Initiating a family meeting

The Wilson family

The Wilson family

I am part of the 5th generation of The Observer Publishing Company, our family-owned business, which produces daily and weekly newspapers in western Pennsylvania.

Like most of my cousins, I grew up with a parent actively involved in the daily operations of the company and lived within a few miles of the company headquarters, so I was immersed in the family business on a daily basis. However, most of the information I learned about our business came from eavesdropping on the adults’ conversations or asking my dad questions – there was never a formalized method of transferring information to my generation.

The family business class made me look at our business through the lenses of theory, my MBA knowledge and other people’s experiences. I began to realize that my generation’s lack of involvement in our family business was going to create problems someday soon.

When Dini Pickering, 6th generation family owner of the Biltmore Estate, visited our class to discuss the development of her family’s business, I was struck by how well she was able to get the next generation – all teenagers at the time – interested and involved in their business through bi-annual family meetings.

The assignment for our final term paper was to analyze a problem or opportunity in our family’s business and make a recommendation on how to approach it.

I knew that the issue of transferring information to my generation through the use of an annual family meeting was worth thinking through. I called my uncle Tom, the CEO, to tell him my idea, get his thoughts and ask him to consider enacting my proposal. He agreed, and I set off to work.

A sailing excursion during the Wilson family meeting.

A sailing excursion during the Wilson family meeting.

I modeled my recommendation off of the Biltmore Estate’s family meetings, crafting my argument as to why they were necessary and creating the weekend’s schedule – a mixture of educational sessions and fun family bonding events. Tom was convinced, and he agreed to give me the time and resources necessary to bring my proposal to life. Together with my uncle, two aunts and a cousin, I planned a three-day family meeting in Annapolis, Md.. Out of 35 family members who could have possibly attended, 31 came to Annapolis – quite an impressive turnout!

Since we’re all spread out along the East Coast, we enjoyed catching up on each other’s lives during meals that weekend. On Saturday and Sunday morning, we had workshop sessions to educate the 5th generation about the inner workings of the family business.

Saturday morning kicked off with a welcome video featuring Dini Pickering sharing her insights on why family meetings are important. Other sessions included a recounting of the history of our family business by my grandfather and great uncle, an overview of the newspaper industry by one of our outside board members, a frank discussion of the company’s governance and strategy, and a forward-looking session about how my generation might get involved in the future. The highlight of the trip was the Saturday afternoon sailing excursion on the Chesapeake, which had special significance – my grandfather and great uncle grew up racing sailboats.

The Family Business class at UNC Kenan-Flagler made this family meeting an idea, then a reality. The meeting got rave reviews from everyone, and the meeting opened much-needed channels of communication  about the business within the entire family.

By Alison Wilson (MBA ’13)

The Family Enterprise Center prepares next generation family business students for leadership and ownership in family firms.