"Running a successful family business is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle – unless all the pieces fit together exactly, it's a mess," says Peter Leach, Chairman of The Stoy Centre for Family Business.
"Recently, so many pieces of the jigsaw have changed that we're now looking at a different picture. From now on, the speed of change is likely to be so fast that the family business sector will be less like a jigsaw, and more like a moving image.
"The rapid emergence of new technologies, the pace of new product development and the influence of the world market affects all businesses, family or not. But the additional challenge that family businesses face is that these need to be tackled over and above a host of other unique issues that are today more numerous and varied, than at any time since the industrial revolution.
Despite these challenges, a very important reason why the future looks good for family businesses is the growing number of advisors beginning to take an active interest in the sector. Never has this been more visible than in Europe today. It seems only natural, therefore, that Family Firm Institute (FFI), the international not-for-profit organisation dedicated to assisting family firms by increasing the interdisciplinary skills and knowledge of family business advisors, educators, researchers and consultants, has chosen to hold its 2001 annual world conference in London. This is the first time ever that this event has been held outside the USA.
"It's definitely time to hold this event outside America," says Peter, who, along with his SCFB colleague, Tony Bogod, is cochairing the event. "FFI wants to make it easier for more people from outside the USA to attend; longer term, we'd like to see more advisors across Europe becoming involved in the family business sector."
The London conference will draw on the high level of understanding of family businesses that already exists in the USA. "In a country where 90% of businesses are family firms, a lot of people are affected by the issues, so there's a strong incentive to think about them deeply and ultimately do something to help,"explains Peter.
"In the USA, the family business sector enjoys a far higher profile and almost every major university has a chair of family business. This means the USA has a vast resource of university and business school research from which to draw ideas and inspiration. But in Europe, there are only a few people in each country who are 'leading lights' in the field and there are even fewer family business chairs in our universities or business schools. This has to change, and it's great that FFI are helping us to bring about that change by bringing their annual conference to London."
Those new to the field of family businesses and to FFI could be in for quite a few surprises – not only because of the amount of valuable research and family business wisdom that already exists, but because of the type of people who specialise in this area."As an advisor to this sector, you have to take a truly holistic view of the business – you're not just dealing with the business, but, as importantly, people and families," explains Peter.
"In fact, most of the work is about people, which means the advisors who get involved tend to be very sensitive and good communicators." Above all, Peter's convinced that family business practitioners really enjoy what they are doing: "It's an area where you can add substantial value to situations and feel you're making a real difference. It's highly challenging, but rewarding."
And it's perhaps for this reason that participants at FFI conferences are always so personable. FFI's successful conference formula plays to the fact that the participants are good communicators.Peter is confident that an involved and people-centred approach is best for those working in a sector that focuses on people issues.
The conference programme reflectsthis. While there are keynote presentations and plenary sessions, these will be interspersed with case-based workshops and regular opportunities to network in the conference café or in 'the best family business bookshop on the planet'. The emphasis is squarely on encouraging highly practical, hands-on approaches to learning and consulting."Above all else, it's fun! – it's not like the usual conference experience."
Organisers of FFI 2001 predict that around half the delegates will be from outside the USA."I really hope that, by holding the 2001 conference in London, we will increase FFI's profile across Europe, so more people will learn how important it is to understand this vital sector, and to advise on it," concludes Peter."The internationalism that the conference promotes is essential.We can all learn a lot from other countries and cultures. I think that delegates from the UK and Europe will be surprised at the extent to which family business issues have been researched and developed elsewhere."