What do a family-owned cellar door company, a construction company, a tea manufacturer, an orchard and a law firm have in common?
More than you would ever guess, say members of the University of New Haven M.L. McLaughlin Center for Family Business, where members have found that their business challenges are surprisingly similar.
“I used to think no one in the world had the same problems we do,” says Jonathan Bishop of Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford “But at the first meeting I attended, I learned that a lot of issues we face are the same issues other family businesses face.”
Bishop is a fifth generation owner of a 300-acre farm that has a winery and grows and sells fruits, vegetables and farm products. The orchard is a charter member of the center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month.
Working with family is tricky, Gene Bishop, Jonathan’s father, says. “If we all had to be in the same room doing the same thing every day, we would not have lasted. We have to view ourselves as stewards of the business.”
Survival of a family business often depends, said Paul Sessions, director of the center, on good communication, strategic planning and taking the emotions out of business dealings.
“Sixty to eighty percent of the businesses in the U.S. are family-owned businesses,” Sessions said. “We find it is common for them not to address issues until they become a crisis.”
Most family businesses don’t discuss business challenges inside the family for fear of setting off a dispute. And they are worried about talking outside the family, too, he said. “It’s really lonely out there and yet there are so many folks out there facing the same issues.”
Sessions says one of the perks of membership in the McLaughlin Center is that business owners support one another and keep each other’s confidences.
Adam Lyman, one of the ninth-generation to run Lyman Orchards of Middlefield, which includes golf courses, a farm store, gift shop and pie business in Middlefield, says confidentiality is key. “One great thing is that we feel completely comfortable being able to talk about our business because of the confidentially imposed by the center.”
Headquartered at UNH’s Orange campus, the Center for Family Business has 44 members and offers conferences on topics from embezzlement to goal setting to customer appreciation and informal forums that allow family businesses to talk with one another. It also provides counseling to businesses when needed.
Succession is often a major issue. Passing the business along from father or mother to son or daughter, much less to siblings, cousins and others is not easy. But the center can help, said Stephen Tagliatela, one of the owners of Franklin Enterprises, a construction company based in the Greater New Haven area that owns apartments, the Saybrook Point Inn and other businesses. “We (Stephen and his brother, Louis) are the fourth generation and we had a smoother transition because of the center. You really can’t take a class to learn how to do this.”
The issue of a business’s future is not as intuitive as it seems, Sessions said. Should the business be turned over to the next generation? Can the parent let go? Can siblings work together? Should the business be sold or closed?
Sessions knows what he is talking about. He and his brother were the sixth generation to own the family’s metal stamping business which they sold in 1993.
“When you get beyond the hard cold facts,” Sessions said, “You have to deal with the emotional side. It’s important that a business not negatively impact family and family relationships. Because if it does, it’s really not worth it.”
“The Family Business Center helped save our business,” James B. Stirling, of Stirling Benefits of Milford, said. “It helped us learn from other families and avoid mistakes that they had made.”
Robert Hendrick, of Bigelow Tea, noted that issues for family members in business also effect other employees. He is not a member of the family that owns the Fairfield tea company, perhaps best known for its blend, Constant Comment, but he still finds it worthwhile to attend the center’s meetings.
“It gave me a chance to meet others with similar experiences. Family business problems are business problems. And I always learn something from the meetings.”
Brother and sister Lynne Perry and Bill Bassett, Jr. retained their membership in the center even after their business was sold. “We have used so many great things we learned in the forums,” Perry said. “I have life-long friendships from the women’s group and met some of the smartest, funniest people I have ever known.”
Charter members of the center are all based in Connecticut and include: Aaron Supreme Trailer Leasing of New Haven, Barrett Outdoor Communications of West Haven, Bigelow Tea of Fairfield, The Bilco Company of New Haven, Bishop’s Orchards of Guilford, and The Lee Company of Westbrook, National Sintered Alloys of Clinton and Saybrook Point Inn a/k/a Franklin Construction of New Haven.
The center also has five sponsors: Wiggin and Dana, a law firm with offices in New Haven, Stamford, Greenwich, Hartford, New York and Philadelphia; Gowrie Group, an independent insurance agency in Westbrook; Marcum Accountants and Advisors of New Haven; U.S. Trust, Bank of America Wealth Management of New Haven; and Daniel M. Smith & associates, business estate and retirement planning of Stamford and Guilford.
— press release from UNH