Fathers and Daughters: Passing on the Family Business

More women are taking over family-owned companies, but the handover isn’t always smooth

By Karen E. Klein

Family-owned companies account for 80 percent of all businesses worldwide, and about one-third of them are owned by women. Although U.S. Census data and recent research shows that daughters and wives are increasingly taking over family businesses, few studies have been done on the process. That’s the subject of a new book, Father-Daughter Succession in Family Business, (Gower, 2011) by Daphne Halkias, a social science researcher at Cornell University and senior research fellow at the Center for Young & Family Enterprise at the University of Bergamo in Italy. The book seeks to illuminate the process of father-daughter succession around the globe and find ways to encourage it, Halkias says. She spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

What got you interested in this topic?

In 2005 I was a visiting MBA professor in Greece. About half my students were women, many of them from family-owned businesses. They were concerned about succeeding their fathers, because many were only children, or one of two sisters, and they had a lot of emotional conflicts with their fathers.

What kinds of conflicts would arise?

She might want to take the initiative, but the father didn’t want to give up control. Or a father might be waiting for his daughter to get married, so she could do PR for the company and her husband would come in as a kind of surrogate son and successor.

You did surveys on this topic in various countries. What did you find?

Sons were gung-ho: 100 percent of them were ready to succeed their fathers in business. Most of the girls, however, did not want to continue in the family business. They wanted to be independent and go into business on their own. They adored their families, but they encountered so many cultural and emotional conflicts with their fathers, they wanted to leave or let a future husband take over the company.

What are some takeaways from the case studies in the book?

Across cultures, we saw the repeated desire to maintain harmonious family relationships. It’s as if the daughter were constantly involved in a course correction with every new and difficult step in the succession process, in order to ensure a state of community with the father and among the various stakeholders of the family business.

Are women gaining ground when it comes to family succession?

Women, and daughters specifically, have increased chances of higher education, and a younger generation of fathers are accepting women in the workforce. Consequently, [women] have quietly been ascending to the ranks of many lesser-known family businesses around the world.

What factors still hold women back from taking over a family company?

There is still gender and age bias. In some Asian cultures, especially, we found that a woman was able to move more easily within the business and within the succession process once she was married. In many cultures, it’s very difficult for a single woman to move in business circles.

Also in many cultures, unlike in Europe and the U.S., the extended family is very involved in a business. So conflicts might not just be between the father and daughter; male cousins and uncles, and brothers-in-law could get into the conflict also.

Were there any cultures you studied in which women were forbidden to assume control of a family business?

We did not find that anywhere, even in the most conservative cultures we studied. That might be surprising to us in the West, because we often have a narrow view of what goes on in other cultures. The reality is that women have made great strides all over the world and across many cultures, religious backgrounds, and geographic locations.

That desire for work-family balance keeps some women in the U.S. from taking top-level management jobs or becoming entrepreneurs. Did you see that in other cultures?

In certain countries, women don’t have a choice to remain single or not to have children. Their families arrange marriages for them within large circles of extended family and friends. But once they have children, the extended family gets involved in raising the children.

So two-career families have grandmothers and cousins and siblings, many of whom live in the same big building or the same neighborhood, and they all help out. It’s a very natural way of life, and in many cases, working women are not as isolated as they often are in the West.

[Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.]

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