Divorce Mediation Blog

Family Business: Where Does It Hurt?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

We recently attended a Family Firm Institute program that was presented by Ira Bryck of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) Family Business Center, and Ted Clark of the Northeastern University Center for Family Business. University-based programs, such as these throughout the country, focus with differing emphases on promoting the health of family-owned businesses by providing education, peer support and guidance to families experiencing challenges to, and stresses within, this important way of life.

Family businesses have played an historic role in building the society in which we live and the economy that feeds us all. Keeping the culture of family businesses alive and vibrant is primarily up to the families themselves. The challenges of first, second and later generation family businesses can be enormous. In addition to facing the economics of the industry or profession in which the family business must compete, and those of the local, state, national, regional and world economies, these companies must also address the health and well-being of the family unit, or units, that make the enterprise run.

Mr. Clark and Mr. Bryck’s programs run on the premise that knowledge, the experience of others with a desire to share and learn and a “place to turn” when in need or even crisis, will benefit individual families, their companies, the economy (the UMass program is heavily focused on the needs of its immediate region – Western Massachusetts), and, in turn, the universities themselves in their connection to the business community and the world at large.

Sometimes, the services that these programs provide include access to private dispute resolution such as mediation and arbitration, to keep families together, or where necessary, separate them in ways that may maximize business viability, promote efficient wind-down and minimize family conflict – or at least reduce economic impact. When used, these processes promote privacy, fairness and cost-efficiency; and escape from the specter of public litigation.

Mr. Bryck, executive director of the UMass program for the last 19 years, analogized his role in learning how his program might help business family members in conflict, to that of a family doctor. In assessing a situation, he leads a conversation seeking to reveal “where does it hurt?” Like the body, the “hurt” is a symptom that can lead to a diagnosis, without which a cure is not possible.

The hurt may be strictly commercial, but often it is related to interpersonal conflict within or across generations. Family members may struggle for more influence, for less responsibility, for greater compensation, for an exit strategy or simply for an intangible sense of “fairness”. For some people, the family business is the best of life itself, while to others it is a seemingly inescapable trap.

The idea of a family business as a body is itself interesting - an organism made up of many parts, some functioning more efficiently than others, some stronger, others more vulnerable; at times ambitious, at others exhausted. Sometimes the body parts work at cross-purposes to each other and sometimes one part can bring the body, or the business, to its knees. To learn more how programs like those at UMass and Northeastern can help, you can check out www.umass.edu/fambiz/ and http://cba.neu.edu/cfb/.

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