HELP FOR FAMILY BUSINESSES: An Interview with Robin Otten, Executive Director of the Parker Center for Family Business

Robin Dozier Otten

NAWBO NM Communications Director, Rikki Quintana, recently sat down for an interview with long-time member, Robin Otten, to find out more about the services offered by the Parker Center for Family Business, housed at the Anderson School of Business at the University of New Mexico. Almost all businesses in New Mexico are small businesses, and a large percentage of those are family-owned businesses, so we thought it would be interesting to find out more about what special insights and support might be available in this context.

Robin first shared a bit of the history behind the Parker Center. In 2005-2006, attorney Jim Parker from the Modrall law firm in Albuquerque (where most of his clients came from family businesses) and three other people who had grown up in family businesses organized the Family Business Alliance. They set up the group because they thought it would be a good idea to have an organization that focused on providing support for the unique challenges of family businesses. As Robin explained, “Family businesses have the usual challenges of being in business but they also have the additional challenge of wanting to keep their family intact.” Around 2015, the Family Business Alliance joined forces with the Anderson School at UNM to house the “Parker Center for Family Business” at Anderson, as a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization working in collaboration with the business school.

“The point [of the Parker Center] is to help . . . family businesses succeed, in whatever way they want to succeed. Some of them want to grow. Some of them want to stay just as they are. Some of them want to prepare for selling the business. Some of them want to pass [it] on to the next generation. Many of them are in the second or third generation already. It’s very individualized.”

Family businesses, from sole proprietorships to large companies, dominate the New Mexico economy. Many lack the resources needed to resolve issues of leadership, succession planning, conflict resolution and complex legal and financial challenges. The Parker Center provides several different types of support. All the members of the Board of Directors agree to consult with family businesses who face particular issues. The Board includes members with a ride range of skills, including CPA’s, lawyers, bankers, psychologists, etc. They are also developing a referral network of very carefully vetted experts to assist in this consultation role.

The Center also sponsors several excellent educational events every year (at least one of which takes place outside Albuquerque), including a summer dinner, and an annual symposium. “The quality of the presentations that we offer is very important to the Board.” When Robin first started attending the annual Symposium, she thought it was a bit expensive, but after attending, she reports she was “absolutely amazed at the high quality. . . It was better than any CLE [Continuing Legal Education] that I ever went to.”

Last year, the Center began a program exclusively for individuals in family businesses, known as the “Family Business Connectors,” designed to allow them to network with their peers to help “alleviate the feeling of being alone.” Each Business Connector is organized around a group of individuals in family businesses facing the same types of challenges. The first group was a “Next Gen” group, 6 people who were all under 35 and had important jobs in the family business, but in businesses where the older generation was still ultimately in charge. The group was a big success, with the participants bonding so well that they continue to meet after the formal end of the program. The Center is getting ready to launch another Gen X group, as well as another potential group of people who are running their businesses on a daily basis, but who have members of the older generation still coming to work every day. Then after that, there is a plan for a “Now Gen” group, focused on how to integrate the younger generation into the business without the family “blowing up.”

What qualifies as a “family business” for Parker Center purposes? Robin explained that the Center uses a very simple definition: two or more family members working in your business, either concurrently or consecutively, and the business is financially controlled by the family.

So what are the kinds of issues that the Parker Center focuses on? “Succession planning is a big issue–talking to people from where they are now to what they want to have happen with the business, and helping them succeed.” Communication within the family is also a key issue.  That’s the whole impetus behind the Family Business Connectors.

One story that gets told frequently is about a board member who was in real estate development business with her son, who was an architect. Her son had a hard time separating their roles as business colleagues vs. mother/son. He had a tendency to think he had to just go along with any suggestion from his mom, which was not her intention at all. They took a long time to work it out.

The Center’s educational programs generally include a family business panel, made up of individuals who share their own experiences as part of a family business, with the help of a great moderator. One year the theme was family philanthropy. One of the panelists described the family foundation they set up, which involved family meetings that included everyone, including the children. They had an elaborate selection process in which they hosted dinner parties at which the nonprofits would make a presentation to the whole family. Ultimately the whole family would vote on who would receive grants that year.

Robin’s Top Tips for All Business Owners (whether they are part of a family business or not):

  1. Plan for the Future: It’s important to take the time to do it, despite the crush of everyday business and family life. What do you want to do with your business when you’re no longer around? Do you want to sell it? Pass it on to the next generation?
  2. Work On Your Business as Well as In Your Business: Spend time thinking about the big picture, not just the never-ending to-do list of day-to-day operations. For example, do you want to grow or stay small?
  3. Work-Life Balance: Don’t forget that there is life outside the business, and you really need to think about what your overall life priorities are.

Rikki couldn’t leave without asking Robin, who has been with NAWBO New Mexico from its earliest years, about what she sees as the value of NAWBO. Robin’s answer:

“The value tends to be . . . in forming relationships with other people who have businesses and have other obligations in their lives [such as family or nonprofit work.]  The reason I stay in NAWBO is because of the relationships that I’ve formed. And for me, they tend to be around public policy--around advocacy and those kinds of things that this chapter has been very strong in. Our SpeakOut . . .is a very unusual and unusually successful program. . . . I’ve had the opportunity through NAWBO to interact with people all over the country on topics of import to business owners. . .I love doing that . . .and the opportunity to interact with Congress. The fact that it is a national organization is really meaningful.”

And what was Robin’s advice for how members can get the most out of their NAWBO membership? “First, figure out what you want to get out of it and then   you have to associate yourself with other people who have similar goals. . . . But also [figure out] what they’re willing to put into it. . . .You always get out of it what you put into it.”

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