Family businesses and the millennial generation

Family businesses and the millennial generation

In an article he wrote for the IOD Magazine, Darren McDowell, Partner at Harbinson Mulholland, shares his thoughts on the tensions that may exist between millennials born since 1980 and the generations before them.

Children of the Revolution:

“Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.”

In 1964 Bob Dylan released “the Times they are a changin’”.  Dylan provided a soundtrack to express the generational tensions between the baby boomers and their parents.    It’s more than 50 years since this date and the lyrics are just as applicable to current tensions between the millennials born since 1980 and the generations before them.  This tension is of particular note in the context of family businesses which play a critical role in our local economy.  This was highlighted to me again through Harbinson Mulholland’s involvement with the Ulster University Business School in compiling a list of the top 100 owner managed and family businesses in Northern Ireland.  It will come as no surprise that more than 70% of these companies are family owned. 

Generational tensions in today's family business

So how does such generational tension manifest in today’s family business? There are two ways to look at it. Firstly, there are the traditional issues that emerge when the current owners pass control to the next generation. Common themes here are: who do we put in charge and how do we make the transition painless in terms of our family and our business? The second perspective is more in tune with the title of this article – Children of the revolution.

The millennial generation coming through now will be largely unaware of the technological revolution they grew up in. The workplace of today has changed dramatically from when their parents were starting out. Computers in the workplace, paperless transactions, remote working and social media are now more standard than novel. With competitive advantage today often derived from technology the appetite of millennials to embrace the new can create tension if current owners are reluctant. The challenge here is not always about succession, it may be that a family business needs to attract tech savvy millennials into the business to ensure it can keep pace with the competition. This can also throw up challenges around culture – the millennial generation expect a less rigid corporate structure which allows them to feel that their work is valued.  So how can family businesses meet the needs of this generation? 

On the whole I think that family businesses are uniquely placed to meet this challenge.  They are often free of the rigid corporate structure that frustrates the millennials.  Valuing the customer, valuing the employee, and doing a job well are all strong themes in a family business.  Family businesses do not require mission statements to highlight this ethos as it is already evident in the actions of all of their people.  But dealing with the issues noted in this article do happen and are best resolved with advice and support that is respectful of the family environment.

NI Family Business Forum

Through our experience of working with family business we have come to recognise the value of family businesses coming together to share their experiences. So to help answer some of the questions posed in this article and give family businesses this chance to come together we have created the NI Family Business Forum. The forum will be a hub for family firms to connect with each other and share ideas and experiences. The first forum: “The Generation Game – does your family have a 100 year plan?” is taking place on Wednesday 18th of May in the Ramada Plaza, Shaw’s Bridge, Belfast. Learn more at www.nifamilybusinessforum.com.

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