Suzy Bibko is Editor-in-Chief of Families in Business magazine.
There is nothing like working with real family businesses to keep you in touch with the challenges they face
Dr Barbara Murray, founding director of the Centre for Family Enterprise (CFE) at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland has recently been appointed as Executive Director of the Family Business Network (FBN). In the coming year, she hopes to awaken the 'sleeping giant' and put into practice what the FBN preaches.
I understand that family business was not your original field of study. In fact, you obtained your undergraduate degree in biology. What led you from that field to family business?
Initially I worked in veterinary and aquatic biology, then I wanted to work in the commercial world. I joined a company that was at that time the largest privately-owned supplier of fresh foods to Marks and Spencer – which got me interested in management. I did a Diploma in Supervisory Management then a MBA part-time over three years at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the UK. My biology background wasn't put to much use as I then moved into business consultancy and eventually became a lecturer in strategic management. When I moved into the world of family business, I started a PhD and my biology background helped a lot in my training in family systems, family therapy and human relations. It was definitely helpful to have a grounding in systems thinking because family enterprises are complex systems that change as they evolve over time.
When did you first become aware of the FBN?
I remember my first visit to Lausanne for the FBN's world conference in 1994. As a young PhD student based in Scotland, where people were not yet interested in family businesses (other than reporting on the occasional feud in the media), I had been feeling a little isolated. And so I was astonished to be present at a gathering of family business people, academics and a few enlightened professional advisors. I savoured the intimate atmosphere of networking and learning. Although family business was already in my heart and bones, I knew from that first visit to Lausanne that I was committed to bringing together families in business to socialise, to share experiences and to learn about the latest thinking and practice that could help with the continuity of their businesses and the harmony of their family life.
Did you ever imagine becoming Executive Director of the FBN?
No. Prior to hearing the announcement at the FBN world conference in Rome (in 2001) that the Board were seeking an appointment, I hadn't ever considered it. But change happens in strange ways. I had studied how people's lives change during generational transitions for my PhD, then I found myself in the midst of several personal transitions simultaneously! I felt the CFE in Glasgow needed some new blood, and I knew I was ready to move on to enable the next stage of its development as well as my own. I had worked at the CFE with my sister since 1994 and we had come a long way together, and done a lot for family entrepreneurship in Scotland and beyond. Running the FBN world conference in Edinburgh in 1996 was without doubt the highlight of the 90s for both of us. People always tell me they remember this conference for the night at Hopetoun House when the band of pipes and drums emerged out of the mist at midnight and saluted the FBN conference!
I am so interested in the many different dimensions of the family business world that I suddenly noticed I had got myself involved in almost everything: researching, writing, teaching, lobbying, consulting in the UK and abroad, and designing and developing executive programmes for business families. In addition to being the FBN Chapter President in Scotland, I was also encouraging the development of the FFI (Family Firm Institute) in the UK and I was on its main board in the USA. So, it was time to take my own medicine in terms of what I had learned and was preaching about families in transition – time for me to make some choices and focus on the next stage.
The catalyst for making what turned out to be some tough choices was, of course, meeting my (then) future husband, Paco Valera, who lives in Spain and is also a family business consultant – and how could I resist moving from the climate of Scotland to Catalonia? With all the plans in place for living in mainland Europe, I then heard about the FBN position. Joachim Schwass (the current FBN Executive Director) called me out of the blue to invite me for an interview, and after some initial meetings to work out the details, we agreed I would start my appointment in mid-April 2002.
As a family business consultant you understand the importance of succession planning. How have you dealt with the transition from Joachim Schwass's leadership to your's?
All successors need time to learn the intricacies of how their organisation works, and bear in mind that the FBN is a unique type of association serving an extremely unique and enigmatic type of business enterprise. Joachim Schwass and I were not in a rush during the hand-over period. Nevertheless we saw the need for a clear plan and a timescale to the official handover, which took place on 1 January this year. Without doubt, my prior knowledge of the culture of FBN and its modus operandi (from running a Chapter for seven years) meant that I could hit the ground running.
