Family businesses aren't known for their longevity. In fact, only about 10 percent make it into the third generation. So when they reach 25, 50, even 75 years old, it's cause for celebration. But milestone anniversaries are more than just a good reason to party. They have a positive, cohesive effect on employees and family members. And they provide unparalleled opportunity to reflect on the past, take stock of the present and look toward the future.
Milestone anniversaries are moments of extreme satisfaction internally. "When I hear family business owners discussing these anniversaries, they most often talk about what it means to employees," says Kelin Gersick, senior partner at Lansberg, Gersick & Associates, a New Haven, Connecticut, research and consulting firm specializing in family business. The way the organization celebrates often reflects the family's desire to share the satisfaction of having "made it" with its "family" of employees. Fernley & Fernley Inc., a Philadelphia-based firm providing management services to national industry associations and professional societies, celebrated its 110th year by holding a dinner-dance for employees and their spouses or significant others. "It was a glorious evening," says president G.A. Taylor Fernley.
Last year, when the Furman family celebrated its 75th year packing Furman Foods Inc.'s Italian and tomato products in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, it expanded the term "associates" to all those involved with the company. "We invited our suppliers, bankers, lawyers, research collaborators at Penn State University, state legislators and regulators, retired employees, families of employees, and the community to join us in a country fair-type celebration," says president David Geise. "The employees, especially, were thrilled that so many people were interested in touring the plant. And for the 60 or so family members who attended--the largest number of family members we've ever gotten together for any event--it was a source of great pride."
Past, Present And Future
Milestone anniversaries give family businesses a chance to reconnect to the founding, recall the company's highlights, and reflect on what should endure and what should change--"all vital for family businesses over the long haul," says Gersick.
- Honoring the past: "Celebrations of family businesses can take many forms, but rarely does one slip by without a retelling of the legacies and myths of how a great-grandfather [or whoever started the company] rolled up his sleeves and labored around the clock," says Gersick. The Furmans asked members of the second generation of family members, now between 70 and 91 years old, "to tell assembled guests what it was like when the company started. After all, they were the ones who canned tomatoes alongside my grandparents," says third-generation president Geise.
Michael G. Koelzer, co-owner of Kay Pharmacy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had a flier inserted in the local paper that, instead of promoting a sale, highlighted the pharmacy's continuing commitment to neighborhood families by telling how "Grandpa Frank and Grandma Katherine Koelzer began helping people find solutions to their problems rather than just selling health-care products" 50 years ago, and reprinting their original mission statement.
- Coinciding with a present change: Anniversaries give family businesses the impetus to chart new courses. A major expansion of Kay Pharmacy coincided with its anniversary; Fernley & Fernley used the milestone to set in motion an aggressive marketing plan. Other businesses mark the anniversary by handing the baton of leadership from one generation to another or introducing a new product line.
Even if the anniversary doesn't signal a change, it provides the family a time to reflect and appreciate the enormity of its accomplishment. Oak Brook, Illinois-based Deutsch Luggage's president, Howard Deutsch, whose grandparents started selling luggage 75 years ago, muses, "It's amazing that we've endured so many challenging times and are still going strong. It's amazing that walking through the door each morning is still an emotional experience. It's also amazing that even though [the business is] 75 years old, we still have to work as hard as when [it was] 10."
- Hope for the future: The celebration allows the family to muse on the question 50-year-olds often ponder: "What am I going to be when I grow up?" Says Gersick, "Family businesses follow life cycles, much like people."
When a family business celebrates a 75th birthday, for example, the world knows it has survived a series of life cycles and has gone through periodic rebirths. "On our 75th, there was a lot of talk about celebrating the 100th," recalls Geise.
Geise also saw the celebration in terms of his own family's involvement in the business. "I have three sons--17, 16 and 13 years old--and all of them really enjoyed helping out at the fair," he says. "In fact, that day was the only football practice one of my sons ever missed. That made me feel good. I would love the boys to come into the business. But I would never force them, and it won't be given as a handout. They can only come in because they want to."
An anniversary celebration helps set the stage for the enthusiastic entrance of the next generation into the business. Linking the past through the present to the future is what gives family business anniversary celebrations their richness.
Deutsch Luggage, (630) 954-2935, fax: (630) 954-2812;
Fernley & Fernley Inc., (215) 564-3484, fax: (215) 564-2175;
Furman Foods Inc., (717) 473-3516, fax: (717) 473-7367;
Kay Pharmacy, 2178 Plainfield N.E., Grand Rapids, MI 49505, fax: (616) 361-0707;
Lansberg, Gersick & Associates, 100 Whitney Ave., New Haven, CT 06510, (203) 497-8855.
Patricia Schiff Estess publishes the newsletter Working Families and is the author of two new books, Managing Alternative Work Arrangements (Crisp Publications) and Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage (Betterway Press).
For reprints and licensing questions, click here.