Next Generation Leadership

Student Uses Family Business Coursework to Initiate a Family Meeting

December 5, 2012 By Kristina Magnuson

Alison Wilson, MBA 2013, discusses how a speaker in the family business class inspired both a term paper and a first-time family meeting for her family’s business…

It all started when Dini Pickering, 6th generation family owner of the Biltmore Estate, came to speak to our Family Business class about the development of her family business. One thing that struck me was how well she was able to get the next generation, all teenagers at the time, interested and involved in their business through bi-annual family meetings. I realized that my generation’s lack of involvement in our family business was going to create problems someday soon, and family meetings could be the solution.

I am the 5th generation of a family-owned business, The Observer Publishing Company, which produces daily and weekly newspapers in western Pennsylvania. Like most of my cousins, I grew up with a parent actively involved in the daily operations of the company and living within a few miles of the headquarters, so I was immersed in the family business on a daily basis. However, most of the information I learned about our business came from eaves-dropping on the adults’ conversations or asking my dad questions. There was never a formalized method of transferring information to my generation.

The family business class made me look at our business from the combined lenses of theory, my MBA knowledge, and other people’s experiences. For the final term paper, we were supposed to analyze a problem or opportunity in our family’s business and make a recommendation.  I knew that this issue of transferring information to my generation through the use of an annual family meeting would be something worth thinking through. I called my Uncle Tom, the CEO, to tell him my idea, get his thoughts, and ask him to consider enacting my proposal. He agreed so I set off to work.

I modeled my recommendation off of the Biltmore Estate’s family meetings, crafting my argument as to why they were necessary and creating the weekend’s schedule (a mixture of learning sessions and fun family bonding events). Tom was convinced, and he agreed to give me the time and resources necessary to bring my proposal to life. Together with my uncle, two aunts, and a cousin, I planned a Friday – Sunday family meeting in Annapolis, MD in August. Out of 35 family members who could have possibly attended, 31 people came to Annapolis which was quite an impressive turnout!

Since we’re now all spread along the East Coast, we enjoyed catching up on each other’s lives during meals that weekend . On Saturday and Sunday morning from 9 until noon, we had workshop sessions to inform the 5th generation about the inner workings of the business.

Saturday morning kicked off with a video welcome from Dini Pickering of the Biltmore Estate, sharing her story about why family meetings are important. Other sessions included a recounting of our business’s history by my grandfather and great-uncle, a newspaper industry overview by one of our outside board members, a frank discussion of the company’s governance and strategy, and a forward-looking session about how my generation might get involved in the future. The highlight of the trip was the Saturday afternoon sailing excursion on the Chesapeake, which has special significance since my grandfather and great-uncle grew up racing sailboats.

I am grateful to the Family Business class at Kenan-Flagler for making this family meeting an idea and then a reality. It has opened up much needed channels of communication within the entire family about the business. The weekend got rave reviews from everyone, and we all would like it to become an annual event.