“The purpose of the conference is to think what might happen three or four years down the road,” said Ritch Sorenson of the University of St. Thomas, who runs the Center for Family Enterprise. “If we had to paint the ideal policy climate to promote family business, what would it be?”

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Expert help for family businesses

  • Article by: TODD NELSON
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • September 14, 2008 - 10:30 PM

Like many family-business owners, Ron Ward is usually too busy to keep up with the latest academic research and public policy debate related to family businesses.

That's why he's looking forward to what is billed as the first national conference about family-business issues at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.

"Most of us running family businesses really don't have time to do research on those items," said Ward, who oversees RSW Management Inc. in Balsam Lake, Wis.

"When you're fortunate enough to bring together policymakers, small-business people and academics who can bring you case studies, you sure have the right combination to come up with good information and a good exchange."

The Family Capital, Family Business and Free Enterprise conference -- running Sept. 25-26 -- promises to do just that: Academic types will present research papers about ethnic entrepreneurship, policy experts will respond and family-business owners such as Ward will join in discussions at the school's downtown Minneapolis campus.

Ritch Sorenson, who holds the Opus Chair in Family Enterprise and serves as academic director of the school's Center for Family Enterprise, is organizing the conference with former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn. -- founder and chairman of the school's National Institute of Health Policy -- who will invite policy experts to participate.

Family businesses, ranging from mom-and-pop corner eateries to giants such as Minnesota's Cargill Inc., are perhaps the world's most common form of enterprise. Yet they often get overshadowed in financial headlines and business-school research by large, publicly held corporations.

That's despite the fact that family-owned or family-controlled companies account for 90 percent of incorporated businesses, according to data collected last year by Ernesto Poza, a professor at Case Western Reserve University. Poza found that such firms employ 80 percent of the U.S. workforce and produce nearly two-thirds of the country's gross domestic product.

Ward said he thought family-business owners such as himself would welcome some attention, and the chance to say what's on their minds.

"It would be kind of nice if they understood our needs," said Ward, a second-generation family-business owner whose company invests in and consults with other small companies. "Because in my mind, if our family business is successful, usually there's employment, there's taxes and usually it's good for the community in general. It's growth."

The school's family enterprise center recognized RSW Management as its Family Enterprise of the Year. Ward's son, Peter, got an MBA at St. Thomas, and family members attended a business management class with him.

Sorenson said he expected the conference to address such issues as health insurance coverage and the estate tax. It also will focus on ways to enhance family capital -- financial and other resources that may or may not be available for families that want to start or expand businesses -- and ways to promote family-business success.

"The purpose of the conference is to think what might happen three or four years down the road," Sorenson said. "If we had to paint the ideal policy climate to promote family business, what would it be?"

The conference also may help business owners make better decisions about how to manage their businesses to be more successful, he said.

The idea for the family-business conference stemmed in part from similar gatherings that Durenberger has held the past several years to address health care issues, Sorenson said.

Durenberger said he saw the conference first as a way "to identify the specialness of the family enterprise," and then to discuss family businesses in the context of policies that affect them, including taxes, regulations and financing.

"We have no particular outcome in mind," Durenberger said. "All of the family-business people that I have known have strong opinions about 'the government should do this,' or 'the government shouldn't do that.' This is an effort to scrutinize that and see where people in academics might devote some effort to the role of government in this particular form of enterprise."

Material from the conference, Sorenson said, will be documented in a special issue of Family Business Review, a scholarly journal, that Sorenson said he will edit with Leonard Bierman, a professor at Texas A&M University.

Another outcome of the conference could be a new nonprofit organization that could represent family businesses, Sorenson said.

"One problem is there often is no voice for family business," he said. "This could be an advocate in terms of educating people and educating policymakers about family business."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer based in Woodbury. His e-mail address is

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