In the early 1990s, many Toledo-area family-owned businesses needed some guidance. They needed to know if and how they could keep their firms in family hands.
Among them was Gross Electric, Inc., a Toledo business owned by the Gross family since 1910. But Richard Gross, then president, worried that without a workable succession plan, the firm might be sold to strangers.
Another was The Andersons, Inc., the Maumee firm that had been owned by the extended Anderson family since 1947. Richard Anderson, president a decade ago, knew that turning management over to a new generation could create emotional trauma.
Impact Products, Inc., in Sylvania Township, had become an employee-owned company, but founder James Findlay wanted to see a University of Toledo program aimed at “drawing sons and daughters of entrepreneurs to our university.”
Those three businessmen, and many others, found some answers in UT's Center for Family Business, which opened in 1992. The center now has 134 Toledo-area family businesses as members and an annual budget of about $180,000, said Debbe Skutch, director.
Mr. Gross, an early and enthusiastic supporter of the center, said that, even during a three-hour seminar “you could hear a pin drop” because the speaker “would be talking about the same things that were on our minds.” In some of the sessions aimed at putting the older generation of entrepreneurs together, Mr. Gross found himself answering questions posed by other business owners who wanted to know how to keep the younger generation interested in family businesses.
From the center's seminars and forums, Mr. Gross got confidence and exposure to new ideas. For one thing, he decided to turn over management of his firm to his daughter, Laurie Gross, who is now president. And for another, Mr. Gross, now chairman, said the firm adopted “an open-book policy of squaring with our employees everything that's going on, financially, everything, in quarterly meetings.”
Since the start-up of the Center for Family Business, some backers have undergone great change. The Andersons, for example, went public - although dozens of Anderson family members are still involved with the firm - and Michael Anderson, a member of the third generation, took over as president.
Richard Anderson, now chairman of the firm, looks back on the early days of the center as “a great opportunity for those of us in family businesses to network with the university and all it provides.”
James Findlay started turning over control of Impact Products to his employees in the late 1980s, and they sold the company several years ago for about $23 million. But Mr. Findlay wasn't ready to retire, so he started another family business, Findlay Business Partners, that includes two sons and a daughter, and is involved in several endeavors.
A number of the early supporters of the center died in the last decade, and their children took over the family businesses. Among them was Tom Hart, who founded the Hart Associates marketing agency now headquartered in Maumee's Arrowhead Park. When Mr. Hart died in 1998 at the age of 62, his son Mike took over as president, and his other son, Tim, became executive vice president.
The center is an amazing resource for family business, said Tim Hart, who is currently on the board.
He said initially he and his brother were in awe “of these businesses we had totally put on a pedestal. But over time, you learn you're doing pretty good too. And you learn that issues you thought were unique to your business turned out pretty textbook. The center gave us a great perspective. ... And you learn how important it is to get along with your family. My dad would have chosen harmony over all other business [qualities].”