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At this retreat, life-changing conversations help family businesses address their future

Posted in ,   |  May 3, 2023

Take three days away from working in the family business to work on the family business?

That wasn’t easy for the Sioux Falls owners of Interim Health Care – but it proved invaluable.

“There was talk of my mom and dad retiring at some point but no clear, set plan,” second-generation owner Abigail Woodford said.

“We knew I was going to be part of the business, but my sisters weren’t sure, and we really didn’t have a transition plan.”

While they came to the three-day Prairie Family Business Association family business retreat at the earliest stages of a transition in 2021, they left with the seeds of a plan that continues to take root.

“We knew it was a big investment, but knowing what we got out of it, almost two years later I would have spent five times that,” Woodford said. “We have a lot more conversations to go, but it definitely gave us a starting point.”

The next family business retreat will be Aug. 16-18 at the Paul Nelson Farm outside Gettsyburg.

No matter which stage of family business evolution your business is at, there are benefits to the retreat, said Stephanie Larscheid, executive director of the Prairie Family Business Association.

“As a family, you will have the opportunity to spend quality, focused time together in a world-class setting, supported by incredible facilitators and surrounded by other families going through similar experiences,” she said.

“We continually hear from families who attend this retreat that it changes their business, their family and their life for the better.”

While Woodford’s family came to the retreat to begin a transition, Mike Bullinger and his family attended that same year a bit farther down the road but still with plenty to consider.

The owner of Fargo-based Western Products, he’s an accountant by training and has helped clients through business transitions. Preparing for his own was different.

“There’s so much emotion that goes into the whole mix, dealing with your own family, and the Prairie Family Business Association just has it figured out to help families get through that,” he said.

“We all got a lot out of it. There were some tears, good quality time and some laughter. That was the moment for me to say, ‘This is really working, and we need to make this happen.’”

He left the retreat realizing the roles his daughters could hold in the company – and that he had a gap to fill.

“As we were driving home, we knew we needed somebody to replace me,” he said. “I have multiple businesses, and we needed somebody to replace my role so the girls could manage their positions, so we hired a gentleman who used to work for me to take on some of those duties.”

Other families come to the retreat as a chance to assess how their transition plan is going and identify any unmet needs.

That was the case for Brookings-based Falcon Plastics, where Guy and Jay Bender had started transitioning to their next generation, “so it made sense for the four of us to get away and have a facilitator and really make sure we were all on the same page,” Jay Bender said.

“It was an opportunity to get away from the business and everyday life and really focus on each other and the business to try and get a gut check.”

The retreat allowed third-generation members Jenn Barlund and Kyle Bender to ensure their questions were addressed too.

“One of the things we wanted to get out of it was to understand what Jay and Guy wanted out of the transition, how they wanted it to happen and how we could help, allowing us to run the company but giving them the freedom and flexibility to do what they wanted while still being very comfortable,” Kyle Bender said.

“I liked the format. It was casual but private, so it was fun to have families to collaborate with before and after. We felt comfortable having conversations, and it’s kind of the perfect place to do something like that. Don’t think of this is as a cost; it’s an investment.”

For Woodford’s family, “there were difficult conversations and things we needed to discuss, but having a facilitator was amazing,” she said. “It allowed us to be open and honest and clear in really setting expectations for where we’re at now and where we want to be. We wear a lot of hats as owners and leaders, and we hadn’t taken the time to talk about some things.”

A big result of the retreat involved rewriting the company’s mission and core values, which had come from corporate but hadn’t been customized for the local franchise owners.

“Because of that, we identified a core value of stewardship and have become more involved in the community,” Woodford said. “Almost a year ago, we implemented EOS, so that’s been huge and has helped keep us on track with building a leadership team.”

Two years after their retreat, Woodford’s mother is semi-retired, and her father has set a target date for his retirement.

“I feel much more confident as a second generation knowing there’s a plan,” she said. “And the Paul Nelson Farm is incredible. It’s a beautiful setting, and the hospitality from the Nelson family is insane. The other families were so kind, and it was great to bounce things off them. I can’t say enough good things.”

Neither can Bullinger, whose family wants to do it again.

“There was so much good that came out, we think we should go back,” he said. “When you do it a second time, you pick up pieces you’ve missed, so we’re thinking about going back this year. For a guy like me used to being in charge, it’s actually been easy to let go and know if I keep my nose out of some things, at the end of the day if they can accomplish or do better than I did, it’s been a success.”

At the retreat, participating families will find:

  • Values-based facilitation led by InnerWill, a nonprofit formed from a family business that focuses on values-based leadership.
  • Enhanced communication among family – both family in the business and family not in the business.
  • Tools to enhance and maintain family unity and cohesion.
  • A road map for next steps.

“My advice is don’t wait until it’s urgent,” Jay Bender said. “I know families have gone back multiple times, and we may end up doing that as well. I don’t think you can start too early when it comes to thinking about and building a plan. Time is your friend, so don’t waste it.”

To learn more about the family business retreat, click here.

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