Family business: the heartbeat of our local economy

Family business: the heartbeat of our local economy

Recent article on Business First by HM Partner Darren McDowell

If the term ‘family business sector’ conjures up an image of small, perhaps even artisan enterprises lovingly creating small bespoke products for a local marketplace you would be right, but equally you would be wrong. Like the year before, this year’s Top 100 Owner Managed and Family Businesses in Northern Ireland (Top 100) shows family businesses make up over 70% of the list! That’s right, more than two thirds of the most profitable businesses in Northern Ireland have been founded, managed and/or owned by families. The snapshot the Top 100 offers would no doubt, if extrapolated out, reveal that across Northern Ireland family firms dominate our local private sector.

When love and business collide

The measurement of success for many family business extends beyond the profit margins, it’s an achievement of managing family relationships as much as business strategy. Bonds of love and wealth can become toxic if left unmanaged, but as the Top 100 testifies those who get it right can build world class global businesses. In fact nine of the top ten on the list are family businesses! As a firm working with many family businesses we identified an appetite and a need within the sector that extended beyond the technical advice and expertise we typically provide. Something that offered solutions to uniquely family business issues from authentic family business experts: family business themselves.

Joining forces – NI Family Business Forum

Harbinson Mulholland set up the NI Family Business Forum just over a year ago as a hub for family firms to connect with each other. The forum was born from a recognition that whilst all businesses share common pressures around cash flow, processes and staffing; family businesses have the added dynamic of living these pressures alongside their family members! Those that ‘make-it’ have a story to tell and wisdom to impart that can help the new crop of family businesses that are pushing to be the next W&R Barnett. This has proved to be the essence of the success of the forum to date; connecting established firms with those that are up and coming. Specific topics we have covered:

  • The Generation Game – this forum looked at succession planning. Vincent Carton who heads up Manor Farm, now in its 8th generation, spoke openly and honestly about the model they have developed for succession.
  • We the Family – the importance of good governance arrangements, such as that offered by establishing a family charter was explored. Michael Walsh CEO of Woodford Capital shared his story of helping the Roche and Doyle families establish a family charter and governance structure.
  • Keeping it in the family – here we looked at the vital role outside expertise, such as Non-Executive Directors (NEDs) can play in the expansion of a family business. Simon Hunter, CEO of Hunter Apparel Solutions enthused about the contribution NEDs have made to their continued and rapid expansion.

Alongside these ‘conventional’ family business topics a number of family businesses have simply told us their story. A Father/Son on stage interview between Norman and Andrew Lynas from Lynas Foodservice was a huge hit with the forum. Again, simply sharing their experiences and how they responded and learned from the challenges they faced as a business and a family was greatly appreciated.

Of the family for the family

The openness and honesty of the businesses who have participated is largely down to it being a closed door event. We only invite family businesses to attend with any other participants limited to our forum partners Ulster University and selected organisations invited to contribute their expertise on the day. Refreshingly for forum members the networking opportunities offered by the forum is focused on connecting with other family firms. Closed sessions tailored to the current and next generation within the business have also proved a cathartic outlet as much as an educational experience!

The post forum dinner is always a hit and in the words of one of the attendees it “Could have gone on longer; good sharing of information & friendship building”. The integrity of the forum is important to us so it has been great to hear comments such as “I would love to go to more networking sessions like this, with family businesses who could work together and support each other”.

Championing our family businesses

Harbinson Mulholland is passionate about this sector, we are constantly learning from both our clients and those who contribute to the forum. We also love to celebrate the sector! For Family Business Day 2016 the forum hosted a Big Family Business Breakfast event with all the ingredients provided by local family food producers. Recently, alongside Ulster University we supported the first Northern Ireland Family Business Awards hosted by Business First. Young family firms such as Heavenly Tasty Organics and Environmental Street Furniture were recognised alongside some of the ‘big brands’ of Mash Direct and Decora Blinds. The spirit and atmosphere of these awards epitomised the sector: vibrant, successful and ambitious.

As advisors we have gained much from our family business exploits and have recently launched our Family Business DNA initiative. Family firms come in for a free 2 hour session and with the benefit of our fresh eyes and ears (and our years of experience working with family firms!) we try to identify opportunities, explore solutions and ignite ideas.

Darren McDowell

Contact Darren McDowell
Partner, Harbinson Mulholland

028 9044 5100

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