Near the end of the 2007 film “There Will Be Blood,” oil tycoon Daniel Plainview meets with his adopted son and business partner, H.W. His son requests their partnership be dissolved so he can start his own company. Plainview responds with a brutal verbal attack, pointing out that H.W. has “none of me in you.” H.W. responds, “I thank God I have none of you in me,” and leaves the room, never to see his father and business partner again.
It’s an intense portrayal of strife within a family business, but far from the only example in film, television and literature. The appeal of the trope is obvious: The drama of conflict, dysfunction, entitlement and betrayal is all the more heightened when the characters are family. And while the fictionalized drama often can be extreme, the issues they portray are unfortunately very real for many family business members around the country.
“I have often said it’s very difficult to raise a family, very difficult to run a private business, and it’s [even] more difficult to run a family business but [even] more rewarding,” said the late Gerald Rauenhorst, founder of Opus Corp. and former St. Thomas Board of Trustee member.
Enter the St. Thomas Family Business Center. For 26 years, the center has worked with more than 1,700 people across more than 600 businesses to help them navigate working together as family, with everything from succession planning, to conflict management, to addressing real or perceived nepotism, to maintaining an invaluable network of peer businesses from which to learn. Perhaps most importantly, it helps them articulate and live by the values that ground their families and their businesses.
Last year’s 25th anniversary offered a fitting occasion to take stock on what the Family Business Center has meant to its members, St. Thomas and the health of the region’s business community. Golf legend Jack Nicklaus spoke to some 300 people about the intersection of family and business in his life, much of it emphasizing the same priorities the center has espoused to its members all these years.
“All my life, no matter what I’ve done, it’s been family number one, and for most of my life golf was number two and business three. Eventually business and golf switched, but family didn’t lose its number one spot,” Nicklaus said. “You’re down on this earth for a short period of time and the best legacy you can leave is your family and kids understanding what’s right and how to live your life as good citizens and contributors to society. If you can do that, that’s the most important thing.”
Helping families do just that has been, and will continue to be, the Family Business Center’s business.
“Our mission is to educate business families, and we work hard to promote family harmony. If we can make the family function better, we’ll make the business function better,” center director Jon Keimig said. “We try to change them from a family business to a business family, and give them the tools that allow them to professionalize what they’re doing, which will hopefully keep [their business] around longer.”
Family businesses make up the vast majority of privately held companies in the United States, including Minnesota. It was with those companies in mind the Family Business Center was started in 1991, making it one of the first in the country and the first to teach family business courses to college students.
Those courses drew Ashley Bruber ’15 to become a family business major. She credits the center with helping her understand what it meant to enter her family’s 45-year-old business. In her case, that’s Simek’s food company.
Like all Tommies taking family business courses, Ashley was required to attend them with a family member. She brought her father, Jay, who has worked with the center for more than a decade. In addition to Simek’s food company, the Brubers own Persolvent, a payment-processing company. Ashley’s sister, Lindsey ’07 is the president of Simek’s and their cousin Vince Arnoldi ’03 is president of Persolvent.
As Ashley took classes and began working in the family business, she developed the idea of building on their family’s commitment to philanthropy, which already was reflected in both companies through the donation of 10 percent of all profits. Now, she heads Payments for Change, a division of Persolvent that donates 50 percent of its profits to charity.
“The importance of having core values is one of the biggest things I learned [as a family business major]. We had core values like charity that were created before I got to the business, but to live and breathe those core values, you learn those are the roots of the business and the roots of your family, as well,” Ashley said.
Going through courses with Ashley, Jay said he valued learning how to communicate effectively in different situations that occur when tied together professionally and as family.
“There are times when I’m talking to my daughters where I have to ask if I should have my business hat, my father hat or my best friend hat on. Then I can speak to them through that lens,” he said. “But how do you navigate all of that? You come back to those core values.”
Maintaining shared values is no foreign concept to another family business owner, Bill Warner ’91, one of nine siblings who owns Warners’ Stellian appliance business, and one of four who operate the 60-yearold company. Fourteen thirdgeneration Warner family members also work there in sales, operations and marketing.
The appeal of the Family Business Center for the Warners over many years has been wideranging, Bill said, especially as more and more third-generation family members become part of the business.
“We’ve been able to gain knowledge, intelligence, business theory and ways to mediate issues within the family. It’s quite a spectrum throughout the breadth of the program,” he added. “And all those relationships we’ve gained [with fellow FBC members], some of which are just a greeting at meetings, others are tighter and you have a bond where you can soundboard off them, or drop a question and see what they think. We’ve garnered many of those relationships from the center.”
Keimig said facilitating that network of relationships – along with educational platforms for the center’s members to gather around – has helped many families address the feeling of isolation in the challenges they face.
“It’s that safe space and just hearing that someone else is going through something similar. It’s that, ‘I thought I was struggling here, but I’m not alone,’” he said.
Member businesses range from small companies to those with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue. Every event features people from across that spectrum, which means members can relate to different challenges of their peers.
“You come across businesses with similar issues that you can see with lots of clarity, and what they need to do. Other times it’s exactly the opposite and you can’t see the answer right in front of you. Or, you may know what to do, but you need someone else in front of you who you trust and respect to say, ‘This is what you need to do,’” Warner said. “It’s that additional voice, whether it’s a peer within the group, someone presenting or someone at the center. There is good counsel available.”
The Family Business Center has developed many different ways to present that counsel: Beyond courses for students, members can attend a regular breakfast series centered on an educational speaker, meeting groups for top-level leaders and next-generation family members, and classes on specific topics such as family business governance. Because there is no corporate sponsor, programming can be very flexible and members vote for what they want to have addressed.
“Everything is really community-based and driven by our members,” Keimig said.
“We see education strengthen our family businesses across our community on the individual, family and business levels. And with that comes stronger families, stronger businesses, stronger employees and a stronger economy,” he said. “Think of the ripple effect from 25-plus years of educating more than 600 business families at St. Thomas and the impact that’s had on so many lives in our region.”