ERIE, Pa. — Doug Neckers is sort of a unicorn: As a third-generation leader of a family-owned business, he navigated one of the most difficult transitions a business may face. Just 30% of family-run companies continue into a second generation. Even fewer — 12% — continue into a third.
Neckers is president and CEO of Maplevale Farms, which distributes food and kitchen products to restaurants, schools and assisted-living homes in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. His grandfather, Norman Neckers, founded the business in 1951. He sold steaks, chops and ground beef patties to mom-and-pop restaurants.
Neckers’ father took over in 1969. He diversified, adding French fries, ketchup and restaurant supplies. He joined a cooperative, which expanded Maplevale’s product line and geographic reach.
Today, Maplevale has 200 employees and a product line with nearly 10,000 food, paper and cleaning products. Neckers spends much of his work time looking forward, positioning the business for the moment he no longer is in the president’s office.
“To manage the day-to-day tasks, you almost have to put blinders on,” he said. “It can be a challenge to set aside time to plan for the future of the business. And yet, at this point, my greatest contribution to the business is ensuring that it continues, and that we do all the things we need to do for the business to not just survive, but thrive.”
Lately, he’s been relying on a new resource: The Center for Family Business at Penn State Behrend. The center, an outreach effort of Behrend’s Black School of Business, is building a network of family-owned businesses, backed by the expertise of Black School faculty, to help members navigate issues related to family dynamics, financing and succession planning, among other topics.
“Family businesses are the backbone of the U.S. economy,” said Greg Filbeck, director of the Black School. “They tend to be the most stable employers. Because they often hire neighbors and friends, and even other family members, those business owners are committed to their employees. They feel acutely responsible for them, and for the community around them.
“That sense of responsibility can, over time, become a burden on the business,” Filbeck said. “Too often, business owners think they have to fix every problem themselves. They are so busy running the day-to-day business that they can’t always adequately plan for the long term. That’s where we can help.”
The Center for Family Business will host monthly forums led by experts in the field and focused on the unique needs of family-run businesses, from the pressure to hire and retain family members to succession planning and exit strategies. Members also will have access to Black School faculty experts and student researchers.
The annual membership fee for center programs and support is $500. Businesses that join this year will have the fee waived for the remainder of 2021. To learn more, visit the Center for Family Business online.
In addition to formal programming, the center will coordinate peer-group roundtable meetings for business owners. Those sessions will place members in a “safe harbor” environment where they can discuss common issues and concerns, said Christopher Harben, the Toudy Chair of Entrepreneurship and Family Business at the Black School and associate director for the Center for Family Business.
“We really want this to be organic and driven by the needs and requests of our members,” Harben said. “Too many family business owners feel like they’re on an island, and it’s on them to come up with a solution for every problem. We want to build a network of support around them, so they can say, ‘This is something I faced today. Have you ever had to deal with that?’”
The structure of the peer groups will blend businesses that, at first look, might not have much in common. That diversity can lead to more creative problem-solving, Harben said.
“I think the peer aspect of this will be far more important than many family businesses may expect,” he said. “These folks have connections and networks of their own, but their spheres tend to be fairly tight, because their network is focused on the immediate needs of the business.”
Neckers, who will serve as chairman of the center’s advisory board, has experience with single-industry “share groups.” His business cooperative offered one.
“When a share group is limited to members of the same industry, everyone looks at a problem through the same set of lenses,” he said. “You can miss the breakthrough solution, because no one is looking at the problem in a new way.”
The informal design of the peer-group meetings should lead to more creative approaches to common problems, Harben said. But it won’t happen overnight.
“If you’re a business owner, you aren’t going to go into a room full of strangers and open yourself up, asking for help or offering advice. Not the first day, anyway,” he said. “Our goal is to create a culture of trust among our members. That begins with the first conversation, and the realization that you are not alone in this. There is an incredible amount of comfort in knowing that other businesses are wrestling with these same issues.”
Penn State Behrend’s new Center for Family Business will host a free seminar and panel discussion Oct. 14 featuring Kirk Vashaw, chairman and CEO of the Spangler Candy Co., which makes Dum Dums suckers. Vashaw, a fourth-generation family executive, and Bill Martin, the company’s first nonfamily president, will discuss the challenges and benefits of running a family business. To learn more, or to register, email [email protected].
Assistant director, news and information, Penn State Behrend