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As published in The Cascade Business News Online Feb 23, 2022

Sometimes taken for granted, family-owned businesses are a big player in the U.S. economy. An article in states that according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, about 90 percent of American businesses are family-owned or controlled, and other sources put it at 80-90 percent. Some are big names that you would recognize, such as Kraft, Goldman Sachs or Nordstrom, but most are much smaller and seem to fly under the radar. Yet collectively, they are significant and are characterized by qualities that set them apart. Each family, and their business, is unique: Their stories are life stories that weave a broad and colorful tapestry. Yet, they share a common thread. They all face challenges that only families who work together and share financial stakes encounter.

What’s Unique About Family Business

Most generational family businesses were founded by a strong, visionary leader with focus and a whole lot of drive. These are the primary assets that make up the unique personality traits of a successful business founder. To these folks, their business is their life’s work and is directly tied to their identity. They are what they have built. Often, the drive that led to their success was born out of desperation.

But what fuels a first-generation leader’s success doesn’t lend itself to continuity. The successful transition to ‘gen. two’ and beyond depends largely upon the careful transition of leadership. Long-term planning, development and grooming to prepare next gen leaders for their role is critical. Statistics show that roughly two-thirds of family businesses don’t survive past the second generation. Most are sold, divided and renamed, or simply go out of business during the second generation’s tenure. A single key factor tends to contribute to those odds, but more on that later…

Another unique quality of family business is that it is typically part of the family. It is often referred to as “one of the kids,” “the favorite child” or “the third sibling in a family of four.” Family businesses are typically built from home, in the basement or the garage, where its daily operational dramas play out within the family home and life. In other words, kids don’t step into the family business at maturity, they have grown up with it.

My Family Business Story

My own experience was of this nature. Having been born into a family wherein my parents started a home building business from scratch, kitchen-table conversations were always centered on the business. I grew up knowing far more about the concerns and struggles of my family’s business than an 8-year-old should. In fact, some 50 years later, I can still tell you the names of our cabinet maker, framer and carpet supplier. No member of our nuclear family could escape it. And, although not technically owners, I think we all felt responsible for it. It was part of our family system; the business and its urgent problems took precedence over typical family priorities. Over time, the strain of a family business wore on our relationships, but at the same time, ironically, it was the glue that held us together and kept us connected.

Years later, my early career in international logistics came to an unexpected close when much of the management of our family business landed on my shoulders. After several years in that role, our family business story ended like most others. It was re-structured under new ownership, the original entity dissolved and with it another family business legacy ended.

But, like many children with an entrepreneurial upbringing, I too felt the need to start my own business. Together with my husband, while juggling children, life and his full-time job, we founded our own home building “side” business. It eventually surpassed the family business in size. We began 22 years ago in the Portland area. Then in 2007, we relocated to Central Oregon where (after the great recession) we continued building under the name, BendTrend Homes.

All these firsthand experiences, both good and bad, in varying family business roles, has led me to my current and most fulfilling work. I am an advisor to family business owners. What that means is that I help family business leaders navigate family-related business hurdles and difficult transitions.

Family Business Challenges are Universal

Interestingly, even though each family and their business are unique, the challenges they face follow predictable patterns. That’s because we are all human. In a family business scenario, our human qualities affect both the family and the business. At the heart of every family business challenge lies some degree of conflict or lack of alignment that manifests itself in a gamut of problems for which clients might call for help such as:

  • Married couples who have different management styles
  • Father-daughter partnerships where job titles and decision-making boundaries are blurry, even disregarded
  • Retirement-ready business couples who employ their adult children but have no defined exit strategy in place
  • Recent college graduates who are next gen leaders of a multi-generational holding company and must find a way to work together as a team for their lifetime
  • A successful family business founder whose business success is outpacing her own leadership skills and must develop greater capacity to manage her staff
  • An heir-apparent who routinely fails to show up for work but continues to draw a paycheck from the family business

The core to resolving each of these problems is communication. I work with leaders, their families and their stakeholders to build stronger communication skills. I resource the system with skills and training to grow self-awareness, analyze and improve communication style. The goal is to develop everyone’s leadership potential so that, moving forward, they are equipped to face the hurdles that lie ahead. When festering conflict or an ongoing lack of alignment prevails, it eventually leads to tensions that ultimately undermine the success of the business and the family.

Sometimes when clients call for help, they cannot pinpoint the problem. Rather, they might express that they “face challenges” or that they “feel stuck” or “overwhelmed.”

In these cases, I use coaching techniques intended to help broaden a client’s perspective. This often leads to greater clarity and a more objective point of view. We call that “the view from the balcony”, when you can step out of yourself to observe your own role in the situation. With that kind of clarity, new paths forward begin to emerge. New perspectives and a greater range of solutions come into sight. Where paradox and conflict were a barrier, empathy and understanding can begin to take its place.

In situations where conversations are difficult, my colleague and I facilitate family meetings, bringing people back together so that they can align for a common purpose or to keep the family unified.

Getting Help for Your Own Business Family

I get to meet a lot of people (mostly on Zoom) and learn of many different family business situations. The number one mistake I see is that they wait too long to ask for help. Family business coaching is most valuable when engaged pro-actively before there are acute problems.

If you are part of a family business, you can be sure that somewhere down the road there will be some level of conflict. Family businesses who choose a growth mindset and engage in leadership development for all stakeholders are the most likely to move through their differences without damage to the business or the family. As a family business leader, that should be your primary goal.

If you are experiencing a family business challenge or hurdle, I would like to help. I work both independently and in partnership with the Family Business Performance Center. To contact me for an initial consultation at no charge, please email me at, visit my website at or connect with me at