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Family Businesses: really useful learning

By Martin Stepek - Posted on 26 July 2013

Scottish Family Business Association CEO and Strathclyde Alumnus, Martin Stepek, discusses the need to raise awareness of family business issues and the work being carried out to do this by Strathclyde Business School’s Hunter Centre…

Here at the Scottish Family Business Association we try to raise awareness of two things.

Firstly; the importance of family businesses to Scotland, its economy, its communities, even its heritage and culture.

Secondly; how complex and tangled family businesses can become,  due to family members’ relationships, particularly during succession planning when questions are raised about who gets the shares, who gets the MD role and what to do about the in-laws.

So far it reads like a soap opera, Dallas or Dynasty. But it's very real and of huge significance to all of us— after all family businesses comprise a whopping 70% of all the businesses in Scotland. In case you think they're all small and therefore insignificant, William Grant and Sons, D.C. Thomson and Arnold Clark all remain in family ownership.

In fact, more than 40 of Scotland's top 100 indigenous companies are family-owned and controlled. We estimate they employ half the private sector workforce and contribute somewhere between a third and a half of Scotland's GDP. So these family dynamics which cause tensions, decision-making blockages, and often the complete collapse of the family business, are not some minor, irrelevant or distant matter. It's about the core of our economic foundation.

So where is the national family business strategy? It doesn't exist. Where is the emphasis on advising family businesses in the legal, banking or accounting world. There is none. Where's the daily family business column in The Herald or Scotsman, or the regular feature in Insider or BQ magazine. They don't have one. Imagine Scotland not having a tourism strategy or a food and drink body. It's unthinkable. Yet family businesses are more important in every respect than either of these two iconic industries, more important than oil.

The situation hasn't been much better in academic circles in Scotland. Glasgow Caledonian had the wonderful Barbara Dunn / Murray as director of the Centre for Family Enterprise but it foundered. Claire Seaman and Stuart Graham do good work at Queen Margaret University but there's not much else going on with one exception: the hallowed halls of Strathclyde Business School.

Over the years, The Scottish Family Business Association has developed a strong complementary working relationship with Sara Carter and the team at The Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship, and with the wider business school. That's personally very gratifying as I'm an alumnus of the university, as was my father and my son.

Strathclyde has led the way in the education and training of law students in handling family business clients. The Hunter Centre has had regular family business experts and owners in to deliver talks and have informal discussions with the students. We have helped the university's PhD students think through aspects of their themes and have helped them find family business contacts so they can do their vital research.

The Hunter Centre has appointed Dr. Niall McKenzie (a regular contributor to this blog) to the position of Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Family Business and he has continued the excellent work of Sara Carter in bringing family business knowledge to lecture theatres; almost half of whose students sitting there are daughters and sons of family business owners. Therefore the education is not just something to absorb in order to pass the exams at the end of the year but rather something the students can take home and discuss with their siblings and parents in real time, about real life, about their own future. Talk about a place of useful learning!

We at the Scottish Family Business Association are proud of what we’ve already been able to achieve by working with the business school so far. Over the coming months in particular, we have a series of free high-level family business talks planned, details of which and booking information can be found here.  Meanwhile we already have some big plans for the future – watch this space.

What can we do to support family businesses? How can we start to develop a national family business strategy? Let us know in the comments below…

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