Fond du Lac Bumper Exchange owner David Gneiser learned quickly that running a family business is not at all like working on a nuclear submarine: The business is a lot easier to sink.
“I really, really wish I could’ve had a forum as a resource when I was taking over for my dad in 1994,” Gneiser says. “A lot of the problems and headaches that occurred in the year after I took over could’ve been mitigated.”
Family business executives like Gneiser say that the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh’s Family Business Forum, which launched in 1996, provides an invaluable support system, serving as a connection point for those dealing with issues unique to family-owned businesses, such as transitioning ownership from one generation to the next and succession planning.
The forum is something of a hidden gem in the region, says Cathy Huybers, who took over as executive director when Sue Schierstedt retired in October. She’s been discovering how many family-owned businesses are out there and how few of them know about the forum.
“I just thought it was a great secret,” Huybers says. “So part of what I do is just to get out in the community and get the word out there.”
Huybers hopes to continue introducing more family members to the forum and increase membership, which is currently 35 businesses and 10 sponsors. The forum is for businesses of any size – it includes large companies such as Badger Mining Corp. and J.J. Keller & Associates and smaller ones such as Fond du Lac Bumper Exchange.
Huybers says during conversations with family business members, two key features of the forum are often noted: The family business education program – which is a seven-month certificate program offering topics geared toward family businesses such as governance, strategic planning, and evolving leadership.
The other is the affinity groups or peer groups which center around a particular set of issues or common roles in business leadership.
“The affinity groups are really the glue that hold the forum together,” Huybers says. “There are a number of them, and they’re kind of generationally focused, if you will.”
The dozen or so separate groups are set up to provide a safe environment for discussing challenges and work-related issues. The Generation Now group, for instance, is for those who have already taken over operation of their family business. Alternately, the TBD group is for those whose roles are yet To Be Determined. There also is a peer group for non-family executives, who may sometimes feel as though they don’t or can’t have a voice in the direction of a family business.
“Members can talk about or share the experiences they’re currently going through – they can share their concerns, joys, sorrows and help each other,” Huybers says. “They provide a sounding board for people to talk confidentially with others from other family businesses.”
That confidentiality promise is very important to the business leaders in creating an open, comfortable environment
Carmen Fosick, vice president of Elmstar Electric Corporation in Kaukauna, says she appreciates the open, welcoming, comfortable environment at forum meetings, and the sense of trust because of the confidentiality among members.
“This is truly a professional group, even though you can be at ease when you attend the events and meetings,” Fosick says.
Lori Blackman, controller/human resources at New Tech Metals of New Franklin, and her husband David are a part of the Generation Now affinity group that meets monthly to discuss issues affecting the current leadership in the family business.
“We find it valuable not just for the networking that we do, but for the people and services recommended by other members,” Blackman says.
Phil Janes, operations manager at Janesco, Inc., which includes Oshkosh Marine Supply and Derby Molded Products – Neenah, is a second generation family business executive and a member of the TBD group with his brother-in-law, Mark Tushar. The group meets about eight times a year and talks over or has speakers on such topics as employment issues, acquisitions, wills and trusts, and “the things that we need to be doing on our own level, even if we’re not owners currently,” says Janes.
Janes and other business leaders say the partnership with UW-Oshkosh and the relationship with sponsors provides the group with access to resources, instructors and experts who can help them address current issues.
The forum includes multi-generational business leaders who might’ve been helpful to Gneiser had the forum been available when he took over. While he knew a lot about nuclear submarines, he didn’t know a lot about running a business in the civilian world. “I was never qualified except that I had the same last name.”
Gneiser’s business was saved in the eleventh hour by a combination of factors, including layoffs and a last-minute angel investor.
Even though the forum wasn’t created in time to help with Gneiser’s transition, it has helped in other
ways: It led to the creation of a board of advisors and the creation of a “Dave Demise File” that contains all of the information necessary to continue the business in the event
of, well, Dave’s demise.
“So many people don’t realize the forum is available as a resource, the sponsors that we have. I’ve learned so much from them,” Gneiser says.