What is on the horizon for the FBN?
I am convinced that the real strength of the FBN lies in its ability to bring together business owning families in an atmosphere and an environment that they enjoy and appreciate, and especially one in which they can really learn. Real learning occurs when what you hear or see engages your feelings, and people who attend the FBN events remember – often years later – the feelings that were evoked by presentations that they heard from families or conversations they had with members of other families.
And another dimension of FBN's strength is the unique environment it provides for researchers. Where else could they present their ideas directly to the people they study? And where else could those who benefit from their findings – the business families – hear about new developments first hand?
FBN does this through the conference, and through the Chapters around the world, but as an association, there is so much more we should be doing to enrich it even further. So I want to build on what we already do well, and to make attending FBN events unmissable for family business owners and their families and for academics pushing forward with new knowledge or ideas in the field. To achieve this, the association needs more resources and structure to underpin the growth that is already underway, keeping a clear focus on sticking to what we do best and testing out ways to add further value to this. I'm looking forward immensely to working with the team based at IMD and with the board to achieve these clear goals: strengthen the organisation and enrich the experience for families.
Your new role with the FBN sounds ambitious – and time consuming. Do you still find time to consult?
My role at the FBN is theoretically 80% of my time, and I have kept back some time to keep myself involved in consulting – there is nothing like working with real family businesses to keep you in touch with the very real challenges they face and what personal, educational and networking needs they have to ensure their continuity. I say 'theoretically' because I have been in the job for 15 months so far and have become completely engrossed in the opportunities that working with the FBN brings.
What is your favourite area of family business and why?
Well, it's all engaging – but I am foremost a consultant, a teacher and a writer. I really enjoy reflecting on the cases I work on, to make sense of the complexity of each case and then to use this knowledge in my teaching and writing.
Now that you live in Spain, what differences are you noticing in the family business culture there, versus in Scotland?
Que interesante! The culture for family businesses in Spain appears to me to be more hierarchical, more structured than I have seen generally in different countries. People forget that Spain was a dictatorship until less than 30 years ago, and I feel that the senior generation in control of businesses here are still affected by the system of structure that they were accustomed to in the past. The next generation are products of the post-dictatorship era and have a different view of life. On the other hand, I think family businesses here are incredibly innovative and aggressive for growth – a formula for success in any society.
You are now married to a family business consultant. How do you manage to keep your work life separate from home life?
Paco and I are both very involved in many aspects of family entrepreneurship, and we're both passionate about getting the field of family business properly established, so it can shift from the aged stereotype of the small firm, and earn the respect it deserves in the business and academic world today. We both also wear many 'hats' and work hard to represent each of the arenas in which we're active by separating these out. We have complementary ways of analysing issues, which we both find very helpful and supportive. But we do separate our work life from home life. We have two daft pups and we love gardening, enjoying the Catalan food and scenery, and generally having a good time – when we're busy with these, family business doesn't get a mention.
If you had to give one piece of advice to family business owners/families, what would it be?
Communicate with each other. Tell each other your dreams and aspirations. Once you know how to communicate with each other, using all the 'tools' such as protocols, constitutions, family meetings, governance, etc will be relatively straightforward.
What advice would you give to those thinking about a career in family business consulting?
I have found that having a solid, trained background in both business and family psychology has been essential. You will be working in complex systems and you need to know how to interpret what's going on, and how to manage your own reactivity to the behaviours and anxieties you encounter. Having a professional business discipline is not enough, you need to learn about family and systems functioning.
What is on the horizon when your work at the FBN is done?
Someone referred to the FBN in the past as a 'sleeping giant' – and I know that in the last year, our team in Lausanne has certainly awoken the giant and put him to work, developing the brand and the good name established in the first 10 years. FBN is the global meeting place for family businesses, and there is still a lot to be done to ensure that family businesses all over the world have both a global and a local meeting place to learn and network. After this? More consulting, teaching and writing!