Business Families Centre

Academic insights: Q&A with the BFC’s Vanessa Strike

Dr. Vanessa M. Strike holds the CIBC Professorship in Applied Business Family Studies and oversees the strategic, research, and academic direction of the Business Families Centre.  She is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Sauder’s Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources Division and will be joining the Faculty full-time in July 2015.  In this Q&A with Sauder, Vanessa discusses family firms’ concerns, her latest research, and where she thinks the field is headed.

What attracted you to family enterprise studies?

I think it’s largely because I come from a history of family business on both sides of my family. On my father’s side, entrepreneurship goes back several generations, and on my mother’s side, my grandfather started his own business when he came to Canada. I’ve seen all sides of it – the business side, and the family disputes and problems that can come along with it.

In your work with families, what do you see as their main concerns?

It depends on the generation, but often the key issues are succession and governance. One thing that’s often challenging is balancing the interests of different family members, and the emotions that go along with that. When there are multiple family members involved in a business, they might be at very different places in their lives, and have very different perspectives.

If you had one piece of advice for a family business, what would it be?

Don’t underestimate the important of governance in a family firm. Often with emotional issues, having a good governance structure can help with communications and the flow of information, and to settle the balance between family and business. Sometimes a board can help protect the family business from the family members themselves.

I remember someone from one firm I worked with telling me governance was the most important thing as they transitioned to a second generation as it would help them make decisions as a group. He said, “Right now, my dad just makes all the decisions, but one day my dad’s not going to be there, so if we don’t learn to make decisions as a group, we won’t be there anymore.”

What are your current research interests?

My focus is on qualitative instead of quantitative research. I prefer to do smaller case studies at firms, where I can see the family business in a context that allows for insights you might not see otherwise.

In one paper, I look at the most trusted advisor, and how they help the family business owner make sense [of] the business side and the emotional side – emotional issues you don’t see as much in widely held firms. It’s very much a hidden role – they’re not consultants or professional advisors – so I’m interested in learning what they do. Without even being a family member they can be an integral part of the family, and some trusted advisors stay with the family for 50 years.

In another paper, I took on the notion that as CEOs approach retirement, they tend to make shorter-term decisions as the immediate successes could impact their bonus package or their prospects of getting seats on boards – I didn’t think that would be the same for family firms. The CEO of a family firm is concerned about what they’re passing on to the next generation, so they don’t just look at their own career track. We found that, sure enough, CEOs in family firms had a longer-term outlook as they sought the best outcomes for their children.

Where do you see the field developing next?

Compared to a lot of areas, family enterprise is a young field. It’s been studied for the past three decades, but the interest has been growing and it’s only in the past 10 years that it’s had much recognition as an area of study. A lot of the major topics have been looked it, with respect to succession and governance, so there will be more nuanced research on those topics. The way it intersects with other fields is developing, such as with research on women in business, as well as workplace psychology, which is very different in a family business. We’ll also be seeing more research into family wealth; when families sell their business, often a lot of wealth remains that could really impact the economy and perhaps drive entrepreneurial ventures. So far a lot of the research has been in North America, so the expansion into other areas will be very interesting – family business dynamics vary by culture, so a lot of patterns could be very different across the globe.