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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Ira Bryck

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It surprises me how often business owners describe themselves as “a bit different.” From the tone, I sometimes suspect it means, “I think other companies have it together, but we’re winging it.” But in 18 years of gathering companies together, I conclude that if what helps many others also helps you, you may have more in common than you realize.

For example, your values may differ, but you have in common that you want your company to reflect those values. Or maybe you’d bend further backwards for a customer, but discovering how far others will bend, or not bend, is a good reality check. If you pay attention to who you are, and where you’re at, you can start a plan to move to where you want to be.

At our dinner forums, you might notice how many people who began with an idea or talent, and built a team to deliver whatever that idea or talent produces, created a delivery mechanism that is as productive and inspired as whatever they manufacture. As a past speaker, Jack Stack said, “a great company can’t help but make great products.” No matter that they make whips and you make fedoras— you’re both manufacturing solutions. These solutions are not off the academic rack, and are the result of much head banging, but they are often elegant, even in their home-made-ness.

The UMass Amherst Family Business Center is a brain trust of many thousands of years of experiences, successes, failures, that you, Dear Reader, get to explore. Ours is a practical group that may not think of themselves as philosophers, but their stories, warnings, brags, examples, and even dilemmas can make you a wiser solver of the very hardest problems: yours.

And the fact that they’re running these companies with siblings, cousins, parents, children, make them even more clever and able to carry that weight. I remember a track star in my high school, who ran laps with a log tied to his back. He did it so he’d run better without it. But imagine if he could win races, wearing the log. That’s family business. (In some cases, our members have jet packs, not logs, strapped to their backs, because their family businesses add power, not detract. Imaging learning from them how they changed from logs to jet packs.)

Hardly any of our members began their companies so they could become expert in fixing conflict, using advisors, mitigating risk, facing mortality, and improving culture. That was almost never part of the bargain, and is a science taught almost nowhere. But it’s an art taught here. Imagine having access to that resource, helping to arrange messy ducks in rows.

The UMass Amherst Family Business Center is a showcase of many who’ve overcome challenges, i.e. Mom led like General Patton, Son discovered how to lead like Albert Schweitzer! Or a family where the last generational transition wreaked havoc, so now watch them doing it more carefully, democratically, strategically.

At our dinner forums and roundtables, you’ll meet regular, everyday people who can be your heroes, who can show you how you’re not doomed to repeat history. Hear from earnest relatives who learned the hard way- but still, learned- that you have to give the job to the best applicant, family or not. Who came to comprehend that if you don’t work in the family business, you don’t own stock. Or struggle, but succeed, in comparing competing offers to buy the company, one from a stranger, the other from a daughter. There’s no one “right answer” to any of these situations, but put yourself in the huddle with people thinking it all through, and increase the odds of getting it right for you.

If there were 100 people in a room, some would estimate that only 16 are born or trainable leaders, the rest are trying their best with what they got. There’s much to learn from the 16, of course; but the 84 have astounding persistence, ingenuity, and aspiration. If there’s 100 people at a dinner forum of the Family Business Center, I can’t tell for sure who the 16 are, and don’t really care. Whichever of these somewhat synthetic groups you belong to, learn from both: you may hear something from a new friend that you couldn’t hear from your old man. Your father will be glad you heard it from anyone.

Our gatherings are customized for you, with a steady stream of ideas bouncing off and filtering through 100 perspectives, taking a shape that is your “Aha,” for you to take home and plug in. Conversely, this group can sometimes shine a light on what you think is gorgeous, then you gratefully realize, “this idea needs work” or “this idea is scrap.”

The UMass Amherst Family Business Center is in year 19. If you are a Western Mass family business, that’s how long you’ve been invited to take a look. If you’ve never been to one of our events, I admire your diligence in putting me off.

But consider: business owners are investors, users of resources, continuous learners. There is no reason you should not consider this a bit more. Whether your thing is whips, widgets, welding, websites, wellness, wine or what-have-you, if you want to win, you could do worse than to meet the many kinds of winners that consider this learning community the place to be. Please contact me at (413) 545-4545, or Ira@UMassFBC.com to let me know you want to come to a dinner forum soon.

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