Private Equity Challenges in Family Businesses

Most family owned businesses survive through the ingenuity, hard work, and resourcefulness of the founder(s) in the first generation. As the founders grow older and the business hits certain barriers to growth, often there is a need for a capital infusion to satisfy the goals of the founders and the other stakeholders in the continued growth and success of the business. Private equity, while a viable option for many privately owned businesses, can be perceived as a solution that is unworkable for the typical family owned business because of the fear of loss of control. In an article last year in the Journal of Family Business Strategy (Volume 3, Issue 1, Pages 38-51, March, 2012), authors Florian Tappeiner, Carole Howorth, Ann-Kristin Achleitner, and Stephanie Schraml describe some research they performed on a group of family firms in Germany. The research focused on issues these firms faced in soliciting private equity investment. Excerpts are provided below, along with a diagram, and accompanied by some commentary:

Under the pecking order hypothesis, private equity is a finance of last resort. Tests of the pecking order and its assumptions have provided conflicting results. For family firms, the pecking order hypothesis is incomplete because it ignores family effects. Case studies of 21 large family firms in Germany are analysed. Testable propositions are derived. Family firm owners balanced financial and non-financial resources of private equity with the need to cede control rights. Non-financial resources were valued more highly when resolving family issues. The observed pecking order was driven by control rights. Important implications for family firms and investors are discussed.

The authors articulate that private equity is perceived as a final option for owners of family businesses. No surprise there. Control is seen as the most important factor in determining what outside resources to enlist. Private equity is seen as less widely used than non-financial resources when the goal is to resolve family issues.

Family and business influences are equally important in terms of the demand for private equity in large family owned firms. Private equity was sought out for reasons that included the exit of a sibling, parents’ wealth diversification and business growth. The authors note an “interdependence of demand and supply in financing decisions, most noticeably in the negotiation of control rights, which featured strongly in the interviews. (Sometimes the underpinning reason for seeking an investor was to consolidate control, for example, buying out a family member with conflicting views or concentrating ownership in one branch of the family, which, it was argued, would free up decision making within the family firms.)”PE Finance in Family Firms

Minority private equity investments provided study participants with needed finance while allowing the family owners to maintain family control. Private equity also provides managerial resources. The presence of outside money and potential ensuing leverage in executive decision making illustrates the potential for better corporate governance practices and enhanced expertise to pursue business opportunities, such as IPOs or globalization. Said the authors, “Firms with family issues may value the non-financial resources that private equity investors may provide. In particular, family firms wishing to reduce family conflicts may value the neutral or professional role of a private equity investor.”

It was noted that business performance issues led to loss of control in two of the family firms receiving private equity infusions. Still others negotiated control rights guidelines aggressively because of their concerns over the potential of such an occurrence. The investors, for their part, acknowledged that dealing with family firms presented a unique set of challenges usually not experienced in other deals.

Put Sharks & Jets to Work in Strategic Design Thinking

When we think of design, we think of products. Industrial design as a field is scarcely 10o years old. However, technology tools such as CAD (Computer Aided Design), 3-D modeling, and stereolithography catapulted design into a rapid prototyping process towards the end of the 20th century. Companies like Apple rode the crest of this wave–to an extent–but really took design to a new frontier. Rather than simply looking at features and benefits as expressions of design and product marketing, what emerged was a new way to view business problems. Many business schools have incorporated not only courses on innovation, but specific foci on “design thinking.”

Kevin Budelmann penned an article for Metropolis magazine last month discussing design thinking as a modern motif. Budelmann credits Bill Moggridge, cofounder of the pioneering design firm IDEO with contributing significantly to thought leadership in this domain. Moggridge is said to have been the genius who reengineered IDEO from a product design practice to strategic design thinking powerhouse. Budelmann notes that part of the transformation occurred as a result of asking staff from divergent disciplines to work together, requiring that they become humble in the process. 

Budelmann’s firm, Peopledesign, has amassed a team of talented contributors who may not have worked for design firms years ago. A clear distinction is made, however, in hiring MBAs who understand design and designers who understand business.  The inevitable difference of opinions pits “sharks” (MBAs) against “jets” (designers) in true West Side Story musical terminology. Here’s Budelmann’s take on the natural interaction between the two employee types in his design firm:

It’s not even clear anymore which neighborhoods are Sharks’ turf and which belong to the Jets. Maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. The gym is neutral territory, and we might be able to work something out at the dance. Clearly, we Jets could learn a few new moves from the Sharks. The Sharks need to cool their jets anyway, so to speak.

