What Dr. Kirby Rosplock Has to Say About Family Business, Women and Wealth

I met Dr. Kirby Rosplock at the Transitions West Conference in San Francisco a couple of years ago, when she joined me and another colleague in a very interesting conversation about family companies. She was humble, open, easy going and the way she talked about family business, and especially about women in family business, showed her passion and commitment to making a difference for them.

This is no surprise when you learn that Dr. Rosplock is also a 4th generation member and owner of a 130+ year old family business (www.BabcockLumber.com), a board member at the company and a co-trustee on her family’s foundation.

Her experiences in her own traditionally male-oriented family company filled her with an immense curiosity about how other people, especially women, experience their involvement in the family business world. This led Dr. Rosplock to write her dissertation paper: “Women’s Interest, Attitudes and Involvement with their Wealth” and she subsequently dedicated part of her successful career as a writer, researcher and lecturer to women’s empowerment around wealth.

In the following interview, Dr. Rosplock shares with us what is behind her passion for helping women, what interesting findings she has discovered in her research and details of her new project, which involves writing a handbook on the family office for Wiley & Sons.

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What did I learn about Next Generation at last week’s FFI conference?

From left ro right: Iñigo Susaeta, Borja Raventós, Neus Feliu, Alberto Gimeno and Carmen Lence

The Family Firm Institute is the world’s leading organization for family firm consultants and this year they celebrated their 25th anniversary by offering a conference that was focused on next generation issues. I really enjoyed the conference and felt that I was among friends. The FFI is a collective of people that work to help family businesses succeed over generations, and they are really passionate about it. I suspect that the main reason for such enthusiasm is related to the fact that many of them come from a family business themselves.

I started my journey through the conference by choosing a presentation that reflected on what have we learned about Family Business over the last 25 years. It was called “Persistent 5@25: Key Topics over 25 Tears Through Practitioner and Scholarly Eyes” and was delivered by Jane Hilburt-Davis and Pramodita Sharma. To me, the most interesting part of the presentation concerned the research that indicated that, 20 years from now, there is going to be more female family business leaders than male. That would mean a big jump: at the moment only 24% of Family Business have a female CEO. It was also comforting to learn that there is no concrete evidence in existence that proves that men are better business leaders than women.

The second presentation: “Surviving and Thriving in Narcissistic Family Businesses”, by Michael Madera and Steve Rosenbaum, included a short film that demonstrated the effects that a narcissistic personality can have over future generations. It was actually painful to watch how, despite all the suffering that the controlling personality of the founder had inflicted over his sons, his controlling behavior was something that the children sadly inherited. The 3rd generation approach to deal with their narcissistic parents was to limit their interactions with them in order to protect themselves from their damaging personalities. The advice from the presenters for people dealing with narcissistic personalities in the family business was to “Take responsibility and care of yourself; Establish clear boundaries; Understand the past, or be doomed to repeat it“ and finally, if the misery generated is intolerable, the best thing you can do is to get out of there!

During lunch, Steve Grossman, former President of Grossman Marketing Group, shared with us the secrets for keeping his family business in the family for four generations, and the secret to having a great successful life: “to have a happy life, you have to have a family, a career and give back to the community.” Great advice!

The next presenter I chose to see was Edouard Thijssen, a 5th generation member of the Belgian group Aliaxis. There are about 100 people in Edouard’s family but none of them work on a day to day basis in the family business.  Edouard felt the need to create something that would keep his big family close and in contact and, as no family member worked in the business, he was conscious of the need to keep the “family feeling” element of the family business. So he joined forces with Edouard Janssen, 6th Generation of Solvay, also from Belgium, and together they created TrustedFamily, an online secure platform where families can share information about their family members and their business issues. The company is now working with more than 50 families all over the world. The smallest families they serve have 10 members and their platform is customizable to their particular client’s needs.  Edouard is an inspiration for those Next Generation family business members that take the initiative and decide to create their own business. Well done!

“What’s so Different About Leadership in The Family Enterprise?” by Ivan Lansberg and Wendy R. Ulaszek, was my next choice. Mr. Lansberg explained how the old advice of “ treating your family as a family, and your business as a business…” had proven to be negative for FamilyBiz, as it denied them the use of their competitive advantage of having a family behind the business. In his experience, the most effective leaders for family businesses are the ones that “are able to build ambidextrous capacity, to balance polarizing needs of the family and the business.” One of the examples he cited concerned promoting “nepotism with excellence” which means to, “Invest in the development and mentoring of the next generation of leaders.” I couldn’t agree more.

The panel “Next Gen’s Status in Family Business: It’s Complicated” shared the experiences of John Morris, second generation member of Franklin Morris Associates, Alana Feld, second generation of Feld Entertainment, and Brett Levy, second generation of Riverside Properties, in working for their Family Business. Brett explained how the sudden health problems of his father threw him quite suddenly and unexpectedly into dealing with bigger responsibilities and how that experience made him, and the company, stronger. Alana described how she believes that working in the family business is a “lifestyle” and advised parents to offer their children the right position (avoiding putting then straight into big positions they may not be ready for) to prevent setting them up for failure.  John explained that when he decided to join the Family Business, his father gave him a letter that said “Dear father, I’m leaving the company, no questions asked, no answers needed”, he hopes that he’ll never have to sign it and give it back to his father. It was inspiring to see the passion each of these people had for their business and their willingness to work hard really shone through. With people like this, family business really does have a great future ahead!

The closing keynote by Andrew Lippman from MIT, was not only inspiring but entertaining. Mr. Lippman proved to be quite a showman and threw a few jokes into his presentation that helped all of us to keep focus after such a long day. I enjoyed his explanation about “the rate of change in society is a function of the age at which youth are introduced to the dominant technology of the time”, it made me think about my 3-year-old daughter playing with the iPad… and yes, it seems correct that nowadays the rate of change is at 3 years max…

I learned many things during the FFI conference, but my main take-out is that there is a next generation revolution taking place. Next generation members are, more than ever before, taking the initiative to prepare themselves to become the future leaders not only of their Family Business but of their own companies. Next Generation is not only the future, it is the present!