles dynastiques.

Mais là nous allons commencer à regarder un peu les nuances. L’équipe qui joue dans une ligue hebdomadaire, pour le simple plaisir, ne communique pas beaucoup plus qu’il le faut, et c’est souvent le skip qui a le plus d’expérience, et c’est lui qui envoie la grande partie des instructions aux autres.

Une petite entreprise familiale agira probablement de façon semblable. Pas plus de discussion qu’il ne faut, et c’est le boss qui dirige.

Mais c’est quand on regarde les championnats de curling à la télévision qu’on voit que le curling est vraiment un sport d’équipe. Oui, ce qu’on entend le plus c’est le skip qui crie fort quand il veut que les balayeurs travaillent plus fort, mais sinon le lancer serait raté.

Mais le curling est devenu le meilleur sport télévisé quand ils ont mis des micros sur les joueurs, ce qui donne aux amateurs la chance d’écouter toutes les discussions entre les membres des équipes.

Imaginez si on pourrait voir et écouter les Rockefellers, les Desmarais, les Irvings, et les Molsons quand ils se communiquent concernant les décisions qui entourent leurs familles et leurs compagnies. Ça serait fort intéressant.

En ce qui concerne le curling, je peux vous dire sans équivoque que les meilleures équipes des plus hauts niveaux ont du succès en grande partie grâce à la façon don’t ils prennent leurs décisions et comment ils communiquent entre eux durant les parties.

Ces équipes ont compris qu’ils gagneront ou perdront en équipe, et que ce n’est pas une seule personne qui a le monopole sur les décisions et surtout sur l’information qui doit être échangée entre les co-équipiers pendant que la pierre est en mouvement.

Je regarde mes enfants jouer et je suis fier de dire qu’ils font de gros efforts pour toujours mieux communiquer sur la glace, et ils s’améliorent avec chaque partie.

Est-ce que votre famille entrepreneuriale pourrait apprendre quelque chose sur l’importance de la communication en écoutant le curling?

Peut-être que oui.

University Case Competition: Family Business Style

Last week the place to be was Burlington, Vermont.  I happened to be right in the thick of it for the first couple of days, and my experience was nothing but positive. So what was going on there that was so special?

For the third year in a row, the University of Vermont hosted the Global Family Enterprise Case Competition (#FECC15) at the Burlington Hilton and on their beautiful campus. It is the only competiton of its kind on the planet.

When they say “global”, they are not kidding either. While about half of the teams came from North America (including 4 from Canada and 2 from Mexico) there were competitors on hand from Europe, South America, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and the UK, and I may have missed some.  Sixteen schools sent Undergraduate teams, and eight schools were represented in the Graduate league.

I have seen many business cases over the years, dozens during my undergrad and hundreds while doing my MBA, but I never read any cases like the ones used in this competition.  I was lucky enough to be a judge on the first two days, and I can say that the cases that the students had to present solutions for were like no business cases I had ever even imagined reading.

The competitors had a full seven days to prepare the first case, so they all had plenty of time to figure out what they were going to propose, how the were going to structure their presentations, and which teammates would be responsible for which sections.

The second and third cases, as well as the final on Saturday, were set up so that each team of three students would only have 4 hours from the time they received the case to the time they were required to present their viewpoints to a panel of “esteemed” judges.

But let me get back to the cases, because it can’t really be a family enterprise case competition if the cases are not situations that only a real family business would face.  I was only privy to the first two cases, but they were both fantastic examples of what successful family businesses face as they go from one generation of managers and owners to the next.

The first case was about a third-generation (G3) family who had been trying to write their family constitution for a few years already, without success, despite hiring a few consultants to help guide them. The four teams in the division that I was judging all came at their solutions in a different way.  Not only that, but each team brought up at least one issue that none of the other three had mentioned.

On day two, the teams were now faced with the time crunch of only having 4 hours to prepare, from the time they received the case until they had to begin their presentation.  But despite the fact that they had very little time, the solutions that I got to see and hear were quite remarkable.

This case involved a group of G4 siblings who were worried that their children (G5) were not showing enough interest in getting involved in the business. During the judges preparation meeting, I pointed out that the average age of the judges was likely close to the ages of the G4’s in the case, while the ages of the G5’s in the case was close to that of the competitors whose solutions we would be hearing.

It was a fantastic experience for me, as well as the judges that I worked with; I can only imagine how great the week was for those who came to compete.

The undergrad finalists included 3 Canadian schools and one from Chile, with Carleton U’s Sprott School of Business taking top spot in the final round over Dalhousie.  The winners of the Graduate section were from Jonkoping Unviversity of Sweden

I hope to take part again next year, at the 4th Annual FECC, in January, 2016.


A Good Will Should Leave No Ill-Will

Sometimes when I come up with a blog topic, I end up spending a lot of time trying to get just the right title to make it sound intriguing. I have to say that the title above feels like it works.

Unfortuntely, though, sometimes the “right” title ends up being far from the original thought that inspired the blog in the first place. No problem there, as explaining the link between the spark and the title can be used productively as part of the story telling. Here goes.

I have written on the subject of wills in the past, and I invariably reference the work of Toms Deans each time I do, since his book “Willing Wisdom” is the best work that I have read on the subject, and not just because his thinking is well aligned with mine. Deans talks about a “collaborative will”, as in a document that is worked on together with the entire family.

In his speeches about the subject, he openly admits that his point of view is not shared by the majority of his audience, at least when they first hear it. He regales his listeners with stories of outright derision that he feels in his Q & A sessions, where people actually tell him that they think his ideas are crazy.

Let’s get back to the idea that originally sparked this blog post. I was actually watching my favourite reality TV show, Survivor, when it came to me. The show has been on since 2000, and they normally run two seasons per year, and they will be debuting the 30th season in the coming weeks. It has definitely stood the test of time.

What makes the show compelling is the element of human interaction and the way that people are forced to work together at first, but then eventually vote each other off the show in order to win the million dollar prize. The formula is superb, and results in fascinating TV for the whole family. We have been watching it as a family for many years.

For me the most fascinating part is the psychological component, as we get to see groups of people conspire together, planning to get rid of various opponents each week. As the numbers get smaller, people who previously worked together end up working against each other, but often on the surface they seem to still be working together.

These situations invariably end up with someone being voted out in what is always deemed a “blind-side”. In every version of Survivor, especially in the final 6 to 8 weeks of the season, several people are voted out in situations that they never saw coming.

The participants head off to the ritual of “Tribal Council” where they answer a few questions from host Jeff Probst, and then they each go and secretly write down the name of the person they want to vote out. This is normally preceded by a whole bunch of deception, double-talk, lying, acting out, arguing, crying, whatever.

In the early episodes of each season, the people voted out are not that surprised that they were selected, and they generally leave with their feelings intact. But as they get closer to the end, the ones voted out are often surprised, because they feel deceived by people they thought they could trust.

OK, so what does this have to do with a will again? Thanks for asking.

After you die, your family will go through the ritual of reading your will. Do you want your loved ones to be blind-sided? They probably think that they can trust you too. If they are surprised, they may feel hurt.

There are reasons why you have decided to leave things the way that you did, and they are (hopefully) good reasons. But, if you are no longer around to explain your reasons, and they are somehow misunderstood, you may leave someone feeling blind-sided. A good will should leave no ill-will.