Family Business Histories - Preserving the Legacy
On her forty-fifth birthday, Liz Walker took the reins of leadership from her proud father and officially became president of a family-owned manufacturing operation in Alabama. Unfortunately, what should have been a joyous milestone event in the company’s history was marred by a highly publicized lawsuit brought about by nearby residents who were unhappy with the company’s expansion plans. Less than a week after assuming her new role, Liz found herself fielding a battery of tough questions from a young and zealous newspaper reporter. Some of the questions clearly implied that the 80-year-old company was not being very community-minded. More than the lawsuit itself, Liz found that implication the most troublesome.
“Of course the company cares about the community,” she told the reporter. “Don’t you know our history?”
As the granddaughter of the company’s founder, Liz knew the company’s history backwards and forwards. Like everyone else in the family, she knew all about her grandfather’s generosity and contributions to civic and charitable causes. He didn’t just found the company; he founded an economic heartbeat for the area. Liz wondered if the reporter knew that her father initiated and led the campaign to restore the downtown area, and helped to design the regional economic development program. And what about her father? Could this reporter possibly know how, in spite of numerous economic challenges, her father had faithfully stayed the course to keep the company alive. Through the good times and the bad, this old manufacturing company had held on and prospered… and provided jobs and retirement plans for hundreds of families in the community.
Liz Walker did the right thing that day. She promised the reporter she’d look more deeply into the issue, and she granted a later interview. Then she handed the reporter a handsome hardbound book.
“One thing I’d like to ask of you in the meantime,” she said. “Read our company’s history before our next interview.”
The reporter nodded agreement and glanced down at the cover of the book – a dated photograph of Liz’s grandfather shaking hands with Franklin Roosevelt.
“Did you know these guys?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “One is my grandfather; the other was an old friend of his.”
The Need For History
How your company came into being, the vision of the founder(s), how the company overcame the inevitable changes and challenges through the years, the contributions the company has made to the community… all add up to a great story. And not just a story for your children at bedtime. People in your company, others in your industry, and the community at large all benefit from a deeper knowledge and understanding of your company’s heritage.
There are many reasons to create a formal history. A few of the more important are:
- Founder’s Vision and Mission. Why was the company founded in the first place? Over time, as the company’s leadership changes hands, families often lose the founder’s original vision and sense of mission.
- Historical Accuracy. Without a formal history, people will rely on hearsay or someone’s biased or misinformed perception. The company’s early history and its role in the community can be lost or misunderstood, if it is not somehow documented and preserved.
- Honoring Longtime Employees. Many times, longtime employees or retirees feel as if their contributions to the company have been forgotten. Family business owners may want to honor their efforts and their faithfulness in some meaningful way beyond the traditional “gold watch.”
- Thanking Customers and Vendors. In any business, maintaining good relationships with customers and vendors is critical, especially when the relationships have stood the test of time. Owners need a way to document and publicly thank them for their partnership over the years.
- Background for the Uninformed. New hires, potential clients, bankers and investors may not know the company’s background and may not be aware of the company’s inherent strengths and its future potential. As illustrated by Liz Walker’s story, the general public and the media are always curious to know the real story.
Corporate history books or video histories are great tools for solving these and other issues. In the final analysis, a documented history of your company makes good business sense.
- Written histories “set the record straight” and document
forever how and why a business came to be. Left to the rumor mill, stories about your company can become exaggerated, twisted – or worse. Sometimes those negative stories can become destructive to the reputation of the company or its owners.
- A company history book or video can acknowledge and honor the hard work and perseverance of the founders, succeeding owners, company leadership and longtime employees.
- The interdependence between the company and community is documented, as well as the owner’s individual contributions and involvement in community affairs.
- Succeeding family members have a resource from which they can enhance their understanding of the legacy they have inherited, which in turn makes them better equipped to articulate it. The same holds true for company spokespersons, stockholders and employees.
- Documenting the company’s contributions and commitment to the community builds a sense of confidence to clients, potential clients, vendors, financers and new employees who become a part of the company’s history.
- Gathering information from and interviewing with family members and employees can be unifying and fun. The process of preparing a written recorded history of the family business can even draw the community into the project thereby strengthening relationships with other companies and key individuals.
- A hardbound book on the lobby coffee table enhances the company’s image and reputation. History books and history videos are additions to PR press kits or to add to your marketing collateral.
- Content created for books and videos can be repurposed for other media including company brochures, websites, press releases, newsletters… even a television program for local or regional broadcast.
- Most importantly, family businesses who produce a quality history book or video have something tangible, something to that will always be valued and treasured. When you create a family history, you establish a lasting and true legacy for future generations.
So How Do You Get Started?
What you DON’T do to begin developing your company history is go to a printer or a traditional publishing house. At least, not yet.
First, hire an experienced writer. Find one who has experience writing books, writing about business AND working with family businesses. A good business writer may know how to develop and construct an article for magazine publication but know nothing about writing for a book. There are significant differences between the two assignments. Also, make sure your writer understands the dynamics of family business and that he/she can manage the emotional aspects that often come into play with the family side of the equation. Check credentials and READ samples. A good writer will bring experience, expertise and, hopefully, good storytelling to your project. Writers must also be good researchers, editors and if they are writing for television or video good at writing scripts.
There are writers, even publishing houses, that specialize in writing and producing family business histories.
FBE's expert in this field, Phil Bellury
, has for many years helped family businesses create history books and videos. Phil began his career as a business journalist and, after writing marketing and public relations copy for several family businesses, finally wrote and published his first family business history in the early 1990's. Today he has a dozen or more histories under his belt.
Designate an internal coordinator or team. This person or team will work together with the writer to create a list of the key interviews including clients, family members, employees (retired and existing), and possibly stockholders—as well as industry spokespersons, vendors, bankers, community leaders and historians. Most likely, the writer will tour the company and get a “feel” for the people and the atmosphere. Historical societies will need to be contacted as well as newspapers, libraries and individuals for background information and archival photography. Current photos of the facility, the family members and employees will be needed, so if they haven’t been taken recently, you may want to hire a photographer and update.
Find a book packaging company. Since your book is not likely to be sold to the general public, you won’t be going to a traditional publisher. Instead, you need to find a company who can help you “package” your book. Packaging is the process of designing, printing and binding your book. With videos, you need to locate a producer. Packagers and producers can help you conceptualize the final product and assist in establishing goals and budgets.
Develop a distribution strategy. Even though you’re not trying to reach thousands with your book, you do need to print enough books or duplicate enough videos for your intended audience. You don’t want a warehouse full of books but you also don’t want to under-produce and leave anyone out. Create a list from your databases of all the people you think should receive a book, then add 20-30% more to your press run.
Organize a celebration. Publishing a history book or producing a history video is a big deal. The process can take anywhere from six months to a year to complete. To maximize your investment, it’s a good idea to organize a celebration to showcase the book or video… or both, if that’s the case. If your history book or video is tied to a milestone event – a 25th anniversary, for example – schedule the event to coincide with the publication date. Be careful with deadlines and be sure your packaging company gives you realistic timeframes.
Follow up. Many individuals in your company and in the community will be involved in helping you produce your history book or video. Be sure all photographs or other materials are returned and all who lent a hand are thanked. Most, if not all, will be recognized in the book somewhere but a personal thank you or recognition is good, too.
If you are considering a family business history book or video, we can help brainstorm. Simply use the ASK THE EXPERT form (below) to contact our family business history expert.
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