Good management – family-style

The delicate nuances that define a family enterprise model mean that managing the business well is never enough to achieve success in its own right. If you can manage the business of the family too, the path to a long and stable future across the generations becomes much more likely; a message that came through clearly at HSBC Private Bank’s Family Enterprise Forum in Singapore.

There's a received wisdom that business schools can teach the tenets of how to manage a business, but they can't teach the stewardship of a business.

For family businesses, the subtle make-up of relationships that transcend corporate and blood ties makes the process of business ownership – or stewardship – unique to each one. There are, however, some common truths that are revealed from the stories of those who have achieved a particularly good recipe for a sustainable legacy across several generations.

Rob Ioannou, HSBC's Co-Head of Global Private Banking in South East Asia, feels though that too often the focus is on business rather than family. "A lot of the families we work with focus on their business and making it successful, which they do well," he says.

"They don't necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about the business of the family."

That importance of focusing on the family is echoed by Professor Annie Koh, Vice President at the Office of Business Development and Academic Director, Business Families Institute at Singapore Management University, who believes that the root of the success is where families are put first in the business.

"When you put family first, harmony comes along with it. So regardless of complex challenges in the family dynamics and business circumstances, family can still have dinner together and meet over weekends."

Koh also asserts that businesses demonstrating a high degree of harmony show increased signs of entrepreneurialism and success in new markets or products. But how does the picture look at the coalface of family businesses themselves, and what are they getting right?

To be one of Asia's leading hotel and resort chains with four strong-minded family members at the helm would present a challenge at the best of times  - though it is clear that the dynamics among father, mother, son and daughter are mature, far-sighted and loving.

Father and owner of Banyan Tree, Ho Kwon Ping, takes a pragmatic approach to these dynamics, and is careful to distinguish between ‘owning' and ‘managing' the business. This, he says, is among the key factors that define success and longevity in a family business.

"One thing that has always been an on-going conversation is: are you invested in the ownership, stewardship and direction of this business – which is very different from being a full-time employee who professionally manages it. I think a lot of European family businesses actually do very well and last multiple generations because they divorce ownership and stewardship from professional management."

Neither son, nor daughter, had the conscious desire to join the Banyan Tree business when they were younger, but they both recognise the value inherent in ensuring the next generation is naturally exposed to the workings of the company and their place in it. "Whether they become stewards or they become managers in the business, they will have grown up within it so that it is truly part of the family," says Ren Hua, Executive Director and Country Head, China, Banyan Tree China Corporate Office.

Mother Claire Chiang, who is Senior Vice President of Banyan Tree Holdings Limited, understood the need for her children to step away however, but admits it was a struggle initially: "We ask why you would want to turn away? But it's because in entrepreneurial families, children are independent and tolerant because of the way we raise them. They want to step away to prove themselves – to show they can excel in their field and come back."

And come back they did. Ren Hua was willingly pulled back by a sense of duty for what his parents' lifetime work had been in their name, and Ho-Ren Yung has finally felt able to play a new key role in Banyan Tree after successfully forging a socially-motivated business of her own, MATTER.

"What's really important is that the older generation or the parents always relate to the child as the child, apart from their potential to join the business," says Ren Yung. "I always felt my parents supported me in that regard. It was like an open conversation… so you therefore feel now the conversation is changing to where I'm saying, I want to come back into the business. I've found a certain direction and I feel the freedom to apply that within this platform."

Michelle Lau, Managing Director and Head of Wealth Planning for Asia at HSBC Private Bank, applauds this approach: "Banyan Tree is setting an example of a young family enterprise that has not only successfully carved a niche for itself, but is also one where family values have permitted the business to flourish."

But what challenges face those in a different business environment, and what approach do they adopt? Philippe Bera is back in the family fold at Omtis Fine Wines after a high-profile career in banking. He openly admits to feeling the pressure of being in his father's shadow – something that kept him away for a long time.

"I spent about nine years in finance and I joined the family business, not through my father coaxing or forcing me, but actually because he adjusted the business in a way that made it interesting for me and my background to fit in."

Philippe also reveals how his father has been very adept at planning for transfer over a 15-year period. "He was extremely transparent. I was actually shocked because I think a lot of families have this concept of both losing control and shocking the children with overwhelming numbers. But my father's philosophy was that he just felt it was important to communicate and then discuss it."

In Professor Koh's eyes, emotion plays a significant part in getting the right balance for success. "Emotional dimension within the family business has positive influence towards the business. I think the reason why family businesses are so unique is that being part of a family means that strong emotional bonds exist. So emotional dimension can be garnered and leveraged to be a positive part of the business."

"I have seen families orchestrate this beautifully. They say: ‘we have roles as a family and rules as a business'." This, says, Koh, gives them the freedom to take the tough decisions with love, but without bringing emotion into the business itself. A tricky balance to strike, but one which reaps much reward in the long term.

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