4 ways a book will make your family business stronger
The most unexpected growth strategy you will read about this week
When his family celebrated 125 years in business, Fred Mouawad (one of three sons who share leadership of the Mouawad jewelry, diamond and watch empire) set out to interview uncles, brothers, cousins, and his mother and father. His intention was to create a book about the family enterprise: one that would capture the Mouawad heritage so that future generations could understand it, as well as carrying the voice of the key players, and providing insights for other families seeking longevity for their business.
The family ended up creating a book that is both beautiful, showcasing the gems and jewelry that have made them famous, and full of fascinating insights into an enduring family enterprise. There are tales of adventure and sacrifice, generosity and perfectionism. Chapter by chapter the book details the way in which this business grew from its roots in a simple workshop in Beirut to become a global leader in jewelry and gemstones; how Fred’s great-grandfather brought back watchmaking skills from the United States before the First World War; why his grandfather risked everything to move the business to Saudi Arabia; and how one brother came to be an unexpected leader in the third generation.
Before starting to interview a dozen or so family members, Fred Mouawad carefully considered the areas he wanted to ask about. What didn’t he already know about the family story? What anecdotes were worthy of committing to book form? What was the overarching message he wanted this book to convey?
Over the course of a year, the project offered unexpected benefits for Fred Mouawad as a business leader.
“Creating a book … has been a deeply valuable exercise in digging into our roots, identifying our core values across generations, and documenting our heritage for future generations. By better understanding our history we were able to set a better trajectory into the future.”
Through working with Mouawad, Riedel, Lavazza, and many other multi-generational family enterprises on capturing their story in book form, I hear four themes mentioned time and again. When pressed for the reasons their family business has endured, these families speak of values, loyalty, nurturing talent, and a view to the long term. I’ve come to the conclusion that these four qualities are key to businesses prospering through decades and centuries, despite economic setbacks, war, divorce, and death. I’ve also come to believe that the process of writing a book about one’s family business can actually further the very four qualities that ensure success.
1. Handing on the family’s core values. Members of successful family enterprises not only understand why they are in business together, they are able to articulate those reasons. They know what they want to accomplish. Typically these values are stable but not static, being redefined in a unique way by each succeeding generation. Writing a book about the business history demands an analysis of how those values play out over time.
2. Unity within the family. In the face of fierce competition and financial fluctuations, the family’s first loyalty is to each other. As they hand over control of the family enterprise to a new team of leaders, older generations can ensure their heirs have a personal connection to their shared history by writing down their story. Although it is undoubtedly a valuable process to go through, most family business leaders would not make time for it if they did not have some powerful motivating force — such as a publishing deadline, even if it is self-imposed.
3. Actively seeking talent in each new generation, and strategically nurturing it. There is a strong sense of family stewardship: of preserving something for future family members. Brown Brothers Harriman is the oldest private bank in the United States, and over many decades they have seen family businesses thrive and dwindle. They suggest that 97 percent of failed generational wealth transfers can be put down to lack of communication and trust, poor preparation, and a failure to establish the family mission. Handing a well-defined and considered story from one generation to the next is a clear antidote to those deficiencies.
4. Commitment to long-term sustainability. Such dedication often goes hand-in-hand with quality, and involves trade-offs against short-term gains. An in-depth written account will bring to light the kind of sacrifices made by earlier generations; it will also evaluate their stewardship. That kind of view to the long term also means that investing in a book-length account makes sense above and beyond immediate considerations of branding and profile, which are often seen as the reason to create a business book.
Shared values, unity, fostering talent, commitment to the long term. If you could capture those four qualities and bottle them for your own family enterprise, wouldn’t you want to? The process of conceptualizing and writing a family-business legacy book allows you to do just that.
Creating a good book takes time and contemplation. As you develop the plan for your book, you will be forced to scrutinize the key turning points in your family’s history: what sacrifices were made, what trade-offs permitted? When conflict loomed between siblings, did loyalty win out? How did a retiring business leader identify leadership qualities in his or her own children, sometimes against prevailing opinion?
Many businesses set out to create a book about their history because it will boost their brand in the marketplace. It can frankly be a way of stroking the ego, too. But a considered, well-crafted book can do so much more than that.
For a family business with the courage to ask the difficult questions about their past and a vision for stepping into the future with conviction and clarity, writing and producing their legacy story can be a growth strategy that transcends every expectation.