Twenty-five years ago, a group of founders from several local family-owned businesses approached the University of Toledo with a problem.
“Those founders came to us and said, ‘We can use some help. There’s no resources locally for family businesses.’ But what they didn’t realize is, they themselves were the resources they were looking for,” said Debbe Skutch, director of the UT Center for Family and Privately-Held Business.
“They had a lot of information, info that was held closely to the vest,” she said.
With a generous gift from the Stranahan Foundation, the center was created in 1992 and since that time it has grown to meet the needs of family-owned businesses in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.
It plans to celebrate its 25th anniversary Tuesday with an evening gathering at the Toledo Club downtown.
The center started with a core group of business founders who included, among others, Dick Anderson, of The Andersons; the late Dick Gross, of Gross Electric; the late Chuck Oswald, of The Appliance Center; the late Tom Hart, of Hart Associates, and the late Jim Findlay, of Impact Products.
Since then the center has grown to 180 members, has eight business sponsors supporting its activities, and is on a quest to reach 200 members next year.
Ms. Skutch, who was with the center when it began and became its director in 1992, said it works by bringing founders, family members, and executives who are not family members together in small groups or large forums to confront problems common only to family businesses.
The center holds large-scale events open to the public, conducts mini-forums for members-only, and operates affinity groups with six to 12 members each.
“What we do is put people together to learn from each other. They have obvious things that all businesses face, like tax problems and employment, but family business dynamics are unique,” Ms. Skutch said.
“What is supposed to take place in theory doesn’t always work the way it is in the book,” she said. “So we give the opportunity for them to meet with each other and learn from each other. …That is really what our mission is. We create the relationship so they can learn.”
Sharon Skilliter, owner of 2-SCALE, a firm in Holland that creates custom events and exhibits for trade shows, is chairman of the center’s advisory board. She said it’s a great resource not only for sharing ideas, but also as continuing education for those in family businesses.
“What happens in these group is they end up melding together because many of us have these same issues. So we can ask, ‘How did did the generation before us handle them and how is the current generation handling them?’” Ms. Skilliter said.
“The other thing we find is, it’s not just always issues that deal with the family that is in the business. It’s also about the family not in the business. You have those estate issues — how do you deal fairly with those who chose not to join the family business,” she said.
Ms. Skutch, who will retire at year’s end and be succeeded by assistant director Angie Jones, said the center’s best resource is its 19 affinity groups. Members pay $200 annually to join one and there is a waiting list.
Affinity group are “carefully crafted,” almost like arranging seating for a dinner party, Ms. Skutch said.
“When we put together a group, there cannot be two people from same company, there is no one who competes with another member, and we avoid potential conflicts like being neighbors,” she said.
Companies seeking the center’s help are warned that the assistance they get won’t necessarily help finances.
“There are a whole lot of attempts that failed. And we’ve found there is value in failure,” Ms. Skutch said.
What the center can offer, she said, is perspective, relatable experiences, and potential solutions.
“We like to say ‘You don’t join a group or you don’t sponsor the center because you think at the end of the year your bottom line is going to be better,” she said. “We say, ‘Whatever you business is, you’ll be better at it.’”
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