Center for Family Business Newsletter - Winter 2023

In this Issue

From the Chair

Greg Yahn

Greg Yahn

Greg Yahn

Credit: Contributed Photo

As the owner of a second-generation local family business and chair of the Penn State Behrend Center for Family Business, I want to thank you and congratulate you! If you are reading this, you have chosen to join our "Family." Welcome!

My father started our business in 1970. My brother joined the business in 1975, and I joined after graduating from Penn State in 1985. After 30-plus years I bought the company at a time when we were rolling downhill toward bankruptcy with serious debt. With only the "guy in the mirror" to advise me, I managed to turn things around. I really wish I had a resource like the Penn State Behrend Center for Family Business to turn to and help me through those dark times.

Now that I have a stable and successful business and am in my 60s, What's next? I have four children who are all capable of running the business but have chosen different paths in life to follow. My wife and I are supportive of their life decisions and will not push them into the business. With no clear family succession plan, I needed to find a way to maintain what I have grown, not just for me, but for my community as well. You see, my company not only employs more than 50 local workers and professionals, but we support our community as well. With donations, support, sponsorship, personal involvement, and volunteering, the company supports our community and its resources in many ways.

I have had offers to sell the business to private equity firms but know full well that their intention was to carve out the most profitable aspects of the business and move it to a larger and more profitable market. This would leave my dedicated workforce unemployed, eliminate millions of dollars of interstate commerce, and abruptly end the support to the institutions and charity groups in Erie that we so fiercely support.

We are currently following the family equity model, keeping majority business ownership (equity) in the family, but hiring competent and family-oriented individuals in key positions to run the business. In addition, we formed an advisory board to help us make strategic decisions and keep the management team on track. So far, this model has been successful, but I still face a transition at some point. I owe it to my employees, my customers, my vendors, and my community to make sure the company continues after me and keeps its family and community-centric commitment. This takes time, and there are no quick fixes, but that is part of the journey. I am working with the Penn State Behrend Center for Family Business to help me make the right decisions.

From the Director

Mary Beth Wilcher

Mary Beth Wilcher

Mary Beth Wilcher is the director of the Center for Family Business at Penn State Behrend.

Credit: Contributed Photo

As our center moves into our second full year of active programming, I want to express our thanks to our new members who have joined the center over the past year as well as renewing members who have been with us from the beginning. Your support and enthusiasm for the center and the belief that family businesses are truly unique and worth preserving are our passion and your legacy.

We continue to grow our membership and currently have 50 member companies participating in the center. The center is open to any business or company that is family-owned or privately held within a 150-mile radius of Erie. A list of our members can be found on the new Center for Family Business website.

At the Center for Family Business, we offer a variety of educational programs to help you connect with like-minded business owners and leaders. Here, you can learn and grow alongside other family and privately held business leaders in a confidential and trusted environment. Our half-day events, multi-day programming, webinars, and ever-popular lunch 'n' learns let you hear from subject matter experts and collaborate with and learn from family and privately held businesses facing the same challenges you are. You are truly not alone when you're a member of the center.

I want to thank those of you who took the time to complete the center's survey. We appreciate your input and are scheduling our programming and special events around what you told us was important to you. The schedule of events with save-the-dates will be posted on our website soon. You will find dates for events, topics of discussion, venues, speaker bios, and what you can expect to take away from the session. Invitations will be sent out for the events and an RSVP link will be available on our website. Save-the-date notices will be sent out soon for our Spring Half-Day Event to be held on May 31. If you do not receive one, please let me know so I can add you to our email list.

When you join the center, everyone in your business has the opportunity to participate in programming and events. We also provide an add-on to the membership that allows for peer group participation for anyone within the business. The cost for a 12-month membership is $500, and $200 additional for each peer group participant. Essentially, the cost for a membership represents an investment in your company of less than $42 per month.

Now that many of you have had a chance to experience the benefits of membership, we're asking you to refer other businesses to the center to grow and enhance the member experience for all members. We've updated our membership application to include a "referred by" line where both the new member will receive a $100 credit on their membership for the first year and the referring member will also receive a $100 membership credit upon renewal.

