Family Businesses and Longevity, a winning combination

Un ritratto di famiglia ad opera di Anthonie Palamedesz, 1636 (Wikimedia Commons)
Un ritratto di famiglia ad opera di Anthonie Palamedesz, 1636 (Wikimedia Commons)

Institutional Communication Service

26 April 2017

Prof. Gianluca Colombo, Faculty of Economics

From November 8 to 11, USI Università della Svizzera italiana will host the Global STEP Summit 2017, an initiative of STEP (Successful Transgenerational Entrepreneurship Practices), a research project launched in 2005 at Babson College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, aimed at understanding the innovation processes of family businesses. Thirty-eight universities world-wide are taking part in the project, including USI with its Advanced Management Centre (AMC) at the Faculty of Economics.

USI, which is responsible for Italian-speaking Switzerland, currently has four cases in its portfolio: Audemars Microtec SA, Eredi Carlo Tamborini SA, Helsinn Holding and Valsangiacomo Vini.

There is a common belief that family businesses are mostly found in sectors characterised by a low level of innovation, that they tend to be very conservative and are not disposed to taking risks. In fact one does not need any great competence in business or economic affairs to understand that a business still active on the market after “only” 100 years, to give an example, must certainly have innovated in order to survive the changes in technology, the market and leadership occurring in the meantime.

The cases studied by USI show that often the binding agent guaranteeing their longevity is constituted by the older generations, who not only succeed in avoiding breakdowns in continuity but positively promote development by instilling confidence and reinforcing the sense of belonging.

It would appear that entrepreneurship, as the generations succeed each other, does not develop in a straight line but in a sinusoidal way, because from one generation to the next business activity changes as a result of personal choices or economic opportunities (as in the case of Tamborini or Audemars).

Important changes can also be caused by phenomena of discontinuity: when, in the early ’90s of the last century, import quotas for wine were abolished, a system which had allowed businesses in the sector a certain security with regard to turnover, many Swiss firms found themselves in a crisis situation: Valsangiacomo Vini, in order to survive, was obliged to introduce the department of marketing and sales, not present up to that time. Also differences of views between two or more members of the family with respect to the future development of the business, as in the case of Helsinn, can bring about profound changes, such as the departure of one of the members of the group.

The data collected show not only that family businesses are a completely different form of entrepreneurship, because each generation continuing the business has a significant, but not static, role in determining the entrepreneurial vision; but also bring to light certain recurring characteristics, such as the attention paid to employees and the local area and a marked dedication to work.

Sustained by these characteristics, in 2015 STEP created an association of family businesses in the Ticino (AIF Ticino) which now accounts for more than 60 enterprises and intends to disseminate the culture of this type of firm, capable, by its very nature, of a long-term entrepreneurial vision.

For details on the conference, read also the media release (in Italian) here: