How should family owned businesses deal with visibility in the community?

Business Leader Post, September 11, 2014

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

Visibility in the community can be a double edged sword. I remember when the idea of being known as a family owned business was not desirable. It connoted "Mom and Pop" businesses that were not terribly sophisticated and had little or no cache´. Today, given the distrust that we have towards large businesses and corporate America, family owned businesses generate the message of continuity, integrity and a place where the consumer gets a “good deal.”  The advertising message has dramatically changed, starting with the family that owns the jam: “With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good." The visibility is good for the business. Marketing the business as family run and family controlled is a good strategy.

The consequence, however, is that the connection that family members have to the business is strengthened, and their identity in the community is heightened. The next generation, regardless of their age, is confronted by and has to live with that intensified level of visibility. Every interaction that family members have with their community is informed by the fact of their last name and by their family's reputation.  That is a lot of pressure. Whether they talk about it or not, family members are definitely aware of and feel that pressure/responsibility.

With the visibility and name recognition, also comes an additional level of scrutiny. That means that there is an additional level of responsibility to live up to the family’s reputation. That could be a good thing because one can demand the best from oneself.  At the same time, it can be a burden--friends and acquaintances can be jealous and consequently hypercritical.

We always talk about the need for planning for the next generation either in the context of succession or in preserving the business and/or the families' wealth by insuring that their value system is maintained and their communication is effective.  Gathering the next generation to begin a dialogue about the pressures, responsibilities, advantages and disadvantages of being a visible member of their community is one way to begin the process of preserving the business and its values into the next generation.  That dialogue will not only open up communication between the generations about many important issues, it will also provide them with an outlet to discuss their feelings and offer them much needed support.