The prepared family that works together, stays together

Organization celebrates 20 years of helping ventures thrive from one generation to the next

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It is often not easy going into business with family members, but there’s a local organization that hopes to help. The Centre for Family Business (CFFB), a not-for-profit based in Kitchener, is celebrating its 20th anniversary of supporting and solidifying the region’s many family-run businesses.

Started back in 1997 by St. Jacobs businessman Milo Shantz along with fellow entrepreneur Peter Hallman, the centre has had a long history of helping family businesses stay alive and thrive in the region. Shantz, who passed away in 2009, was the catalyst behind Mercedes Corp., which has had an extensive presence in the village from the local farmers’ market to various retail locations downtown. Shantz was also the figure behind the Stone Crock restaurant.

“He was just mild-mannered, pleasant. He loved the Centre for Family Business,” recalls Dave Schnarr, the organization’s executive director, of Shantz. “He was a very caring person from my perspective, and cared about the other family businesses too.”

Twenty years after its founding, the centre boasts a membership of 65 family businesses in the community, each of which has been able to make use of the centre’s resources for such enterprises. Among its members is Weber’s Fabricating Ltd., a metal fabricating business in St. Jacobs founded by Clare Weber. Weber started the business solo in 1974, but since then has been joined by a second generation of family in owning and running the company.

“One thing is when you’re running a business by yourself … I’ve always made whatever decision I chose to make and ran with it,” says Weber. “Now that the family’s involved, you don’t make that decision anymore – you have to have everybody on board, so it becomes four people in this situation that makes a decision.

“You have to learn to respect the other person’s opinion. You’re not always right; everybody is always looking at it from a different point of view.”

Heather Weber, Clare’s daughter and a co-owner of the business, explains the keys to a successful family enterprise. “Communication, patience, open-mindedness.”

“[And respecting] the other person’s opinion,” adds her father.

It can be a challenge mixing business with family and, poorly done, it can lead to some soured relationships. But the CFFB has been providing services and resources specifically to tackle those obstacles.

“What we do is offer is special development for our members. So we have breakfast events … and each one of those, we have a family business share their story. Then we also have a keynote speaker of some kind,” explains Schnarr.

“One of the things that our members really like is panels. So we have had panels for instance with … the three mayors.” Other panels have focussed on the role of women in family businesses, or the different generations of business owners. Sometimes the topics shift from family to other issues like mental health.

“So we had four of our family business women leaders on a panel; I asked them questions, and the audience had a chance to too. Last year we had a second generation panel, and this year coming up in September we’re going to have a leading generation panel,” says Schnarr.

“We try to focus on family business but we had a breakfast on mental health this year. So we’re looking at ways to add value to our members.”

Another aspect that can be overlooked, says Schnarr, is planning for business succession – that is, preparing for the transition of a business between generations. The contributions of family businesses to the economy, as well as to a community’s character, is indisputable. But according to the CFFB, only 12 per cent of family businesses actually survive to their third generation.

But beyond the dollar and cents and the educational aspect, says Schnarr, the centre is also a great way for people running and dealing with family businesses to meet and network with one another and exchange stories. It’s important, he says, that people know that there are plenty of others like them who have to grapple with similar issues.

Despite the pitfalls of working with family, there are tremendous advantages notes Heather Weber, it’s what has kept her working with the family business for the past 34 years.

You’re working with the people who are closest to you in your life, she points out.

“I love it,” she says.