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Class Acts

Family business forums are a one-stop education resource.

Ten years ago if a family business had family problems, the usual response was to hush it up. Nobody, certainly not senior members of the firm, wanted to talk about embarrassments such as the father and son not getting along, siblings entangled in a Cain-and-Abel succession struggle, or a spouse who wouldn't talk to his in-laws because he thought his wife was being shabbily treated in the business.

Now, confidential forums where people can talk about these problems are available and in vogue, thanks to the 130 or so university-affiliated family business institutes and forums around the country--scores of which have opened in the past few years.

Why the proliferation of programs? Increased media coverage of family businesses (which make up more than 90 percent of all U.S. businesses) has made members of family businesses aware that their concerns are not singular and "not necessarily born of a psychiatric disorder," says Joe Astrachan, associate director of the Kennesaw State University's Family Enterprise Center in Kennesaw, Georgia, one of the first university-affiliated programs in the nation.

Another factor is the painful reality that only one-third of family firms survive the transition to the second generation and fewer than 10 percent survive beyond that. "Succession is a looming issue, especially among the senior generation, many of whom started businesses after World War II and are ready to retire," says Nina Paul, executive director of the year-old Family Business Forum at American University in Washington, DC.

Helping with these concerns are two seemingly divergent sources--universities and business services. For universities (especially public institutions), family business forums are a way to provide better service to their communities. Says Ralph Struzziero, director of the year-old Institute for Family Business at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, "Public education is more than serving the needs of 18- to 21-year-olds and offering a few continuing education courses."

Meanwhile, banks, lawyers, accountants and insurance firms seeking family businesses as clients are eager to sponsor events and programs targeted to those firms. And while university-affiliated institutes are uncompromising about not allowing sponsors to solicit their members, the mere presence of business services as event sponsors gives them a marketing edge.

So far, the link between family businesses needing help, a forum to confidentially share their concerns, program sponsors willing to pick up the lion's share of the tab for an event or institute in hopes it will one day turn into business, and universities wanting to better serve their communities and forge local business ties is working to everyone's advantage.

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This article was originally published in the December 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Class Acts.

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