UNH center offers advice and support to family-run businesses

Center for Family Business is now permanently housed in the new Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics


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Michelline Dufort, director of the Center for Family Business and CEO Forum at UNH

Courtesy photo

Michelline Dufort is no stranger when it comes to helping New Hampshire institutions and organizations to grow and transform. She did it as director of business relations with the NH High Tech Council and as president of the NH Lodging and Restaurant Association.

That’s why Dufort has high ambitions for her latest venture as director of the Center for Family Business and CEO Forum at the University of New Hampshire. Appointed last September, Dufort said she’s excited for the opportunity to lead an organization that has evolved dramatically since its founding in 1993.

“I knew of the strong reputation of both initiatives and felt that the position would be a fabulous opportunity to not only plug into a major driver of our state’s economy but that I could be beneficial to the organization by bringing my association management skills to the job,” Dufort explained. “By growing the center, we have the chance to reach, and assist, even more family-owned companies and to also highlight the incredible achievements of so many company leaders in our state.”

Family-founded and -run businesses are no small matter in New Hampshire and northern New England.

According to Center for Family Business estimates, as much as 90 percent of businesses in northern New England are family-controlled and employ two-thirds of the workforce. Additionally, they are responsible for creating a majority of new jobs in Maine, Vermont, northern Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

The Center for Family Business and CEO Forum offers a variety of programs and resources for the unique challenges and needs of family businesses.

“Our focus is on continuing to deliver rich and genuine content for family businesses, but to even take it to more complex areas,” she said. “For instance, co-owner couples, key employees who are not family members and much more. We will also go more global on taking up issues that all companies face such as cybersecurity, new tax reform and hiring challenges.”

‘No owner’s manual’

Among the center’s programs are its CEO Peer Circles, which offer confidential, frank (sometimes very frank) feedback and idea exchanges between leaders of non-competitive businesses. Members are voted into the group, which is self-policed and self-directed.

Kerri Mobile, CEO of MaineLine Graphics LLC in Antrim. (Photo by Jodie Andruskevich)

David Greer, president of CEO of Londonderry-based Wire Belt Company of America, knows the value of frank feedback. He took part in a commercial peer circle (before joining the Center for Family Business) and said his fellow members gave him the blunt feedback he needed to save both his and the fourth-generation-owned and -operated company, which designs and makes conveyer belts for the food processing industry.

“There’s no owner’s manual to run a business. I was frustrated for a long time because I kept hiring chief operating officers to help run the company, and they never worked out,” Greer said. “I went back to the peer group, and finally they said, ‘Three strikes and you’re out. You need to look in the mirror.’”

Greer said one of the challenges of running a family-owned business is that it can be hard to get a proper perspective.

“It’s easy to go home and talk to the spouse, but you need a good source of independent perspective from someone who cares but is not tied to the business,” he said.

The advice about looking in the mirror was the key. “I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for this, whether I deserved to run the company. I had made every business decision all-encompassing. I realized that I wanted a COO to do my job,” he said. “I was also told to think about what kind of values I want the company to represent. I realized we were kind of a rudderless ship.”

The soul-searching led to a transformation for both Greer and Wire Belt. He wanted a values-orientated business that would treasure fun as much as profits for his 95 employees. “We are focused on family, innovation and fun,” said Greer, who also goes by the title of “chief playground coach.”

Greer joined the Center for Family Business 12 years ago (and now serves as board chairman) but had been so moved by the peer circle experience that he requested that it be added to the organization’s programming.

Click on infographic to enlarge.

“I think running a business can be lonely, and sometimes it’s hard to find someone to share ideas with,” said Kerri Mobile, CEO of MaineLine Graphics LLC in Antrim. The 23-employee company is a leading national provider of residential sign systems. Mobile assumed the reins of a company that has been family-owned for four decades.

Mobile says that every peer circle meeting has energized her and opened her mind to new perspectives. Additionally, being part of the organization has helped her learn about access to state resources, consultants and secession planning among other delicate matters.

“One of the things I’ve learned is how birth order can impact how a team member can be motivated,” Mobile said. “We are also more open with team members about how the business is doing and how to keep them motivated.”

‘Real value’

The Center for Family Business began in 1993 as the Penley Forum for Family-Owned Business. It was designed for family-owned and -managed businesses with gross sales of more than $5 million or more than 20 employees. The Shapiro Forum for the Entrepreneurial Family was started in 1994 to provide a range of services to smaller family-owned businesses. In 1997, the programs were combined to form the Center for Family Business. The CEO Forum was launched in the same year. 

The Center for Family Business is now permanently housed in the new Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics. Dufort says this allows the CFB to establish closer relationships with other outreach programs and faculty in the business school and to provide even greater resources to the more than 150 family business members and companies on a regular basis.

Click on infographic to enlarge.

“Our CEO Forum speaker series will continue to bring in leaders of industry. We are aiming to fill that with folks whose business paths have seen great changes in their time,” Dufort said. “These could be the CEO who ‘exited’ or went through a merger or acquisition or ones whose businesses have gone global or have been changed dramatically by technology. We want the key leaders to walk out feeling they’ve seen the inside of something they have not seen before.”

She said the next Leadership Development Class will be promoted later this year and launch in 2019, and the CFB will be increasing its CEO Peer Circle offerings.

“There is a real value in creating this small circle of leaders who can trust each other, learn from each other and have a forum to dig really deep into business issues,” she said.

For more information, visit family business.unh.edu.   

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