Making success a family legacy

October 14, 2010 By unc kenan-flagler

Family business students gathered at the Rizzo Conference Center in Chapel Hill on October 8 to hear wisdom from the world’s foremost expert on family business boards, John Ward, director of the family business program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management

Ward and his colleague, Jennifer Pendergast, are both highly sought after consultants to business-owning families around the globe. They were in town to unveil new research on the effective use of boards of directors in privately held, family businesses. This was their first public appearance to present these results prior to the publication of their book this fall.

Cooper Biersach, John Ward, Jennifer Pendergast, Jim Dean, Steve Miller

Key advice from the Family Enterprise Institute Fall Forum included:

  • Build a board before you need it.
  • Think of the board as a precious resource that you have the privilege to design in a way that works best for you. 
  • Focus the board on key strategic drivers and opportunities for growth – not on operational issues.
  • Examine your strategy and then find board members who have experience in those areas.
  • Select board members who can provide a perspective that cannot be found elsewhere in the company.

Before speaking at the Forum, Ward and Pendergast gathered with students and the Forum’s panel (Dini Cecil Pickering of The Biltmore Company, Susan Gravely of Vietri and Michael Jacobs of Jacobs Capital/UNC Kenan-Flagler), to listen to the challenges and opportunities faced by the students as their family businesses transition from one generation to the next. 

“The Family Enterprise Institute (FEI) works with students to develop key leadership skills that will be required to succeed in critical roles within their families’ companies,” says Cooper Smith Biersach (JD & MBA ’96), director and co-founder of the FEI.  “As a complement to our two family business courses, this Forum is one of the opportunities that the FEI provides to educate students on ways to optimize the relationship between the company, the owners and the family.  While there are no one-size-fits-all best practices in family business, there are common practices that are extremely useful to business-owning families.”

Event participants included students and a select group of family business leaders. Their experience ranged from companies with established independent boards, to no functioning boards, to companies in between.  During the working session, participants were put into cohort groups in which they were able to apply the research findings to suit the culture and needs of their own enterprise.   Each participating company left the meeting with a plan that can be implemented to increase their own board’s effectiveness.

“The success of the Forum was additional confirmation that we are addressing a real need in the business community. It was an honor to welcome family business luminaries, John Ward and Jennifer Pendergast.  Both John and Jennifer expressed their enthusiasm for what we are doing in family business education at UNC Kenan-Flagler.  They see our student-centered approach as unique and consistent with the approach John has established at Northwestern University, recognized as one of the leading family business programs in the country,” says Steve Miller, vice chair of the executive committee of the Biltmore Companies and co-founder of the FEI.

For more information, please contact Cooper Biersach at
or 919.619.4247.