Growth is a relative thing, and achieving growth means different things to different families and their businesses.
The focus on Belgian family businesses in this edition should give every CEO and every family business owner food for thought about business growth and how to achieve it. Each one uses different means to achieve the same end – outstanding success in the growth of their businesses. Bekaert by entering and conquering emerging niche markets, AvH by achieving market saturation and then successful diversification, and Interbrew through acquisition leading to industry leadership and outstanding profitability of the business.
Is there a formula they have discovered that others can copy?
Prudence, knowing their markets and one other important point: knowing when to bring in outsiders – the professionals who can manage the matters that go beyond the family's given set of talents or matters that require change agents to drive and lead the system into new arenas. Bekaert's recruitment of Baron Buysse enabled changes to take place that family members could not have pushed through: the resistance in the system was evidently too high for any family member to overcome, given their shared history. Non-family leaders who win the unified support of the family owners do not have to worry about short- term sources of capital, leaving them to spend more time on business opportunities.
Going public is not a threat to these families either. Interbrew's story is one of the family unified behind their non-family Chairman, Pierre-Jean Everaert, and stabilised by a governance structure that keeps family issues out of the board room. Ownership expectations are managed using democratic representation of the branches by talented family members.
Family businesses are nothing if not ingenious when it comes to creating structures that suit their way of doing things. AvH, apparently, aim for the best of both worlds by keeping the board a family zone. However, they run the business by adopting best business practice and strategically cultivating their growing clan of family talent for the positions the future will bring.
There is no "right way" of doing things in family business. There are only ways that seem right for both the family and the business, and ways that turn out to be good practice, even if they appear to defy the business textbooks or the critics.
Sharing their wisdom at the FBN conference
Incidentally, another thing these three Belgian families have in common is their commitment to learning from other family businesses and with other family businesses. They have presented aspects of their wisdom at the Family Business Network's past world conferences in the Netherlands and Madrid, and also at the recent Families in Business conference in Paris.
For those of you who missed the 13th FBN conference in Helsinki, this edition provides a comprehensive coverage of the highlights of this outstanding event where over 500 people enjoyed the best of Finnish hospitality and four days of late summer glorious sunshine. Many case studies on family business growth and social responsibility were presented by the owners and leaders of major family businesses from all over the world – the hallmark of FBN conferences. In addition, the Next Generation Worldwide conference attracted a record number of delegates. They came to learn from three different cases about the importance and significance of choosing a career in the family business, and dealing with pressure from parents at the time this choice is being made. The World Academic forum also attracted more papers and more presenters than ever before, including a special track for doctoral students.
A traditional highlight of the FBN conference is the presentation of the IMD Distinguished Family Business of the Year Award, this year awarded to Samuel C Johnson Family Enterprises. It is always gratifying to see really worthy winners receive the award, and Sam Johnson and his eldest son Curt were gracious recipients. The further benefit for those attending the conference, though, comes from the interview with the Johnson family conducted by Joachim Schwass (see article). What distinguishes the Johnsons' story was Sam's willingness to share the personal journey of introspection that he went through, with the solid support of his family, and the relevance of this journey to the family's commitment to the growth of the business over the generations – growth matched with a particular blend of social responsibility.
What is your approach to growth? What kinds of practices are you adopting regarding family power in the board room? Are your owners united in support of the growth strategy of your family business?
Use this edition of Families in Business to do some benchmarking of your own.