The mother of all family business wisdom

Statistics show only 10 per cent of family businesses are owned by women. But senior females play an an integral role in family matters - and a new study shows they may want very different things.

While only 10 per cent of family businesses are owned by women, it is the matriarch, the spouse of the boss, who is often the link between the generations, nurturing the different parties like the husbands, children, grandchildren and in some cases elderly parents. She'll often play the role of confidante, diplomat and interpreter, healing family rifts. She, more than anyone else, knows the company’s history and the family dynamics, traditions and values.

But matriarchs are not only the glue that holds everything together. According to a new Pitcher Partners and Swinburne University study, they now play a significant role in succession planning.

The matriarch, the spouse of the boss, is the power behind the throne and key person behind decisions.

Great matriarchs in family businesses have included Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, Loti Smorgon, and Jan Taylor who built a small Hobart slipyard into a national ship-fitting and accommodation business, Taylor Brothers (A tight ship that’s Taylor made, February 7).

Philippa Taylor, CEO of Family Business Australia, says most family businesses have a matriarch.

In their book Family Fortunes, Bill and Will Bonner argue that the matriarch provides stability and long-term vision, and helps resolve generational conflicts.

“Wealth creation is hard on a family because it requires so much of the wealth creator’s time and effort away from the family. The ‘family creator’ has to hold things together. The matriarch has to fill in for the absence of the wealth creator. And she has to pull the wealth creator into the family at times, as necessary. The family creator has to allow the wealth creator to do his thing, while building a strong family.”

They say the matriarch has to create and pass along the family culture, provide a stable home environment, understand and support the business model, understand the social contexts promoting family objectives (e.g. entertaining customers and suppliers, managing contacts and so on), being right across complex trust, tax and investment issues and being emotionally mature enough not to play favourites.

Most family business advisers called in to sort out disputes say the first person they go to is the matriarch, the one who is across all the goings-on and who knows where all the bodies are buried.

Family business specialist Jon Kenfield says a distinction needs to be made between matriarchs as the power behind the throne and matriarchs as CEOs. And with more women running businesses the dynamics have changed. He says many of these female leaders have difficulty letting go, creating succession problems.

Adelaide-based family therapist Rosemary Freney, who is also an accredited family business adviser, says the matriarch is the critical part of every family business.

“You have to look at the woman, the wife, and this is often a neglected area because she often is the power in the family,” says Freney. “Her ideas often conflict greatly with that of the founding director. It’s her need to look after her children, and often the way they are dealt with by the patriarch. Often we work through mother, who often can work on Dad.”

A study done by accounting firm Pitcher Partners and Swinburne University, released this week, looked at how matriarchs and spouses are now taking an increasing role in directing the changes in multi-generation businesses. The matriarch was identified as someone who was playing an increasing role in succession planning.   

The interesting part in the study was the way that matriarchs could have a completely different perspective from the founder of the business. Fathers and male founders were more intent on their children or relatives continuing the family legacy and tradition, something they had worked all their lives to establish.

But the matriarchs saw it differently. They just wanted family harmony, no pressure, no dramas.

“Across all stages of the succession process, spouses were principally concerned with ensuring that family harmony was maintained,” the study said. “Spouses were focused on the need for clarity around ownership and inheritance for the incoming generation and also a fair inheritance for family members not involved in the process. They were also conscious of the need to ensure the next generation does not feel pressured to take over.”

In other words, the matriarchs were more inclined to emphasise, and to remind their husband, that the children actually had a choice in whether to take over the business or not.

Matriarchs also had a fair bit of clout too. While family business owners said accountants were the most trusted advisers, over one third of respondents turned to a family member i.e. their spouse for advice rather than seeking external professional opinions.

This might explain why any conflicts are resolved in 96 per cent of cases – the matriarch keeps it all together. She is the one who passes down the emotional and intellectual heft, which ensures the family business endures over generations. It’s not a task for the faint-hearted. The family business matriarch is a force to be reckoned with.