The Best Family Business Meetings

When the family works and plays together, there's a good chance the family business will stay together.

Ever wonder why some family businesses get the whole family together for a retreat away from the office? What do they do? What do they talk about?

"These are not business meetings, though business issues are discussed," explains Andrew Keyt, executive director of Loyola University's Family Business Center in Chicago. The purpose of these gatherings is to consider and act on issues that occur when a family is in business together.

The most effective meetings are the ones that are inclusive and not limited to family members who are owners. "Relatives who don't have stock in the company still have a stake," explains Tom Kaplan, family business consultant and assistant professor of entrepreneurial studies at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. If they're expected to be supportive of their shareholding relatives (in some cases, spouses), these nonshareholders have to be part of the discussions and the solutions. For example, they should know how their spouses can cash in stock to pay for their children's college educations. They have to understand why their spouses will be working late for the next few months--to generate community support for a family business project. And they have to be cognizant of what must happen before their children are allowed to enter the family business.

Discussions needn't always focus on specific problems, however. "These meetings often just set the groundwork for an ongoing dialogue so that when difficulties arise, the family has a framework of trust in which to work through the problems," Kaplan says.

The agenda for family meetings varies according to the stage of the business and the issues it faces, but it should always include education, information and fun. And while the rest of this article will concentrate on specific agenda items surrounding education and information, it's important not to forget the fun segment--playing volleyball, putting on a talent show or a golf tournament, playing board games, going hiking--whatever family members like to do.

Family members also need to catch up on one another's lives, so they might set aside time before the formal meeting to share life updates. Or they might do so in a more celebratory manner by acknowledging each person's achievements during the past year at a special family dinner. "When families share positive, fun experiences," says Keyt, "they build trust that carries them through tough business discussions."

Patricia Schiff Estess writes family business histories and is the author of two books: Managing Alternative Work Arrangements (Crisp Publishing) and Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage (Betterway Press).

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This article was originally published in the November 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: What's On The Agenda?.

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