Helping to keep business all in the family

//October 14, 2009//

Helping to keep business all in the family

//October 14, 2009//

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Institutes offer advice, networkingAs family businesses battle the recession, they are tapping the expertise of university-based forums created to focus exclusively on the challenges facing these firms, which are by far the largest sector of the New Jersey economy.

The Family Business Institute at Rutgers Business School, in Camden, is making a comeback after a two-year hiatus, in response to demand from family businesses that dominate South Jersey. The Center for Closely Held Business at William Paterson University, in Wayne, is looking to create a core group of member companies to better leverage the resources of its business school. And the 17-year-old Family Business Forum at Fairleigh Dickinson University will take its programs on the road to reach firms that can’t make it to the FDU campus in Madison.

These groups all agree that their mission is to deliver the knowledge of their business school faculties to the state’s family businesses, in a setting that enables these firms to learn from each other.

Typically these small and midsized companies don’t have the time or money to bring consultants in to tackle their special problems — succession planning, growth and sustainability, sibling and inter-generational conflict — let alone universal challenges like how to grow wisely in good times, and how to weather a sudden drop in revenue during a recession.

Karen L. Hopper was named Sept. 1 as director of the Rutgers Family Business Institute, which looks to serve the eight counties of South Jersey, home to an estimated 100,000 family businesses. In January, the institute will begin signing up members, who will be invited to hear speeches by experts and to gather in workshops to listen to business wisdom from their peers.

“We want to be a knowledge center for family businesses,” she said. Through roundtables for family business chief executive officers and the “next generation” — the children, nieces, nephews, and sons- and daughters-in-law being groomed to take over some day — the institute will be “a safe environment to discuss key issues,” she said.

These are tough times for many family businesses, “and they have to use their skills a little more, and be salespeople — because it’s their business and they need to survive,” Hopper said.

At the same time, many family businesses see the recession as an opportunity to prepare for growth, said Raymond J. Compari, associate dean of the Rutgers Business School. Plenty of family businesses in New Jersey “are in a growth mode — they are moving ahead and aren’t taking the route of becoming smaller,” Compari said.

Jim Barrood, director of the Rothman Institute of Entrepreneurial Studies at FDU, said next year “we’re going to expand our program via Web casts, and also form satellite groups around the state so that people who can’t drive an hour to Madison can meet in a working group in their local areas.”

The current recession poses “the worst threat in a generation,” he said — but no one has dropped out of the forum, and interest in the program has increased. He said family business founders meet with their own peer group, while the successor generation meets as a separate group; both groups convene six or eight times a year. “They talk about their challenges and commiserate with each other, and it’s very productive.”

Sam Basu, dean of the Cotsakos College of Business at William Paterson University, said the Center for Closely Held Business draws on the resources of the school’s new entrepreneurship major in the MBA program and the Russ Berrie Institute for Professional Sales. He said there is demand for what the center offers, “and we have to be quite specific about the value we offer — these people have limited time and resources, and they are looking for something that will directly add value and make sense for them.”

Basem Hishmeh, chief executive of Sigma-Netics., in Riverdale, and a member-company in the Center for Closely Held Business, said the program is effective “because most small businesses are undercapitalized, and they don’t have the funds to hire experts.” Besides advising, members hear from professors and experts, and “if I need a marketing study, I can have a graduate student do this for me at less cost.”

It was from a program at the Center that Hishmeh got the idea of creating an outside advisory board for his company to provide needed expertise. Sigma-Netics makes pressure- and temperature-sensing devices for industry, and sales have tripled since 2003, to more than $10 million a year, Hishmeh said.

“For business owners that really want to work at turning their business around, there are ways to do it,” Hishmeh said. “They need to seek out these kinds of forums where they can learn how to improve their business and eliminate waste. We can be competitive in this economy.”

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