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One For The Books

Recording your family business history gives you credibility and clout.
November 1, 1998

The book Brad Robinson published will never make The New York Times' bestseller list. Yet it stands high on his list of achievements because The Story of Robinson Rubber Products Company (self-
published) is a tribute to his parents, who started their business in a Minneapolis garage in 1932. That tribute was what Robinson was aiming for when he first started putting company memorabilia in accordion files in 1994.

For others who have written family business histories, the motivations to record the past vary. Companies most frequently use written histories to celebrate a milestone anniversary or the succession of leadership from one generation to another.

But there are other reasons as well. Frequently, family business leaders see the written history as a way to create cohesiveness among employees and to perpetuate a unique business culture. They may feel the story they have to tell is of historical importance and will provide the founders and those who follow with their rightful place in history--even if that history is only regional or confined to a particular industry. And sometimes companies see it as a way to pass family values to the future generations they hope will someday lead the business.

A business history can also be used as a marketing tool, one that will project an image of the company and inspire confidence among clients. "The history of the family and the business may be well-known in its community," says Susan Mundale, senior counsel of Neuger Henry Bartkowski Public Relations in Minneapolis and author of numerous family business histories, "but if the company does business outside its own geographical area, a written history gives distant customers and clients a sense of the company's credibility and stability."

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).

Getting Started

For family businesses considering recording their histories, the first and most important step is to determine what its purpose is. Once that's established, you need to decide the following:

A history is a more objective approach to the growth of the business and requires extensive interviews with family members, long-term employees, business associates and people who've made contributions to the business's development. It means searching through company records, minutes and documents to make historical references as accurate as possible. It contains fewer personal observations and is more often used for employees and customers than as a values statement for the family.

Finally, a chronicle is a story of a series of events--sometimes business milestones, such as the day you reached the $1 million annual sales mark, and sometimes family milestones, such as the first day a member of the third generation began working for the company. The chronicle can be written from a number of perspectives and combines some of the elements of both a memoir and a history.

*Budget and schedule. Even if someone in the family is doing the writing, which doesn't usually happen, this won't be an inexpensive project. "You can count on spending $15,000 to $20,000 minimum," Mundale says. "But it's not unheard of to spend upwards of $250,000 for a hardbound book." And if you're using the book as the focal point of a celebration, like a 50-year anniversary, staying on schedule is a must. From start to finish, even a short book can take two years to research, write and produce; anything more extensive can take as long as five years.

The rippling effects of a permanent history of the family and its business extends to the family as well. "I know the history [of our family business], of course," says Judy Mahoney. "But when I read about how my dad started and where the company is now, it makes me even prouder to be part of the family--and my children feel the same way."

Contact Sources

Neuger Henry Bartkowski Public Relations, 1300 Fifth St. Towers, 150 S. Fifth St., Minneapolis, MN 55402, (612) 344-1000

Opus, (612) 936-4444,