Suzy Bibko is Editor-in-Chief of Families in Business magazine.
It's fun to be around people who care deeply about what they're doing and helping them discover their own solutions to problems that threaten their family's heritage is very rewarding indeed
Glenn Ayres is the current President of the Family Firm Institute (FFI) and a partner at the law firm of Fredrikson & Byron, PA, where he is also Chair of its Family Business Practice Group. Fredrikson & Byron is a business law firm with its principle office in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, and affiliate offices around the world. A self-proclaimed "people junkie", he has been involved in the family business world for over 20 years "working to help families in transition before bad things happen to nice people".
What was it that first drew you to the field of family business?
I came out of a family business and practiced law in the estate planning arena, administering a large number of estates where the owner/manager had died unexpectedly. I did that work for 18+ years until I was just sick about not being able to have the impact I wanted on these families and their business. That was when four of us left our individual firms and opened a consulting firm to family businesses in transition (Hubler/Swartz & Associates). The business was sold some years later and I moved on to a large business oriented law firm (Fredrikson & Byron) where I could continue my consulting and help other lawyers in the firm add a consulting element to their work with family businesses.
What kind of work are you currently doing?
My work generally centres around transition issues in family held enterprises. That means that most of my clients are looking to make (or have made) significant changes in their businesses and their families. I also help the families sort out the economics of transitions and develop their goals around issues like philanthropy and family offices.
Did you ever envision becoming president of an organisation like FFI when you first started out in this field?
Never. I was just glad to find a group of like-minded people. For me, and for many family business consultants, the associations of our professions of origin (law for me) simply are not broad enough. Family business work crosses any number of disciplines and it is much more process oriented than most professions. As a consequence, FFI becomes a place where we can share knowledge and experiences as peers across professional boundaries and feel like we are involved in the mainstream of critical work rather than on the fringe of our profession.
Why do you think organisations like FFI are important for family business owners and consultants?
After doing many seminars and workshops, I find that while people certainly come to learn from the speaker, they also come to talk to each other. For that reason, I think it is important that family business owners have a place of their own where they can share ideas, talk about what seems to work and what doesn't, and feel secure in the fact that they will not be solicited. Likewise, consultants and vendors need a place of their own to discuss theory, practice techniques and learn from each other's disciplines. No one wants to look less than perfect in front of a client (or would-be client), so consultants also need a safe place where ideas can be tried out and discussed without fear of judgment. On the flip-side, clients and consultants can learn a great deal from each other so long as the rules governing the interaction are clear to everyone. I would love to see more joint meetings between professional associations and family business organisations.
Is it difficult to balance your job with your role as FFI
Yes, at times, but it is also both a challenge and a great deal of fun. Our profession is changing and maturing, as is the sophistication of our clients. I need to do a lot of FFI work after hours and on weekends, but I get to work with some of the best people in the world everyday from a front row seat on what's happening at the cutting edge of family business consulting. It is also time for me to give something back to my profession and this office is one place where I can begin that process.
What is the most significant change that has happened while you've been involved with family businesses?
The widening of the separation between the public and the private sectors. Particularly during the 90's, a large segment of the public sector lost its way in pursuit of next quarter's stock prices. During this same timeframe, however, private companies and particularly family firms have begun to recognise and exploit the competitive advantages they have over their publicly-traded cousins. Instead of chasing short-term profits, these companies are measuring success by long-term growth, high product value, sustainable profitability and keeping their capital "patient". As family businesses continue to mature and improve their governance structures and the professionalism of their management teams, this gap can only widen until the public corporate and the investing communities can redefine (or simply rediscover) their own measurements for long-term success.
What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?
Meeting new families and getting a peek at all the fascinating ways entrepreneurs have figured out how to make a living. Family businesses are truly unique and the blend of cultures in which they operate is amazing. Where else could someone work one week with a high technology company in the Deep South and then find themselves with a 5th generation Midwestern agri-business? I love the endless variety and, I guess if I'm honest with myself, I'm also a people junkie. It's fun to be around people who care deeply about what they're doing and helping them discover their own solutions to problems that threaten their family's heritage is very rewarding indeed.
What challenges you most?
Slowing down and listening very, very well. I must continually remind myself of the complexity and wonder that is human interaction and family cultures. I want so badly for my clients to be able to achieve their dreams, that I sometimes get out ahead of where they are and what they think is critical. I may never perfect this skill, but at least now I don't hesitate to tell my clients to slow me down when I appear to be moving too quickly or beyond their comfort zone.
What personality trait has served you best over the years?
My best skill and my biggest weakness is my empathy skill. I can sense what is going on from non-verbal communication, but I can also feel their pain and frustration to the point where I occasionally need to remind myself that one of the things I am charged with bringing to the table is objectivity.
Do you see yourself ever changing careers?
No. I struggled for years to make sense out of the practice of law. For the past 20+ years, I have been working to help families in transition before bad things happen to nice people. For the first 15 years, I participated in the battles or helped pick-up the pieces (litigation, business failures, untimely death of the entrepreneur, etc). Now, I get to help families avoid these problems by taking control of the communication and planning work they must do to maintain healthy productive businesses across the generations. I may teach more in the future, but I will always consult. Seeing families change their own culture and business processes is where the real emotional feedback lies for me.
What is on the horizon for family businesses and consultants?
First, family businesses. This critical segment of our economies is getting more and more sophisticated each year. It was not so long ago that these enterprises didn't think of themselves as family firms; rather they were simply retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers. Now, however, they understand (perhaps far better than most of their advisors) that they are different from their publicly traded cousins and are using those differences to their advantage. For example, they understand what the advantage of "patient capital" means, their planning horizons are much longer than their public competitors and their measures of success can be tailored to the needs and goals of the family rather than the dictates of the financial markets. In fact, I suspect that as the dialogue about corporate governance moves beyond political rhetoric and into a serious discussion about how to restore investor confidence, many people will look at the best of the family business models on how to eliminate the excesses that have plagued the public market over the past several years.
On the advisory side, the opportunities will continue to expand, but so will the demands of the family business clients. Advisors will have to know how and be willing to build multi-disciplinary teams that can serve their clients efficiently and well. Clients will be asking not just for advice, but more and more for the transference of needed skills from the advisors to the family forum or management team. An outside solution is fine, but what family businesses really want is to learn how to identify and fix those problems themselves. Financing for family firms will become even more specialised and advisors will have to know what type of assistance is available in the marketplace and how to adapt those services to the needs of their clients. Being pro-active in helping clients develop strategic plans, professionalise their management teams and building working governance systems for the family and business will be skills an outstanding practitioner will have to possess.
Do you find yourself "practicing what you preach" in your personal and business life?
Occasionally. I'm looking forward to the day when I can take on more teaching responsibilities and take my consulting into a different setting. I think I'm planning, but all too often I discover that what I have been doing is daydreaming. Letting go of what you know and how you see yourself in the world is never easy and I'm learning the hard way that the only way to embark on a new journey is to create a plan and then work the plan. I am also getting a keen appreciation for how different my relationship with my spouse will have to be if our new journey is to be everything we hope for. We both have enjoyed very active, full and rewarding careers, but now we have to come together around a joint plan for tomorrow. There is a new kind of intimacy in such a transition and a need to be able to compromise that we have found is difficult for us both. While we don't have all of this worked out as yet, we are making progress. We are having fun reinventing our dream, and we are getting better at it each day.