All in the Family

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A new class on family-business management at St. Thomas has an unusual requirement— relatives must attend

by Alison Damast

Maggie Cotton has pitched in at her father's printing business since she was 13 years old, learning almost every aspect of the business along the way. She's taken some time off now that she's a student at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business in Minneapolis, but Maggie, a senior, and her father are already thinking about her future with the business.

The two recently signed up for an undergraduate course in Family Business Management at Opus and are spending the spring semester side by side in class, discussing the sensitive and sometimes thorny issues that can arise in family businesses.

"I think the biggest thing is if she comes back to the business, what will her role be," said Tom Cotton, Maggie's father and co-founder of Spectrum Printing in Little Falls, Minn. "The class helped us address some issues and realizations, where they were presumed before."

Part of Family Biz Push

This is the first time Opus has offered a family-business class that is geared towards both the younger and older generation. The class has an unusual requirement: Only students with prior involvement in a family business can sign up, and they are required to bring a parent or relative along to all class sessions. The class has 14 students: seven undergraduates and seven parents, who attend all the sessions.

The multigenerational course is part of a growing push by the university's Center for Family Enterprise to integrate family-business models and cases into the school's undergraduate and graduate curriculum.

Bill Monson, director of the Center for Family Enterprise, said he wants to ensure that students leave the school with an in-depth understanding of family-business models. He said Opus's approach to this area of study is more radical than that of other universities. "What we are fundamentally trying to do is frame family enterprise in the mainstream of business education, rather than where it had been," he said.

Special Relevance in the Midwest

Family-owned businesses make up 50% of the U.S. gross domestic product and generate 60% of the country's employment, according to statistics from the University of Pittsburgh's Family Enterprise Center (see BusinessWeek.com, 03/19/07, "Family-Owned Business").

The family-business management class at Opus has special relevance in the upper Midwest, where a large number of business ventures originated as family businesses and have remained so, said Christopher Puto, dean of the Opus College of Business. "There are a lot of nuances that come from a family business that differ from a traditional multi-owner one," Puto said. "All of these issues are more challenging for families than they are for traditional corporate structures."

For instance, Maggie Cotton and her father discovered that they had different ideas about how Maggie would be integrated into the family business if she chooses to return. She assumed she would rejoin the company as a top manager after college, but her father had different ideas. She will have to earn her way back into the business and gain the respect and confidence of longtime employees, he said. "It is not a given in my mind," Tom Cotton said.

Mapping the History of the Family

Students enrolled in the class represent a wide spectrum of family-owned businesses, ranging from financial planners to construction companies. No matter what type of business it is, students and parents struggle to deal with delicate issues such as succession plans or how to incorporate spouses and in-laws into a family business, Monson said. Family members will sometimes clash over competing visions for a company, causing tensions to arise. Students examine case studies of these scenarios in class while divided into groups of students and parents.

Monson has students fill out a genogram, a document that takes an extensive look at the history of the family business and which family members have been involved since it was founded. This helps students and parents gain perspective about how the business has been handled in the past, he said. He also requires them to take a Myers-Briggs personality test, a step that helps them understand how different family members approach fundamental business decisions.

The class has been helpful to Amy Nosbush, 21, a junior at Opus who works as a saleswoman for her father's company, Artistic Fences, located in Eagan, Minn. She and her father, Mark Nosbush, signed up for the class because they wanted to see how others addressed common conflicts and issues that arise in family businesses (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/13/06, "Taking the Pulse of Family Business").

They often bring up issues raised in class during the car ride back home, she said. "We continue talking about things outside of the class, and I find it's easier to bring up things that are more personal about the company," she said.

"I think a lot of the things that we run into are pretty standard, like miscommunication and business issues," she added. "Working with your family is maybe more challenging than working with someone outside the family, and people take things more personally."

Originally published: 04/11/2007, Business Week