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Facing challenges in family business

The evening of Friday, 5th October 2001 in Rome was warm and sultry, reminiscent of long summer evenings in the capital. The plazas were full of people in their finery absorbing the history and beauty of the capital along with the food, wine and culture that is distinctively Italian and so typically Roman.

It was also a special evening for the 400 or so people who were getting ready to go out for the evening, anticipating a special experience that would be memorable for years to come. They were not to be disappointed. The Family Business Network Conference Gala Dinner is undoubtedly the highlight of the family business calendar. A glorious setting, operatic entertainment and a gastronomic treat set the context for the big event: the presentation of the 2001 IMD Distinguished Family Business Award to the Murugappa family of India. The prize was given to mark the success of the Murugappa family's business and to highlight the best practices demonstrated as they continue to navigate their family business empire through the turbulent waters of fundamental political and economic reform in India.

As the family stepped on to the stage to receive the award, accompanied by the non-family executives entrusted to help steer the course to success, there was a genuine sense of rising emotion in the room. Everyone in the family business world understands the hard work, sacrifice and ingenuity needed to create a successful and sustainable family business, and so there was a real sense of warmth and empathy for the family who deserved such an accolade. When Mr MM Murugappan began to speak with such humility about what this award meant to their family and what their family stood for, the emotionality of the moment became very tangible. We were reminded why families go into business in the first place – what it's all for beyond making money. He told us of the efforts being made now to create an enduring system of governance and continued stewardship for future generations. And we learned about the traditional, but changing role of women in India, as we were introduced to the ladies of the Murugappa family who play a significant role in family philanthropy.

This edition of Families in Business provides an informed and in-depth view of these themes. It focuses on the recent experiences faced by prominent Indian business families and also explains how similar experiences are managed in other parts of the world. Katherine Baker's vivid description of a family business in the new Russia shows both the emotional and financial price to be paid for attempting to survive as a family in business in conditions of economic chaos. Howard Muson brings us up-todate on the Ford family as they reassert family leadership and governance in the Ford Motor Company. Kelin Gersick's latest article describes how business families remain connected as blood and ownership dilute over the generations and complex clan dynamics come into play.

Our guest editorial and invited authors explain the difficult terrain that is the business environment in India today and lay out the challenges to be faced for family business continuity. We present two detailed case studies by Professor John L Ward and Dennis Jaffe who describe the ways in which the Murugappa family and the Burman family, respectively, have taken up these challenges. These are rich stories, describing how these family clans approach the task of redefining their involvement with the business. Ward and Jaffe describe the courage of owning families to transform the way they relate to their business. They are moving away from managing and operating their businesses and towards governing the whole wealth-generating potential of their collective family enterprise. Sooner or later, all families who truly want their businesses to achieve their full potential have to face the same challenges that the Murugappas and the Burmans are currently facing. We have some role models to learn from here.

As well as learning from case studies rich in real experience, there is no harm in indulging in a little fiction or theatre to pick up some good hints about how to manage the family business. Have a look at our reviews section to discover the lessons we can learn from George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life– life and family business can be exactly what the title indicates.

On behalf of Joachim Schwass and myself, many thanks for the feedback, support and constructive criticism we received on the launch edition of Families in Business. Please continue to give us your views about the topics we cover and let us know what you would like to see more of. 

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