John Stepek is the son of a retired second generation family business owner. He lives and works in London as a freelance journalist.
Family business members have a special, emotional attachment to their business and being a consultant to these companies can be a rewarding experience. The best training is experience and a genuine interest in each specific case
Family business services are being offered by more and more companies throughout the UK and Europe. They can offer valuable assistance to families, helping with potentially difficult situations such as succession or designing a family constitution. But how do family business professionals learn their trade and what issues do they face in their own careers?
Juliette Lampert is a trainee family business advisor at BDO Stoy Hayward, the accountancy firm. The Stoy Centre for Family Business was established in 1993, making Stoy one of the first companies in the UK to offer family business services.
Six months into her training, Lampert explains what drew her to family businesses in the first place. "I find it a fascinating area, coming from quite a big family myself. Every family business is very different."
The company has an internal licensing system. Trainees have to fulfil a number of minimum requirements, including attendance at training courses, background reading and shadowing a qualified advisor on at least two assignments. Only when the company is confident of an advisor's abilities does he or she receive a license to practice, which is reviewed regularly to ensure advisors are up-to-date with the latest developments.
Lampert thinks it will take longer for her to feel comfortable working by herself. "I am already working on four cases. But I still need to build up my confidence a bit more before I feel I could do it on my own."
Working with family businesses has opened her eyes to some of the issues they face. "At first I looked at family businesses and thought: 'How can these people have problems – they should have the best lives.' But you realise that their wealth comes with a price to pay. They are very privileged, but they have a lot of baggage to go with it. You realise just how hard people have worked to build these businesses up and you also realise how attached and how involved they are. That's the kind of thing I hadn't really thought about."
One of the things Lampert enjoys most about working with family businesses is getting to know the owners of the firms. "When I came up through auditing you didn't really get to know the people that are really involved in the business – you get to know people on the accounts team and a handful of other employees who are doing a job. It's good to have the chance to get to know the people who really care about their business and help them to keep it going."
Her main concern is that, in her late twenties, she might be seen as too young by some of the families she is advising. "A lot of it is probably in my own head. I worry that people will think: 'She's young, what does she know?' But then, the younger generation probably feel more comfortable speaking to me. One of the most important things we have to get across to them is that they have to be honest and I think it helps them by having someone their own age to talk to."
Tony Bogod, a partner at Stoy, who works closely with Lampert on assignments, agrees that it is sometimes useful for an advisor team to represent different age groups. Bogod, who is in his forties, says: "As you are often dealing with the older generation, if you are too young you can't get away with playing the middle ground. I can get away with it at the moment because I am in the right sort of age bracket."
Although both believe in formal training, Bogod and Lampert believe that practice is the most important way to learn. Bogod says: "The best training is to do it. You don't get the confidence unless you have been there and you are doing it regularly."
They also emphasise the need to care about the job. "It's no good just doing it to earn money," says Bogod. "To do it well you have got to care about the outcome." Lampert agrees. "You do have to enjoy it because you do have to deal with some quite sensitive situations sometimes."
A 12-point methodology
Like Stoy Hayward, other large professional firms providing family business services tend to train their staff in-house. Andrew Godfrey, Head of International Family Business at accountancy firm Grant Thornton, is responsible for developing the company's family business consulting methodology, PRIMA (People and Relationship Issues in ManAgement).
Godfrey is keen to point out the difference between good family business advice, and simply offering standard business services under a different name. "A lot of people use family business consulting to sell tax services and that's a lot of nonsense. A lot of the problems we see are when the tail wags the dog: the company has a great tax system, but it's causing conflict in the family."
PRIMA training works by taking case studies and applying 12 factors to them. The 12 factors cover a wide range of topics families are likely to face, from business issues such as retirement planning and equity ownership to more family-specific subjects such as how to keep in touch with family members who aren't in the business.
"It completely changed my view of how to deal with family businesses and that is the reaction we get over and over again. A lot of it is obvious, but only when it is pointed out to you."
A three-tiered programme
Accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers also train their own people. Paul Hennessy, Family Business Services Leader for Ireland, describes the three levels of training they have for their advisors. "We have a lot of family business clients who come to us because they want a service that's not necessarily family business-specific: things like tax compliance and estate planning. So we train people who are expected to work in these areas in family business awareness. That's a general level of training which deals with how you manage the familial and emotional issues in family businesses."
Advisors who offer more detailed family business services such as succession planning are given a second level of more rigorous training, which concentrates on interviewing and interpersonal skills.
"Then there is a third level that covers creating family constitutions and assemblies. When you progress to the third level of products and services I would do a fair amount of that myself."
Like Lampert at Stoy, Hennessy cites the quality of the professional relationship with a family business as being part of the attraction of the job. "Family businesses have a dynamic which is built around the personalities that are in there – people who take the business home in their hearts. It's a special relationship to be in, because it's much more than an invoice going out at the end of the month and a cheque coming in the next."
Hennessy has noticed a change in the self-awareness of family businesses during his time as an advisor. "I would say more and more that they [the families] approach us to deal with family issues. Families have realised that they have needs which are particular to themselves – needs that don't exist in the company next door."
However, there is still a lot of 'spreading the word' to be done. Justine Ferguson, partner at Glasgow-based Family Business Solutions, finds that a large amount of their work goes into getting families to realise that help is out there. "We are still doing a lot of family business awareness work, which doesn't always fit well with the standard professional practice model."
Adaptation and awareness
Ferguson makes the point that family business consulting is very different from standard consultancy work. "Lots of other professional firms have dipped a toe into the water and pulled back out when they realise it's not just about re-branding. It's about really learning how to do this craft."
She herself had to adapt to a new way of working with clients. "When you come out of law school you want to sort everybody's problems for them and it can be really frustrating when you think you know how to solve what you see as a technical problem. But the family has to be ready to do the work. Until then the best technical ideas in the world won't help. A nice new set of articles of association won't fix anything. You get to the point where you realise this is the only way to do it."
Ferguson has also looked at a problem she believes should be of real concern to family business professionals. She points out that as family businesses go through succession, advisors to the older generation risk being replaced if they do not learn to work with the new generation. "It takes a lot for families to say they will switch. But if the second generation come along and feel they are not getting the respect, they'll think: 'I've got a friend I went to university with – I'll just go with them.' That raises the question – how are you going to bring in the next generation of family business consultants?"
In terms of training, Ferguson believes family business awareness should be part of the formal education of professionals, so that more professionals are exposed to the concepts at an early stage. "There should be a family business module in all these disciplines. When you come out of university you have all this knowledge but no idea of what the clients' needs might be. It would be good to get right into this work from the beginning of your career. Ultimately I would like to see it as a profession that people would go into specifically."
If such a course became available, it might become very popular – family business advisors certainly seem to get a great deal of job satisfaction from their work. As Lampert says, "I am having a good time at the moment. I think it's quite a rare thing to truly enjoy what you are doing."