UNI Family Business Center guides Iowa companies in planning for the next generation

Dr. Heidi Vermeer-Quist “lives” family business, both personally and professionally.

Her personal experience is as a member of the Vermeer family, which owns Pella-based manufacturer Vermeer Corp. She also co-owns two businesses with her husband: a family business consulting firm called VQ Consult, and Heartland Christian Counseling, where she practices as a clinical psychologist.

Businesses that are family-owned may appear similar to other businesses from the outside, but they face distinct issues. Working with family creates a different dynamic, and the healthy communication and relationships Vermeer-Quist facilitates in her work are vital to keeping the business operating both day-to-day and as future generations prepare to take over.

According to Harvard Business Review, family businesses employ 62% of the U.S. workforce. In Iowa, approximately 20% of businesses are family-owned. But until a few years ago, Iowa lacked a dedicated family business center to serve companies like Vermeer.

Dan Beenken was director of the Advance Iowa business services program at the University of Northern Iowa when he and his team noticed family businesses needed more support and guidance in planning for the future of their companies.

That need served as the starting point for the UNI Family Business Center, which first tested family business programming in 2018 and has expanded since. The center started operating under a membership model this year.

Now director of the new center, Beenken said family businesses are crucial to Iowa’s larger business community because of their often strong community presence.

“Big publicly traded companies, they think about the next quarter, and family-owned businesses think about the next generation,” Beenken said. “They’re making decisions that are far longer term in scope, which typically is a much healthier thing for the community that they’re [a part of].”

About 50 member businesses from 72 counties and other nonmembers participate in Family Business Center events and peer-to-peer programming, including a virtual breakfast speaker series and peer advisory groups where family businesses can openly discuss their challenges and learn from others’ experiences.

The center also held its inaugural Family Business Conference in November, featuring keynotes from Tom Hubler of Hubler for Business Families Inc. and Craig Culver, Culver’s co-founder and chairman.

Although other topics were discussed throughout the daylong conference, Beenken said that succession planning is an area where many family businesses need to take action.

A business may not have a plan for the future because leaders strongly identify with the business and want to keep working or they may want to avoid conversations about their own or family members’ deaths. But Beenken said a generational shift is also at play, and risks affecting succession planning.

The baby boomer generation is currently leading many family businesses, and they may have taken over because there was a familial obligation or it was their best career option at the time. Now, the younger generation has many more opportunities after high school, and families are not often proposing the family business as a possibility.

“Whoever is in current ownership and leadership, a lot of times they want to be very respectful of their kids, and they aren’t talking about opportunities in the company,” Beenken said. “They’re not introducing their kids to opportunities in the company until it’s too late and the child has never been exposed [and] assumes there was no opportunity.”

He and Vermeer-Quist said having conversations is the best way for family businesses to be proactive in planning for the next generation, whether that ultimately means training a new family leader or bringing in outside leaders while the family retains ownership.

“It’s so important that families just think a little less and talk a little bit more,” Vermeer-Quist said.

The Family Business Center’s Next Gen peer group that she facilitates is a place where 20- and 30-year-olds can discuss how to navigate necessary conversations about the future of their family businesses.

She said encouraging open conversations not only helps the next generation develop healthy boundaries and a plan for leadership, but it can also lead to the creation of guidelines like a family employment policy that provides family members clarity on when and how they can join the company.

The Next Gen group also fosters a symbiotic relationship between its older and younger members.

“Some of the older members end up being mentors to the younger, [and] I think sometimes the younger end up asking questions or bringing out ideas that help those who’ve been in their family business for a long time think about things in a different angle and come up with some creative ideas or different ways to think about it,” Vermeer-Quist said.

Beenken said the creation of a space like the Family Business Center to network and connect with other family-owned businesses helps support local communities and economies as well as the individual companies.

“One big reason that we’re in this space is because family-owned companies are a bedrock for a lot of rural Iowa communities. … We want to help see them succeed and continue to transition and stay locally owned and operated.”  

But just as family businesses value the ability to network and learn from other companies, they’re also a part of the wider business community and can provide and receive support from other businesses.

Nicole Crain, executive vice president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, said she connects association members that span industry, size and type when they can help one another.

The Family Business Center plans to reach new members in 2022 with more in-person programming, including tours of family businesses, a member retreat and a summer event for high school students.

You can contact Dan Beenken at dan.beenken@uni.edu.