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Just what is responsible ownership anyway?

The FBN's distinguished professors, business leaders and consultants all have an opinion – as was witnessed at the recent FBN summit in Brussels. The answers, says Scott McCulloch, are as diverse as the network's members

"Ownership becomes responsible when one accepts there may be some short-term sacrifices and long-term patience involved in supporting a family business." When Philippe Haspeslagh, a professor from Insead uttered these words to delegates at the FBN's recent annual conference in Brussels, there were nods of approval and thoughtful stroking of chins.

Indeed, there were more nods when Haspeslagh went on to explain that responsible ownership meant family business owners could expect to "spend time and energy" running their business at the expense of material dividends. Unequal involvement and responsibility in the business are a fact of life, he said, despite the egalitarianism that governs families.

That's all well and good but just what does 'responsible ownership' actually mean? "Very little research is available about responsible ownership and ownership, more generally, of the family business," says Johan Lambrecht, a family business professor at EHSAL in Belgium.
The responsible owner is active towards the business, explains Lambrecht in his research paper co-authored with Lorraine Uhlaner of the European Family Business Institute in Rotterdam. "A responsible owner is able to defend visibly the company's actions and decisions; has multiple ownership goals; the ability to understand when to bring in outsiders, is able to balance the needs of the family, the business and the stakeholders; loves the industry the family business is in; and is not selfish."

For others, responsible ownership in the family business must consider the children in the business and those on the cusp of joining the business. In other words, what of the next generation? More importantly, how should they prepare to succeed their senior family members?
Cindy Iannerelli, president of Bernelli University, believes there is a critical need for today's children to understand the value of money. "Children have ten times more disposable income today than they did 30 years ago," she says pointing out that the number of television advertisements aimed at children confirm this large market.
Iannerelli, whose immigrant family ran a dry cleaning business, believes it is crucial for business leaders to rise to the challenge of instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in their offspring if the family business is to survive the inevitable generational transfer period, come out unscathed, and remain in family hands.
She is quick to dispel the myths so many parents and business leaders accept when building a future for their offspring. Notions such as "My children will have enough money so they will never have to worry" and "If I give my children everything they will have an easier life" are just plain wrong, she ventures.

Meanwhile, FBN chairman Hans Jacob Bonnier, takes responsible ownership very seriously indeed, or at least his Swedish newspaper group does. Unlike the distinguished group of academics who presented detailed research papers at the conference, Bonnier's take on responsible ownership came down to a tale of one of his family's eastern European newspapers standing up to what amounted to be organised criminals threatening to "silence" members of his organisation for having the temerity to run an article on high-level government corruption. In the interest of protecting his people, Bonnier shelved the story – for a while. He then decided to share the story with several rival newspapers. Crucially, Bonnier orchestrated a move where his local rivals agreed to band together, like a family, and publish the story simultaneously. Safety in numbers was the logic. Bonnier's tormentors never made good on their threat. "That," says Bonnier, "is what I call responsible ownership."

Bonnier, fbn, responsible ownership
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