DURHAM — For 20 years the Center for Family Business at the University of New Hampshire has been helping family-run businesses deal with the unique challenges that arise when family and business mix.
Family businesses make up 85 to 90 percent of business in the country, and the center’s director, Barbara Draper, said the need for succession planning and transitioning assistance was identified nationally around 1993.
“There wasn’t anything like that,” Draper said. “People were just starting to understand family businesses were different.”
She said management and ownership transitions are always challenging, and adding layers of family dynamics to that does not make it any easier.
The center’s most popular workshop topics are based on succession and transition planning and dealing with conflict. The center provides education, networking and support geared to ensuring the continued success of these businesses.
“Networking is probably as important as anything because the thing I hear every time when someone comes in for the first time, they will say ‘We’re not the only family that …,’” Draper said. “By being part of the center, they learn from other families.”
In addition to expert speakers, panels of family business owners are also pulled together to answer questions based on their experiences.
After 19 years with the center, Draper said she realizes many of the issues family businesses face are perennial, and the issues are the same no matter the size of the company.
Inevitably, family-owned businesses face family issues, including internal conflict, lack of communication, sibling rivalry, generational differences, difficult relationships between family members and the challenges of sharing power and control.
The center also tries to help the businesses stay on top of changes in tax and estate law that could affect succession plans.
Often, the topics of discussion are chosen directly by members.
Right now, about 25 companies are members of the center, and Draper said hundreds have come through the program over its history.
“We’ve helped with many transitions. Most have gone successfully; a few haven’t. Sometimes it’s inevitable,” she said.
The Boissoneau family of Electropac Co., Inc. got involved with the center about 15 years ago when all five of Raymond Boissoneau’s children, including Michelle Boissoneau-DuPont, started working in the business.
Boissoneau-DuPont has continued to stay active with the center though she left the family business in 2003 to start the Opechee Inn and Spa in Laconia on family land.
She said at the time the family got involved with the center, the younger siblings were just starting out in the business and needed to understand what it took to run such a business. Three of the siblings went on to graduate from the center’s leadership program, and DuPont now serves on the center’s board.
Her father and a sister are still running Electropac in Manchester.
She said the opportunity to network with other family businesses has provided some of the best education you can get.
“Some of the things we talk about are unique to a family business, and being a family and trying to work together and knowing other families are out there and dealt with this, the good and the bad,” helps, DuPont said.
The Freese family of Pittsfield, who run Globe Manufacturing, now a fourth-generation family-run business, is one such business. It is the largest manufacturer of fire suits in the world and employs about 300 people in Pittsfield.
George E. Freese III, known as Gef, his brother, Robert, and his cousin’s husband now run the company. Freese said they had just gone through a difficult family transition before the Center for Family Business started its work, and he felt they had something to offer.
“We had a lot of difficulty transitioning to the fourth generation. It took the third generation about 10 years to make that happen when they were ready to pull the trigger,” Freese said.
This is not uncommon. Freese said less than 1 percent of family-run businesses make it to the fourth generation, and he is uncertain whether his business will make it to the fifth.
“We are always hopeful, but I have not found anyone yet that is interested in carrying the business to a fifth generation,” Freese said. He knows it is something he has to plan for.
“I know at some point in my life there is going to be a death event so I have to plan for that. Even though I think I’m going to live forever, I know that’s not the case,” Freese said.
He said he will look to his colleagues at the Center for Family Business as he begins to plan for that transition.
The center is housed in the UNH Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics, but it is entirely self-sustaining through memberships and sponsorships.