One For The Books

Recording your family business history gives you credibility and clout.
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

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

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 (self-
published) is a tribute to his parents, who started their 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 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 as a way to create cohesiveness among employees and to perpetuate a unique business . 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 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 and stability."

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

Getting Started

For 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:

  • Form. The purpose will likely determine whether the book is going to be a memoir, or chronicle. The difference in the three forms is subtle but important. A memoir is a personal reflection, usually written by the founder. The stories the writer tells reflect the underlying themes and values he or she thinks are important.

A history is a more objective approach to the growth of the 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 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.

  • Documentation. Once you've determined the purpose and the form, the next step is to pull the pieces together. "Documentation and visual materials are important as you put the book together," Mundale says. The facts are especially important when you include a timeline as part of the 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.

  • Coordination. The issue of who's going to coordinate the project can't be trivialized, because it can cause quite a stir. One family member might want a specific event noted in the history, while another objects because it reflects a family member in a poor light. Gerald Rauenhorst, founder of Opus, a nationwide group of real estate developers based in Minnetonka, Minnesota, decided his family business history project wouldn't go through the various levels of approval other projects did. This one would be headed by the director of communications and need to be approved only by him; his daughter, Judy Rauenhorst Mahoney; and his son, Mark. In doing so, he avoided potential arguments and a process that could drag on months longer than necessary.
  • Distribution. To whom the history is distributed depends on its purpose, as well as other factors. Although Opus' history was developed primarily as a piece, the company sent it to every employee's home and now gives a copy to each new employee. Its effect on employees is notable. "People knew bits and pieces of the history, but they didn't know it all, nor did they know about the philanthropic work the company has done and continues to do," says Sheila Thelemann, Opus' director of communications. The history is also distributed at seminars where its family members are either speakers or sponsors.

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,


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