From the Boardroom to the Dinner Table: MBAs and the Family Business

How business school can help students meet the unique challenges of family enterprises

When Ben Grossman received his MBA from Columbia Business School in 2006, he faced a tough decision: he could either take a lucrative full-time job at Goldman-Sachs or go work for his family's business.

He opted for the latter.

“I was most passionate about going to work with my family - working with my brother and my dad,” says Grossman, now the co-president of Grossman Marketing Group, which was founded by his great-grandfather in 1910.

Grossman is not alone. Recent studies have shown that family businesses may account for at least a third of the United States' annual GDP; and they may employ at least a quarter of its workforce. For many sons and daughters of family business leaders, as well as non-related executives working in those enterprises, family business is big business.

But they can pose some unique challenges, especially if you're part of the family.

“If you're coming on as the next generation, you're going to be looked at differently, and you need to be conscious of that,” says Grossman. “You need to work really hard not to take anything for granted. ”

And the stakes can be higher in businesses run by your family, according to Parimal Merchant, the director of the Centre for Family Managed Business at the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research.

“A normal MBA is prepared to work in a company and make decisions,” says Merchant, “and if something goes wrong, he can resign and join another company.”

“But in a family business, if I make a decision and something goes wrong, then I have to face the music,” both in the business and potentially at home.

Some MBA programs have specialized curriculum options and other resources that meet the particular needs and challenges of students working in family enterprises. For example, UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School, through its Family Enterprise Center, offers two courses designed specifically for students working in – or planning to work in – family-run businesses. These courses cover specific issues like governance, succession, and the overall evolution of a family business.

The center's co-founder and director, Cooper Biersach, says that these courses and other resources “help students synthesize what they're learning in other classes with a family business perspective,” sort of as a way to tailor the b-school experience for their specific needs.

Communication skills, for instance, can be developed in general leadership and other classes, but being able to communicate effectively with family members in a business environment can be challenging. According to Ben Grossman, with family, sometimes “you might act differently than you do in the outside world just because they know you best.”

And this familiarity can complicate business relationships. S.P. Jain's Parimal Merchant notes that this complexity can be further compounded by generational differences.

“The thinking is different,” Merchant says, “the speed of working is different, so they have to learn to appreciate each other.”

Unique challenges

When Grossman was at Columbia, there were no courses specifically designed for family business management (Columbia launched a specialized curriculum in 2007). However, Grossman has found that his MBA and his experience working for other, non-family run organizations provided invaluable perspective, as well as many of the qualities that have allowed him to excel in his family business.

“Being successful in a business – family or not family – requires a lot of the same skills,” he says. “You need to be a good listener, you need to be willing to work hard, you need to be creative, you need to be a good team member.”

But Grossman also notes some unique challenges: “In a family business, you need to be able to work well with family and make successful transitions from the boardroom to the dinner table.”

To achieve this kind of success, many programs encourage practical application of the business concepts directly into students' family businesses. Students in S.P Jain's Family Managed Business program, for example, only meet for classes one week a month. The rest of the time, they're working.

According to Parimal Merchant, this allows students to learn the material and apply it immediately, so that they finish the program with “a good understanding of management practices, and at the same time they have a good understanding of their family's business.”

Likewise, UNC's Biersach finds that students, almost immediately, start thinking about how to practically apply business school concepts to their businesses. Once students get to know each other through the family business courses, they'll often meet after their more general courses – like a marketing class, for instance – and ask each other, “how are you going to implement this in your family business?"

Indeed, Ben Grossman says that his Columbia experience has proved to be very practical. “There have been meetings where I've literally brought in my three-ring binder from class,” he says. “There are very relevant case studies, where the learnings are very applicable to that exact situation.”

Along with the relevant skills he picked up in school, Grossman credits having a close relationship with his brother – the company's other co-president – as one of the primary reasons for his company's continued success, even through a tough economic climate.

“I can't imagine having gone through the last few years without my brother,” he says. “You can't really put a price or a value on that, but I'm very lucky that I get to work with him everyday.”

Photo: Rick Harris / Creative Commons

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