As the center continues to grow, we are seeking additional committee members to join and assist in making the center the premier location for all things family business. Learn more about our committees on the Center for Family Business website and how you can get involved and make a difference.

Stay in the know by following us on LinkedIn. Engage with your peers and stay up-to-date with what we're doing at the Center for Family Business. Once you follow the page, turn on the notifications to alert you when the center posts by clicking on the bell icon in the top right-hand corner. Select all new posts and click save. That's it—now you're in the know.

If you are already a member of the center, we are so glad you're here. If you're not a member yet but want more information regarding joining, please contact us. We measure our success one family at a time.

From the Academic Director

Dr. Christopher Harben

Christopher Harben

Christopher Harben 

Credit: Penn State Behrend

The Value of Having a Board

Some time ago, I started writing a paper on the value of adding a board to a family business. As a part of my process, I interviewed several people in family businesses to get "real-world" comments about the idea. One of the people I talked to was Phil Rupp, the third-generation president of Rupp Seeds in Wauseon, Ohio.

Phil's story is a familiar one. He didn't start in the family business and also never really intended to BE in the family business. He was a "computer guy" who had owned his own business and also worked for one of the largest employers in the area, Sauder Woodworking, for years. His father, Generation 2 in the business, was extremely entrepreneurial. The business "was who he was." Phil also described his father as very headstrong.

Transitioning from Generation 2 to 3 was traumatic. The idea was ignored for as long as it could be, but health problems with Phil's father forced their hand. To guide the transition, Phil brought in an outside adviser, Chris Anderson, who had been the company's CPA for some time. Chris was also a third-generation member of The Andersons Inc. in Toledo who had left the family business. He was extremely familiar with issues related to family businesses.

The reaction to Chris' involvement was not always positive. Phil said that they "didn't always appreciate" him. But Chris caused Phil and the family to talk about things "that weren't talked about." It was good to have the outside perspective and it allowed the family to "be on the same side" as they worked toward the transition. Chris was able to help Phil's dad "let go."

The company, as a result of the transition work, created its first board. It is currently made up of Phil's mom, the chair; the four children, including Phil; and one outside director.

Phil reiterated to me that none of this would have happened without the involvement of the outside perspective from Chris. It brought a level of order and direction to the process of transitioning…and helped it be personal while not ignoring the business aspects.

This kind of story, to many of us involved with family businesses, is so common that it is almost cliché. I suppose the lesson really is this: It is better to have the hard conversations when you CAN, than when you HAVE to.

Sponsorship Committee

Matthew Totzke

Matt Totzke

Matt Totzke

Credit: Penn State Behrend

The center's earliest sponsors believe in the key role the center plays in the well-being of the family business community in our region. Their commitment to the center has been invaluable, helping to broaden its impact through high-quality programming during its formative years.

To ensure current sponsors continue to find value in their relationship with the center and to build a pipeline of potential future sponsors, the Advisory Board created the Sponsorship Committee. This committee will work to actively recruit, retain, and engage sponsors in financially supporting the center's mission; secure sustainable funding to support the center's growth; and promote and attend events to raise the center's visibility in the community.

Matthew Totzke agreed to chair the Sponsorship Committee, and we'd love to have you join him in developing a vital piece of the center's long-term health. 

Free Training Available

Microsoft Excel Training

Penn State Behrend's Office of Community and Workforce Programs is offering free hands-on training in Microsoft Excel for novice, intermediate, and advanced users Your employees can sign up at any skill level, and even switch between levels.

Classes will be held on the Behrend campus in April and May.

Thanks to a state Manufacturing Training-to-Career Grant, these courses are free to employees in Pennsylvania.

Data Analytics Training

Get started or advance your skills in the high-growth field of data analytics with free training from Penn State Behrend. Learn how to analyze and process data to gain key business insights, make informed decisions, and determine best practices for your company or business.

Classes are in person on the Behrend campus. Participants should have a basic understanding of MS Excel, including how to open and save files; navigate; enter data; perform simple calculations; use functions and cells; and apply cell formatting.

Thanks to a state Manufacturing Training-to-Career Grant, these courses are free to employees in Pennsylvania.

For more information about Community and Workforce Programs at Behrend, contact Ryan Parker, [email protected] or 814-898-6515.