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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Taking a Peek at, and Preserving the Past: How and Why to Capture Your Family Business History

By Jayne Pearl

When a family company embarks on significant change -- a management or ownership transition, a major anniversary or a strategic business change, for instance -- before charging into the future, it may be helpful to take a peek into the past. 

Knowing the stories and struggles behind the company’s beginnings -- the personalities of its founders and the many family and non family employees, customers, vendors, competitors and community members whose lives have intersected with, affected and been affected by the company throughout the years -- can provide a context for the current owners, managers and all the other stakeholders to move ahead.  A family business history can also communicate the company’s values, culture, community involvement and charitable efforts to potential lenders, reporters who cover your industry and community, and to future venture partners.

What has made your company successful?  What challenges, such as economic turmoil, natural disasters, family crises and financial struggles, did the company and its members encounter and overcome?  What lessons can previous managers impart?  Most important, what is their legacy, which the current owners and managers would be wise to remember and preserve for future generations?

What’s involved, and how can you get started?

Hire a pro.  Someone on staff or a member of the family may be able to and like to write, but will they have the time, and the ability to stand back and look at the family and business with fresh perspective?  A writer who has experience covering both business and family business and who has written books, can do so.  Check references and ask for samples of their work.  Be sure to set clear deadlines.

Many family business members enjoy sharing their stories with a writer.  Some may be nervous or cagey, especially if there are sensitive family issues or secrets (which almost every family has!), which they feel the need to dance around.  An experienced writer will know how to work with even the most cantankerous subjects, to put them at ease and assure them the purpose of the book is to shine a light on the most positive aspects of the company and the people, it is not to dredge up any family feuds or unsavory segments buried in the family’s past.

Budget the book.  To wind up with a project you’ll feel proud of, you should expect to pay the writer between $25,000 and $75,000.  It may not pay to scrimp.  One business owner went through three writers, paying each an advance, hoping to have his book written “on the cheap.”  The first writer was a recent journalism-school graduate with little experience.  The second two had more experience but not in the business world.  He ended up spending thousands of dollars before he finally found a pricier, but professional, writer with just the right experience and a solid track record.

Layout by an experienced graphic designer will cost upwards of $1,000.  Printing a paperback edition could run $5 to $15 per copy; a hardcover will cost between $10 and $20 per copy.  A fancier coffee-table type book will cost significantly more.

Pick a designated driver.  Who in the family business will be the main point person, the liaison between the writer, the family, the business and the publishing house?

This person will help the writer contact members of the family, the business, board, perhaps some key customers and vendors, and community members to interview.  He or she can also help dig up important business documents, such as a deed to the first headquarters building, an early bill of sale, previous press articles in local newspapers and trade publications, copies of key speeches of company leaders and old and current photographs of key people and places. 

The liaison will also oversee distribution of the first draft of the book to key family members for approval, and organize all their revision requests onto one copy of the draft so the writer can efficiently produce a second draft (the fee typically includes two drafts), and interact with the publisher (see below).

Find a print-on-demand book publisher/packager.  Your book will probably not be sold to the general public; more likely, you will print a few dozen, hundred or thousand copies to give to family members, customers, employees, etc.  You should compare deals from one of many reputable print-on-demand (POD) publishers or book packagers, such as Xlibris, Aventine and AuthorHouse.  With digital publishing, you don’t need to lay out thousands of dollars in large print runs; you can print small quantities “on demand” as you need them.  Most POD publishers offer to copyright and register your book, as well as provide the graphic design and layout.

The process as well as the end product can be a greatly enriching activity for everyone involved.  It’s also an opportunity to thank the multitudes of people who have contributed to the company’s success over the years.  You may want to have a book party and invite all your family business stakeholders and friends to celebrate the release of your family history book.

Amherst, Massachusetts-based Jayne Pearl, author of Kids and Money: Giving Them the Savvy to Succeed Financially (Bloomberg Press), is one of the founding editors of Family Business magazine.  She has written about family business for almost 20 years, and has written and ghost-written many books, articles, newsletters and web content.  She can be reached at jayne@jaynepearl.com.

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