Fifty years ago, when Mike Keating Sr. started an insurance agency in West Hartford, the retired Korean War veteran appreciated personal contact. Email communication was not even an option.
Now his grandson, Ryan, is vice president of the family-owned Keating Insurance Agency in a different era. As part of learning about current approaches, the younger Keating attended the UConn Family Business Bootcamp.
“If my grandfather saw my approach, it would probably make his head spin,’’ Keating said. “But my father understands the need to merge old-fashioned traditions, such as strong relationships, with new technology.”
Like the Keating Insurance Agency, about a quarter of all Connecticut businesses are family owned, according to the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development. Nationwide, those businesses generated more than 50 percent of the U.S. gross national product in 2013, according to Forbes.
But family businesses face a unique set of issues, a fact that is recognized by the UConn School of Business, which revamped and re-introduced its program for family entities a year ago.
The UConn Family Business program helps hundreds of companies each month, either with educational courses, networking opportunities, a summer internship program, or referrals to experts who can assist with a specific task. In the past year, the program added an undergraduate course in family business, a student summer internship program, and executive education classes that allow participants to develop greater knowledge of everything from sales strategies to family dynamics.
“I think it’s great that UConn is realizing the need and opportunity to support family business,’’ Keating said. “It is kind of appropriate, given that UConn was started by two brothers who donated the land from their family farm to benefit the state!’’
Homegrown Businesses Tend to Stay
Family businesses in Connecticut are a significant contributor both to the economy and employment, said John A. Elliott, dean of the School of Business.
Whether they are household names, like the 350-employee Bigelow Tea Co., or smaller mom-and-pop owned enterprises that serve giants like United Technologies, Electric Boat, or Stanley Black & Decker, family businesses touch all industries, Elliot said.
The UConn Family Business program serves a diverse range of businesses, from real estate to insurance, food products, and construction. The companies are typically small- to medium-sized, and range from first- to fourth-generation family ownership.
Although several universities offer family business consulting, UConn took a different approach, said Professor Lucy Gilson, head of the management department.
The university saw an opportunity to offer executive education to the family business owners, while simultaneously preparing undergraduates for internships, and potentially jobs, within family businesses. “The UConn family business collaboration allows experts in fields as diverse as family studies and finance to all work together,’’ Gilson said.
Simsbury Bank has been a key sponsor of the program. Other resources have included UConn’s Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, the UConn Law Clinic, and the Connecticut Small Business Development Center (CTSBDC), as well as other schools and colleges at UConn.
Family business members can connect with experts from accountants to social media advisers and finance to operations strategists.
“Our aim is to be their place to turn, their safety net,’’ said Robin Bienemann, entrepreneur-in-residence and program director.
“While its easy for the corporate giants of the world to pack up and move elsewhere, family businesses just don’t do that,” she said. “They are much more likely to stay in Connecticut because their business has been here for generations. It is our goal to keep them here, keep them strong, and help them over the obstacles that they encounter.’’
Passing the Torch
One of the big sources of tension in family businesses is passing the torch to the next generation. Families can be especially reticent to change the way things are done and to trust a new generation with the company they’ve worked so hard to build, Bienemann said.
Miller Foods Inc. is a family-owned and operated company that has been producing top-quality poultry products and unique gourmet foods for more than 50 years.
Carolyn “Auntie Cal’’ Miller-Stevens can remember when thousands of turkeys roamed the family property on Arch Road in Avon. Today the company has branched out, adding e-commerce and a line of dog food and treats to its business.
“Our business, like every business, is changing and evolving,’’ said Capri Frank, a UConn alumna, whose grandparents founded the business. “What’s unique about a family business is that you have to know everything about it.’’
Today one of her key roles, she said, is to bridge the gap between generations, with employees who range in age from their 30s to their 70s.
While Miller Foods has welcomed its fourth generation of business leaders, Frank said she knows they are the exception. Fewer than 5 percent of all family businesses make it to the third generation, and that’s an unfortunate statistic, she said.
Frank, and Kim Sirois Pita, founder of the marketing and public relations firm Pita Peaces, were instrumental in creating UConn’s program, recognizing that a broad knowledge base is crucial for a family business to thrive.
“What links us together is a shared commitment to making our companies thrive, and a passion for business in Connecticut,’’ Frank said. “We want to strengthen the Connecticut economy through our connections.’’
Through the Family Business program, Frank said, she can share the things she’s learned as well as the lessons she missed, she said.
The Legacy Factor
When Kevin Quiros’ father started HFM Wealth Management Inc. of Hartford in 1989, it was a particularly proud event for the Quiros family. His father, an immigrant from Colombia, had come to this country as a young boy. To own his own business, in his new homeland, was his dream.
“He came here with nothing and eventually owned a business in the United States, and he’s very proud of that,’’ said Quiros, a wealth manager, who earned his MBA from UConn in 2004. “It keeps everyone humble. He reminds family that it could all disappear quickly if the business doesn’t thrive and remain successful.’’
The company is dedicated to serving families and educating people on estate and inheritance planning. At times, the generations have disagreed on business tactics, but never on the fundamental goal of the company.
“I’ve heard of family businesses where Generation 2 has no voice and the leadership won’t give up control. That’s not good for business,’’ Quiros said.
“My dad and I sometimes disagree, but when we do, there is no ego involved. We are focused on what’s good for business, for our clients, for our employees … It’s something you have to work at, like a marriage. You have to make it work. And if there’s a problem, you have to talk about it.’’
In the back of his mind, Quiros said, is the idea that perhaps his young daughters, ages 7 and 8, might want to enter the family’s financial business later in their lives. He hopes UConn continues a strong program to mentor all students, but especially those who might take the reins of family businesses in the next generation.
“I want the UConn School of Business to be our base, our voice, a place where we can collaborate on our experiences, challenges, the things we’ve done well and those we didn’t do right,’’ he said. “This is a resource to extend the reach, and build the economy locally. I’m excited about it.’’
Student writer Janine Coppola contributed to this article.