When it’s show time, it isn’t us against them. In truth, we’ve made great strides. We’re learning every day. A colleague once mentioned that when people talk about collaboration, they usually mean cooperation. True collaboration is hard. Real communication is hard. It’s not about holding ground; it’s about ceding turf.

Two decades ago I was in school at Carnegie Mellon, where everyone is a geek in their respective discipline.The least geeky and (excuse the perception) least interesting people got a business degree. General management, which we assumed was to generally manage something general. It left us scratching our heads.

Now that I own my own business, I value management greatly. Business is an engine, and we don’t go very far without it. Besides, what do designers really do anyway? How do they do it? Is it describable to a non-designer, or do you have to be part of the gang?

Today we operate in a post Sharks vs. Jets world. Our team looks different. Our projects look different. Our sketches, books, and processes look different. As for the star-crossed lovers, our children have certainly taken the best of both of us. It’s the same for our ensemble at work. This is clear: Our hybrid future is stronger than our disconnected past.

Designers focus on asking questions, but often don’t like to answer them. Business people focus on answers, but often don’t ask the right questions. The combination can be powerful. The future of business and design lies in our ability to overcome our small worlds to make room for a bigger one.

The phenomenal power of strategic design thinking is unveiled in that final paradox–designers must become better at answering questions and business folks must become better at asking the right questions. Seek to apply this principle to your own business. Challenge your concrete thinkers to think more divergently; your creatives to think more convergently. In doing so, you will experience some transformation and create a new language of productivity.


Recognizing a Declining Business

In the past week, we have taken the time to look at characteristics of successful companies. In case you missed one of the posts, feel free to catch up by reading them in order (links below):

  1. How Successful Businesses Plan For Growth
  2. How Successful Companies Market
  3. How Successful Businesses Manage Their Finances
  4. How Successful Businesses Manage Their Operations
  5. How Successful Businesses Create Positive Cash Flow
  6. Revenue, Cost & Capital In Your Business
  7. How Successful Businesses Maintain Organizational Morale

This week, we are “flipping the equation” on you and examining what a business in decline looks like. As you track with the principles shared and lessons learned, you may find yourself to closely resemble a declining business in one way or another. Don’t despair! Knowing what needs to be fixed is important. You are that much closer to success than someone who doesn’t even realize that crisis is around the next corner because of ignorance.

No one is consistently successful. When things start to go wrong, however, the shrewd executive must recognize those events that are catastrophic and those that are not. Early warning signals of imminent business decline can occur both inside and outside a business. Changes in the operating environment due to external and internal elements may signal the beginning of decline. Once an executive team determines that the business is showing some symptoms of decline, the next step is to determine whether the decline is shaping up to be a twenty-four-hour bug or a terminal disease. Can it be treated? Can it be cured?

The Stages of Decline

Stages of decline include early, mid-term, and late periods, and recognition of these stages has an impact on the steps to reverse the decline. In early decline, it is very probable that the business can be totally saved and profitability restored quickly–often within a matter of months. In mid-term decline, the business has been suffering some erosion of value, and it may take a year or more to restore the value and resume profitable operations. Finally, there is a late decline. Sadly, fewer that one-third of companies in this type of serious trouble are able to reverse their decline and emerge on the other side “whole”–with existing management, ownership, and operations intact.

Before examining the warning signals of decline, we should look at the root causes leading to those signals. The earlier these causes of decline are observed, the easier it is to resolve them. The most common causes of decline–from both internal and external elements–are as follows:

The Causes of Decline

  • management by exception rather than by flexible planning
  • delegation without inspection or control–no feedback, review, or reinforcement
  • vertical organization chart with little if any interaction between departments (silos)
  • managers with responsibility for more than five direct reports
  • employees with more than one boss
  • chain of command broken when employees think necessary
  • breakdown in formal communications
  • overreliance on strategic plan
  • overreliance on management by objectives
  • senior managers’ abuse of outside activities and company benefits
  • marketing the wrong products
  • marketing in the wrong locations
  • aging workflow management techniques
  • inadequate research
  • inadequate staffing
  • inappropriate sales methods
  • unresponsive financial information systems
  • loss of competitive advantage
  • displacement by competition
  • changing technology
  • buyer preference changes
  • regulatory changes
  • economic changes
  • inadequate understanding of buyer needs
  • inadequate information flows, both between business functions and between company and customer
  • one department or business function dictating the mission, goals, and objectives of the company

All of the above causes for business decline are valid, and any one of them can precipitate the downfall of even an experienced team. Recognizing the warning signals of decline is the next step in righting the ship…