Good Company

Are you next in line to own the family business? Don't go it alone--peer groups can help.

If you're about to take over a family business and worried that those peer-to-peer meetings of the "next generation" exist for airing complaints about the senior generation, relax. "Dealing with family issues is the thread, but the meetings don't focus on beating up on dad," says Stephen Henry, a member of Goshen College's Next Generation Roundtable in Goshen, Indiana, and president of Robert Henry Corp., a general contracting firm in South Bend, Indiana.

So what do these meetings cover? "Family business issues are part of the picture, but in our group, substantive issues take center stage," says Stephen McClure, a family business advisor in South Bend and facilitator of Goshen's Next Generation Roundtable. Goshen's Next Generation peers have picked up ideas from each other and outside experts on how to lower health-care costs, recover from disasters and even establish effective boards of outside advisors.

"When [our] next-generation affinity group first formed about three years ago, the members were trying to get their arms around what their role was in the family business and in the family," says Nina Paul, executive director at American University's Family Business Forum in Washington, DC. "About a year later, it was as if the group felt, 'We've had enough family talk,' and they started to invite experts to share information on substantive issues at their bimonthly meetings. Recent meetings covered [such topics as] employee benefits, increasing motivation among employees, writing business plans and Internet marketing."

Each next-generation group operates differently, depending on the wishes of its members. Two expectations important to every group, however, are confidentiality and participation. If the discussions aren't confidential, people won't feel comfortable enough to share information about the issues they or their businesses are facing. To be effective, group members are expected to show up at meetings and participate. That doesn't mean having all the answers; it means getting involved. "A group works best when its members are effective contributors," says McClure.

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This article was originally published in the May 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Good Company.

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