Robin Burns took over as head of the Grand Rapids-based Family Business Alliance in November after nearly 12 years as marketing director at the Rhoades McKee law firm in Grand Rapids. The FBA was created in 2006 as a partnership with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and Grand Valley State University and later reorganized as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit. With more than 150 member companies, the FBA’s mission is to ensure family-owned businesses in the region are passed down to future generations. Burns spoke with MiBiz about what’s next for the organization.
What are your priorities since taking over as director of the Family Business Alliance?
We really have three priorities. One is to seek greater impact for our current members, and we recently completed a survey understanding the needs of the membership, its demographics and how we can create greater value for members with the services we provide. We know family business is such an integral part of the West Michigan business community and culture. We certainly have a priority to reach more members and to serve more members.
Can you discuss FBA’s research goals that brought it in alignment with GVSU?
We work in partnership to some degree with GVSU through the Family Owned Business Institute, and (they) have a board member director that sits on our board as well. We’re putting on a joint event in April about avoiding the entitlement mentality. We try to maximize the education and resources we’re putting out to family businesses in the community.
What do you mean by avoiding the entitlement mentality?
The Family Business Alliance really strives to create educational content and programming to serve its members. In our survey, we found 57 percent of our current family business members are in a stage where they’re working with multiple generations in business together. Sixteen percent are introducing the next generation into the business. Our leadership series in 2021 is three-part: developing an owner’s mindset and how that can shape the value of the organization; how do you avoid entitlement as owners; and (finding) the leader in all of us. That’s speaking to regardless of where you’re at in the business, there’s a leader in all of us and we want to harness those skills for the organization and the community.
How much is succession planning a part of the FBA’s work?
That’s the ultimate goal of the FBA: to provide people, resources, content and connections that can help a family business prosper and develop to the next generation. In a recent study by Deloitte, only 41 percent felt they were actually competent in their plans for succession. Studies have shown 30 percent of businesses really only get to the second generation, and survival into the third generation is 12 percent. Helping these families navigate the family and the business issues to maximize a succession plan is where we strive to make an impact and how we measure it.
What trends are emerging among West Michigan family owned businesses, particularly over the past year?
That’s one of our greatest challenges: figuring out how the pandemic shapes the family businesses in the community going forward. We know from other studies that family businesses typically will not lay off their employees. They’ll take less compensation, elect to not take bonuses themselves and trim other areas to maintain their staff. We know that family businesses are really seeking to strive to be more innovative and harness technology and take more risks for growth and diversification. We know so many positives about family businesses, but how that will play out post-pandemic we’re still trying to evaluate.
What lessons are being learned about your membership during the pandemic?
We’ve been fortunate that our membership has remained strong throughout the pandemic. Our organization is more than 50 percent manufacturing based, followed by business and professional services. Many of our family organizations are taking advantage of funding and grants available from the government. At this point, we’re thankful our membership is still engaged.
What are your members’ biggest challenges ahead?
Their strategies for growth and diversification, strategic planning, attracting and retaining talent, mergers and acquisitions, and multi-generational workforces and working together with families. I think family businesses are really trying to position themselves for growth and diversification, and that will certainly continue to impact our West Michigan community.
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