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Progress in the family business world

It's a good idea, every now and again, to look back in time and reflect on how far things have come or to pause and think about where things appear to be heading. The world of family business is no exception.

Twenty years ago, a 'field' of family business was no more than a twinkle in the eye of a few like-minded people, mostly in the US.All were curious to learn why it is that family businesses did things differently.Soon it became apparent that they do things differently because they are different. By 1990, places to network were taking shape and rapidly increasing their global reach: families in business could join the world association known as the Family Business Network (FBN) and the Family Firm Institute (FFI) became the prime locus for professional advisers.

In the early 1990s, family business entrepreneurs were themselves forming self-interest groups to promote a cause that crossed many national boundaries and for which strong and passionate views were held in common: how to prevent family business continuity from the punishing effects of inheritance, capital and wealth taxes. The forerunners of these emerging national family business associations were to be found in the UK (Unquoted Companies Group), Spain (Instituto de la Empresa Familiar) and Finland (FBN Finland). Such is their commitment to the cause that there are now thirteen such associations throughout the EU, speaking with one lobbying voice in Brussels known as GEEF.

Families in business also realised long ago that undergoing 'succession'is akin to running a marathon: it's a long distance endurance test for individuals,their families and their businesses. Even when the tax questions can be answered (how much is to be paid, in what form, over what period of time etc), the other hurdles – personal, relational and organisational – are still to be crossed before the finishing line comes into sight. These include planning for the continuity of leadership, deciding the destiny of the ownership of the business, managing shareholder relations, sustaining a competitive business and many others. Some families clearly see and anticipate the hurdles while others can falter and be tripped up by the element of surprise.

This is where the true value of family business associations is most strongly felt: FBN's regional chapters, their website and their flagship annual conference are the virtual and physical meeting points for learning about family business matters,for networking with others in similar situations and to gain confidence that you're not alone in the family business world. For the professional advisory community, FFI has a similar structure to support those who guide and coach family businesses through their marathons, to ensure that what makes family business clients different is becoming increasingly better understood and leads to more effective professional practices.

Thus the field of family business is now recognised in most arenas: the academic, professional and executive education worlds have much to offer those willing to learn. A cursory internet search will lead the curious to many excellent offerings for family business education around the world.There are,however,two other arenas where an escalation of activity is starting to pay dividends: in politics and the media.

In February 2000, Mariano Puig, Europe's leading family business ambassador (and an owner of a significant family business based in Spain), planted the flag firmly in the ground to promote the cause of harmonising the legislative regimes throughout the EU. At a recent meeting in Barcelona with EU ministers, speaking as the Chairman of GEEF, he pushed for consistency in legislations throughout the EU governing tax, business and economic development,and for these to take account of the requirements for continuity of family businesses.

Family businesses are also featuring more in the media – thankfully in terms of the quality of communications as well as the quantity.There are now more newsletters, books, magazines and journals featuring or dedicated to family business topics than at any other time. Mainstream journalism also seems to be taking a more balanced view of family business – a very significant shift in this arena.

This edition of Families in Business offers a diversity of reports, articles, knowhow, networking and updates that we think demonstrate how far the world of family business has come in such a short time. We welcome any thoughts or views you may have on this and other family business matters.

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