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Taking a gamble : the family entrepreneurs

Special Report : Entrepreneurialism In Europe

Marc Smith is deputy editor of Families in Business.

Everyone, it seems, is looking for an entrepreneur. From Washington to Wellington, you are unable to turn on a television without seeing a programme that promises to unearth the next Bill Gates or Richard Branson. Dragon's Den and The Big Idea in the UK, and The Apprentice – the American show starring Donald Trump that is now franchised to over 20 countries around the globe (it is known as Business Baazigar in India and El idara jadara in the Arabic world) – are all scouring your average office for new talent.

At the same time, the comment pages of many newspapers in most developed and emerging economies are falling over themselves to describe their leading business people as being entrepreneurial or possessing entrepreneurial traits. The internet, in particular, is seemingly lucky enough to unearth entrepreneurs at an incredible rate of knots. So what does it mean to be an entrepreneur today?

"I define an entrepreneur as being an individual who sees an opportunity that others do not and marshals the resources to exploit it." says Dr Bakr Ibrahim, professor of entrepreneurship and family business at the John Molson School of Business in Montreal, Canada. "Therefore, an entrepreneur is someone who introduces a new product or a process, identifies new markets or a source of supply or creates a new organisation. In addition, he or she raises the necessary capital, creates the new venture and assumes the control and risk of the operation."

Despite this thorough definition, the term has become so popular that there is a very real debate to be had about whether there is currently a glut of entrepreneurs in the business community, or whether it is simply media hyperbole that only serves to diminish the stock of the real entrepreneurs out there. "I think that there is confusion in the popular press as to what an entrepreneur is," says Ibrahim. "There is a clear distinction between entrepreneurs and managers of small or large companies."

Innovation and risk taking in particular are key traits that define an entrepreneur, and Ibrahim says that research has identified a number of others:

  • A high need for achievement.
  • A need for independence.
  • An internal locus of control.
  • A tolerance for ambiguity.

In addition, the environment plays a critical role; for example, some fields, such as the creative industries, are more likely than others to act as incubators of entrepreneurial talent. While managers and small business owners have many of the more general traits, they consistently score lower than entrepreneurs on these specific entrepreneurial traits.

The entrepreneur of the future
Family businesses have long relied on encouraging the younger generation to identify and pursue new markets and revenue streams in other words, to be entrepreneurial. Joav Ben Jaakow was just 15-years-old when he started working for his family's business, BJ Bewässerungstechnik, an importer of state-of-the-art drip irrigation systems from Israel that are sold in Europe. Today, aged 22, he has been named as one of Europe's best young entrepreneurs by Business Week magazine. And when the firm is turned into a limited company later this year, Jaakow will become the firm's majority shareholder.

"I definitely consider myself as an entrepreneur," he says, before going on to give his own definition. "If you go to bed and sleep well, you simply work for a company, but if you go to bed and you have new ideas, you think about the problems and the costs, then you are an entrepreneur." From a small office beginning and leaving school to help his parents, Jaakow has helped build the firm up into an established player.

He also acknowledges the role his parents played in his formative years: "Discipline is the most important thing my parents taught me. In Europe, if you can show that you are a good partner then your dealers will trust you and you can build good relationships."

Jaakow says that while he and his father are partners, he does marketing and strategy, which includes looking at new areas and markets. "This is how we are trying to grow the business." However, he also has an eye on diversifying. "I have lots of ideas for new companies, things I want to do and make, and they may happen in the future."

Breaking with tradition
But there is also a trend that sees siblings break free of the family business and set up on their own. The Sainsbury family behind the J Sainsbury supermarket chain in the UK provides some interesting examples. Following David Sainsbury's retirement as chairman in 1998, which brought to an end 129 years of management by the family, Mark and Jessica Sainsbury, part of the fifth generation, have both moved into the hotel trade. Mark's brother Julian, meanwhile, is a trained sculptor and runs his own design studio in London.

Mark, who owns the Zetter Hotel in London's trendy Clerkenwell, told London's Evening Standard newspaper: "I was not particularly excited by big business. I have a real love of food and wine – that's much more interesting than sitting in a boring boardroom."

Jessica owns Cowley Manor Hotel, a contemporary hotel in the Cotswolds that was a rundown retirement home set in 55 acres of countryside before she ploughed £10 million into the venture to turn it into a first-class spa hotel. It is now patronised by celebrities including Hugh Grant and Kate Moss. The success of Cowley Manor led Jessica to Paris, where she purchased L'Hôtel, a fashionable boutique hotel where Oscar Wilde spent his last days.

With the family shareholding in J Sainsbury now reported to be below 20%, and amid rumours of a potential bid by a private equity firm, it is now looking increasingly likely that the supermarket will finally cut its ties to the family. Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in five generations.

A question of legacy
Andrew Keyt, executive director at the Loyola University Chicago's Family Business Center, believes that heads of family business are often scared about encouraging entrepreneurial behaviour in their children and sometimes want them to follow in their footsteps. "The threat is that if they don't allow their kids to develop their own vision for the future, the kids will always be stuck with pursuing a vision that isn't theirs – which may or may not be good for them."

"The best thing a parent can do is to develop the unique gifts of each of their children and then let them find ways, and work with them to find ways, to apply those skills and benefits for the good of the family," says Keyt. But it is clearly a double-edged sword. We may not know for certain whether the Sainsbury children are reaping the benefits of being allowed to follow their own path, but there is also the worry that children can react to the possibility of being pushed into the business by doing something completely different.

"If your intent is to continue the family legacy and pass the business on to future generations, you must always be teaching your kids how to identify and evaluate business opportunities both inside the business and outside the business," says Keyt. "While families seek stability, businesses need to change in order to grow, and change cannot happen without some sense of entrepreneurialism."

If this means that the next generation of your family find themselves starring in their own entrepreneurial television programme, you can be fairly certain that they've gone their own way.

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