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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Who Participates in the Family Business Center? Just Ask—Ira Did!

No hanging chads…no infinite suspense about the winner—but definitely some "invalid responses" in this "election." But more to the point, a 39-question survey of attenders at the June gathering revealed startling and not-so-startling information about who the Center serves..

Using remote-control devices that recorded and tabulated answers in real time, Center director Ira Bryck gave three minutes for participants to answer to each question, providing—for the first time in the Center's 12-year existence—a snapshot of what kind of people attended this one particular meeting.

Ira freely admits that his questions, written with wit rather than academic accuracy in mind, do not lead to "scientific" results—but they do create a fascinating picture of Center membership.

We won't review all 39 here, but let's look at 16 of the most interesting profiles. Each number represents the percentage of total participants, rounded up or down to the nearest whole number (including invalid or untabulated responses), based on 90 attenders—so numbers 7 and above represent slightly fewer participants than percentages. So, for instance, an answer of 39 percent means 36 people selected that choice.

  • 77 percent are in the first or second generation; only one person claimed membership in a business that was five generations or longer.
  • Unique among Family Business Centers, UMass encourages nonfamily executives to participate. 24 percent were in this category, including three nonfamily CEOs.
  • FBC members tend toward small; only 5 percent did $15 million or better last year, and 77 percent have 70 or fewer employees.
  • Yet FBC members are for the most part in reasonably good shape, financially; 68 percent show at least some profit, 64 percent expect to grow significantly—the largest proportion of that growth expected from finding new customers.
  • Members are careful decision makers and risk evaluators: 67 percent weigh costs and benefits or strive for consensus, 59 percent describe their leadership style as either team-based or using the "servant-leader" model rather than the dictatorial one. When respondents look at their organizational charts, 46 percent use this lens: "How does this person inspire and manage those below them?" 52 percent describe their risk management style as "measure twice, cut once," and 12 percent are actively risk-averse.
  • FBC companies see themselves as good employers; 71 percent found their best employees through word-of-mouth (print ads were a distant second, at 20 percent); 78 percent compensate nonfamily employees at least as well for comparable work as family members ; 76 percent believe that employees choose to work with them because they provide honest wages, work/life balance, or the chance to use their skills; 47 percent pay most of their employee health premiums and another 33 percent have a plan with a major insurer, but let their employees pay a bigger chunk.
  • 77 percent feel a satisfying work day lasts until the job is done; not one respondent chose "until the boss leaves." (The only other zero in the whole survey was whether to make upgrades based on outgunning the competition.) And yet, 62 percent envy family members who don't work in the business and got to choose their ideal career.
  • There's high trust of other family members, and of outside advisors. 68 percent generally feel they're able to work out issues, or present a unified front to start with, while only 24 percent report that siblings or cousins are unproductive or cause problems due to unresolved childhood issues. 39 percent turn first to their trusted advisors when they feel stuck; anther 24 percent bring in an outside change agent to stir things up. Interestingly, 13 percent look first to friendly competitors to get that creativity jolt.
  • Perhaps the most surprising of all: when asked what famous person they'd want to be with on a desert island, it was a nearly even three-way split among spiritutal leaders (28 percent—21 people), glamorous pop-culture "hottie" icons (26 percent, or 19 people) and "none of the above—I finally have some peace and quiet" (24 percent—18 respondents). Business leaders like Warren Buffett were low on the list (11 percent—8 votes), barely beating out famous fictional castaways like Gilligan (8 percent, 6 votes).

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