Like Father, Like Daughter

Women are running family businesses in record numbers.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the February 1998 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

In the traditional world of the family-owned business, only sons and male relatives were selected as heirs--not the daughters.

Those days are over: Today, female relatives are rising in the ranks of family businesses--and in record numbers, no less.

"It's an increasing trend," confirms Leon Danco, Ph.D., co-founder of The Center for Family Business in Cleveland. "And it started off as virtually zero." That trend includes more than just daughters; other female relatives, including in-laws, are proving they, too, can be leaders.

"I think families [today] are more open to alternative structures," says John Messervey, director of the National Family Business Council in Lake Forest, Illinois. "And what really drives it is all-around economic self-sufficiency for women." Not to mention the changing views of the fathers, who are gradually becoming more comfortable with the idea that their daughter may be just as good--or even better--at running the family business than their son.

Perhaps that's due in part to a distinct, yet important, characteristic Messervey has observed among daughters and sons who know they're potential heirs: The sons tend to be impatient for succession to occur, while the daughters, in contrast, actually enjoy sharing responsibility and working with their father.

But predictably, the transition to a female successor is often fraught with jealousy and resentment, and many women have to work extra hard to prove they can handle the responsibility. Says Danco, "When there's a nontraditional occurrence, those who felt it wasn't supposed to be a consideration are upset."

If the results of a recent survey by Arthur Andersen and Mass Mutual are accurate, more and more women will be proving themselves in the days to come: Some 25 percent of the more than 3,000 family-owned businesses surveyed indicated their next CEO will most likely be a woman. That's a fivefold increase over today's figure, a mere 5 percent.

Taking Charge

It's not easy taking over the family business, especially if you're a woman in a male-dominated field. But that didn't stop Mary Ann McKenzie-Goode from pulling her family's Houston-based industrial equipment business out of bankruptcy.

Her siblings (a sister and two brothers) opted for inactive ownership after the board elected McKenzie-Goode president following the deaths of her father and grandfather. The transition was complicated, and although things have since stabilized, it remains a sensitive issue. "Even though I had worked all my life, our family business was sort of restricted to the men in the business," McKenzie-Goode explains.

Despite that, she's proved she's more than capable of steering the company to success: In 1996, McKenzie Equipment Co. achieved profits for the first time in years and is sure to grow even more, thanks to major technological and professional advancements she chartered.

Although skeptical customers were slow to welcome her at first, McKenzie-Goode is convinced the climate is changing and that more daughters will take over their fathers' businesses down the line. Her advice to other family businesses: "Choose people for the positions [based on what] they're best suited for--not on gender. I see it as there being a job to do, and who's the best person for the job?"

Contact Sources

The Center for Family Business, P.O. Box 24219, Cleveland, OH 44124, (440) 442-0800

McKenzie Equipment Co., (713) 946-1413, fax: (713) 947-9998

National Family Business Council, 1640 W. Kennedy Rd., Lake Forest, IL 60045, (847) 295-1040

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