A 2014 study showed that women — mostly daughters — are increasingly being selected to take over their family-owned businesses.
Among conclusions in the study, “Women in Leadership: The Family Business Advantage,” by EY (formerly Ernst & Young) and Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, one of the most compelling was that “70 percent of family businesses are considering a woman for their next CEO, and 30 percent are strongly considering a woman for the top spot.”
Succession of family businesses can be a tricky issue because of conflicting egos, ambitions and expectations of next-generation family members, often having nothing to do with gender.
But the idea that the owner’s daughter might be chosen ahead of her brothers, brothers-in-law, uncles or male cousins has the potential to intensify the conflict. And many small-business owners, otherwise known for their independent mindsets, too often simply side-stepped that set of potholes in the past.
So what’s changing? And why?
“I think women are simply getting more opportunities to prove themselves,” said EY partner Carrie Hall, the firm’s Americas Family Business Leader. “And once the opportunity presents itself, gender becomes less relevant in the decision process.”
Small family-business owners have been encouraged to think about succession planning and put a plan into place well before it’s time to retire.
That, Hall said, gives daughters more time to join the company, learn the business and prove themselves.
“The average tenure of a public company CEO is six years,” she said. “The average tenure of a family business CEO is 20 years. So there’s more time to observe the daughter in action – and more time for those subconscious biases to be whittled away.”
Keeping it in the family
One pioneer was Camilla Schroeder, who joined one of her father’s Louisville businesses, Advance Ready Mix, in 1993, shortly after Bill Abel Sr. was diagnosed with a brain tumor. (She eventually became president when he died in 1997.)
Schroeder was 29, recently graduated from the University of Louisville with a marketing degree, and working for General Electric.
Her father had two businesses he’d started with his brother — Abel Construction and Advance Ready Mix –— “but Advance did not have a family member in day-to-day operations,” Schroeder said. “I looked at it as an opportunity to maintain family continuity when it became evident my father wouldn’t be around.”
And how did her father see it?
“It took me a few months to convince him to let me even just come to work for him,” she said. “The atmosphere of the industry was not what he wanted his daughter exposed to.”
Old attitudes die hard.
“The dream of almost every small family-business owner is that his son will someday replace him, keeping the business in the family and growing it,” said Kathleen Hoye, director and executive-in-residence of the University of Louisville Family Business Center. “I still think businessmen are married to that primogeniture ethos — the right of succession of the eldest son — and are often blind to the fact that the eldest son isn’t always willing or capable or interested.”
Having control of destiny
Earlier this year, Mariah Gratz– one of Bill Weyland’s five children, and one of three Weyland children in his business – was named the new CEO of Weyland Ventures, the former CITY Properties Group that her father started 23 years ago.
Like Schroeder, her educational background was far removed from the family business.
“I studied biomedical engineering at Washington University of St. Louis, with a master’s from Imperial College London,” she said. “I was working in Boston for Abiomed, which developed cardiovascular medical devices.”
In 2009, Gratz returned to Louisville and took over the real estate development side of her father’s business, “because my background was in product development.”
Two younger Weyland brothers — Kent and Lee — were already in the business. “Lee was working on the property management side and leasing,” Gratz said, “Kent was on the sales and realty side, doing financial reporting work for my father.”
As the company grew and evolved, “we kept trying to figure out how our certain skills could best drive growth,” she said, “so people’s interests would match what they were doing on a day-to-day business.”
She feels the decision came down not to daughters and sons but to various individual qualifications.
“I’ve run teams for corporate America and I just finished my MBA program from the University of North Carolina,” she said. “At the company, I’d taken on more and more responsibility of the day-to-day operations, where that hasn’t been the path my brothers have taken.”
In the Wings
Natalee Carby didn’t have the sibling complications when she began the transition to take over American Scale from her father, Danny Coyle, who had founded the industrial distributorship in 1986.
She’s the oldest of three. But her sister, Taylor, has followed her muse to New York as a fashion designer. And her brother, Carlos, is still in high school.
Not that the path was necessarily clear cut for Carby, either.
“I went to the University of Louisville as a history major with a Latin minor,” she said. “I planned to be a history teacher.”
In 2011, Carby came to work full-time as a receptionist, though not intending that to be a ladder to the executive level. But, she said, she got bored and asked for “something else.”
She began working with the service manager, a 25-year company veteran named Mark Thompson.
The world of industrial scales is still a male-dominated world. When she’s out in the field with Thompson, she said, most customers don’t talk to her. They talk only to Thompson.
Thompson, himself, has been nothing but supportive, she said.
“He was the first to mention to me, ‘You can run this place!’ ” she said. “He’s the one who always brings the subject up. I feel if Mark didn’t think I could do the job, he would have influenced my father.”
Advice from daughters about succeeding in the family business
Natalee Carby, American Scale:“I’m a fairly humble person so it made sense for me to start at the bottom, never to play the my-dad-owns-the-business card,” she said. “I hold myself to a standard, and I think that has gained the respect of the rest of the company.”
Camilla Schroeder, Advance Ready Mix:“I’ve mentored a few females who were part of a family business,” she said, “and my advice is always to learn as much as you can, be as professional as you can and avoid compromising situations — which is something men don’t have to think about. Don’t expect favors because you’re a family member. Some people say you’ll have to work harder because you’re in the family, and I think there’s a lot to that. Go do the worst of the worst, get your hands dirty, learn the nuts and bolts of the business, prove that you’re there because you want to help the family business succeed. If you can prove work ethic and dedication, there’s a lot to be said for that.”