The Top 3 Lessons to Build a Successful Family Business



The 2019 Family Business Conference is a premier conference organized annually by the Family Business Club at the Columbia Business School (CBS) in New York City. Regardless of the snow storm on the Conference Day, the Columbia Faculty House was packed with more than 150 aspiring MBA students, CBS alumni, executives and industry experts representing a diverse range of family businesses all over the world. As needed more than ever today, this year conference’s theme focuses on entrepreneurship in family business.

If you are on a mission to build a successful family business that lasts for generations, this article is for you. It lays out the top 3 powerful lessons from the conference speakers who come from different backgrounds but share common traits of resilience, self-confidence and passion. They have overcome a countless number of failures that demonstrate their perseverance to turn their family businesses into billion-dollar companies.

1. Entrepreneurship is what differentiates successful family businesses from the rest

When hearing the words “family business,” the first thought that often pops up in people’s minds is a set of immutable rules inherited from one generation to the next. Any attempt to change the founder’s vision can be considered as disloyal to the family. However, this is no longer true in today’s unprecedented change in technology. In order to stay ahead and relevant, family business leaders need to constantly innovate and expand their business lines to meet the market needs. The key difference between successful family businesses that last over generations and who don’t is the entrepreneurial spirit and innovative way of doing.

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Jon Sebastiani ‘12 spoke at the Family Business Conference

The good news is that there are many ways for family businesses to be entrepreneurial. Take Jon Sebastiani ‘12, the Founder and CEO of Sonoma Brands, as an example of a visionary leader. Jon began his career leading the sales & marketing effort for Viansa, his family’s winery, and eventually became the President who turned the company into one of the most well-known wineries in the Napa and Sonoma valleys. But his ambitions did not stop there. Jon’s entrepreneurial mindset drove him to launch Sonoma Brands in 2016, a platform that invests in high-growth consumer brands and selectively incubates new concepts. As a successful entrepreneur with experience in building multiple successful companies, Jon understands the importance of experimenting with new ideas and diversifying his resources to maximize his family wealth and create meaningful impacts in the community.

2. Women in family leadership are leading the way of the next generation

Family business used to be a male-dominated world where company wealth was transferred to only sons, not daughters. But this trend is shifting into a new direction of more women stepping up to take leadership roles in their family businesses. Moderated by Professor Michael Preston, Adjunct Professor & Co-director of the Family Business Program, the “Multi-Generational Women in Business” panel features mother and daughter speakers whose perseverance and entrepreneurial spirit have built their multibillion-dollar enterprises.

From left: Amy Binder, Rebeca Binder, Alexandra Goeseke, Veronica Cervera Goeseke

In the women panel, Veronica Cervera Goeseke, the CEO of Cervera Real Estate, and Amy Binder ‘94, the CEO of RF|Binder, are exemplary mothers. While Veronica revolutionizes the billion-dollar real estate industry in South Florida, Amy inspires thought leaders around the world through strategic communications and public relations. Although the mothers come from different industries, they possess common traits of never-give-up spirit and transformational leadership styles that make their family enterprises successful. Their daughters, Alexandra Goeseke ‘16 and Rebecca Binder, also joined their mothers’ visions to hold leadership roles in their family businesses. Prior to their returns, Alexandra worked in the field of wealth management while Rebecca was a seasoned consultant at multinational management consulting firms for 10 years. Their work experience and business acumen have been proved invaluable to the success of their family enterprises.

3. Build a culture of trust and integrity from within

“Take care of your employees first and they will take care of your company.” These are the words of wisdom from Alice Chen ‘99 who is the CEO of 99 Ranch Market, an Asian grocery retailer in the US with 57 locations nationwide. With a background of investment banking at Goldman Sachs in New York City, Alice decided to quit her lucrative career to return to her family business. From Day 1, she reorganized the company culture of integrity and work ethic from within. On its momentum of expansion, the company is committed to putting the people first, making the company the first Asian grocery retailer that offers health insurance and retirement plan for 99 Ranch Market employees.

From left: Alice Chen, Frank Tucker, Vivek Salgaocar, Zachariah Rosenberg, Josh Baron

As a younger generation, working for a family business can bring both a challenging and rewarding experience. Oftentimes, the heirs are afraid of pitching new ideas or taking on new opportunities because their parents have witnessed all of their failures. Therefore, it takes courage and effort to build trust with parents by showing them your ability to lead and take responsibility. Having some outside work experience prior to returning to the family business is proven helpful to demonstrate your skills and boost your credibility.