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Let's invest in WNY family firms' next generation

Rochester Business Journal
February 8, 2013

If you are reading this column, you probably love Upstate New York as much as I do. Are you also worried about our future?
For decades, we have hoped that various economic development strategies will help our prosperity. For example, we invest millions of dollars yearly in people, organizations and programs-such as economic development zones-to attract new businesses and assist existing ones. These have had mixed results.
We talk about ways to prevent the brain drain. Yet each spring, we sit through commencements all over our region to watch more of our graduates collect their diplomas and leave our region in pursuit of their dreams.
Our universities and donors continue to invest in entrepreneurship centers, incubators and sexy business plan competitions that we hope will identify the next Steve Jobs in Western New York. Most recently funded is Gov. Andrew Cuomo's New York Open for Business initiative. It will be interesting to see how his plan aids existing firms, already entrenched and committed to Upstate New York.
It has been exciting to see promising businesses result, particularly in the medical arena. We need more. Statistically, our students have a better chance of hitting the lottery than of being awarded the kind of venture capital needed to boost our economy.
Are there other strategies we should be pursuing?
Yes. I believe there is one: Supporting our students who will be shareholders of Rochester-based family-controlled firms.
Research shows that most firms around the globe-large and small-are family-controlled. That goes for Rochester, home to many highly respected family firms that have weathered and thrived in all economic conditions.
In addition, research suggests that family firms try to be the last enterprises to lay off their employees, whom they consider extended family members. (Apparently that's not as newsworthy as creating new jobs.)
Family firms invest in our communities by giving back. Directly and indirectly, they are the largest source of philanthropy. With this in mind, it would appear that alongside venture capital and economic development zone initiatives, Rochester could benefit from a family business initiative.
At St. Bonaventure University, nearly one-third of students have parents who own a business. Peer institutions measuring this have found similar results.
St. Bonaventure alumni and parents own several Rochester-based, multigenerational family firms. Many of them work together and provide a synergy and optimism for our economy that is unparalleled.
These alumni are helping us build a family business program to help our students identify and evaluate their opportunities. Students tour their firms-sometimes almost next door to each other, such as Abrasive-Tool Corp. and Thru-Way Spring. Students meet the family business owners, hear stories they appreciate and gain confidence, knowing they have a committed and talented network available to them.
On campus, we bring in alumni such as Ellicott Development's Carl Paladino to tell their stories and answer students' questions. We have introduced interdisciplinary courses and seminars on family business such as "Family Dynamics in Family Firms" and "Internet Marketing to Grow Your Family Business." Students have internship opportunities at other family firms. Students have created a Family Business Club-one of about a dozen in the nation-that is open to any student on campus.
St. Bonaventure students who are in Western New York family businesses, the "next generation" stakeholders, are humble young adults who rarely share their situation with anyone but close peers. Many have started out working at the bottom rung of their family enterprises and come to our university with a lifetime of business experience that goes unnoticed. The decisions they need to make about their future can be unnerving. They need our help.
One student said it best: "If I go into the family business, my biggest concern is to keep the business growing. So much effort has been put in by my father and uncle that I want to help the company become more successful and not just plateau. I do not want to tarnish the good name that my dad and uncle have created."
We're trying to do our part to help Western New York family business successors continue the good name their families have created.
We need your help: Let's take some of the millions we invest in economic development and use it to invest in those young men and women on all of our campuses who are working hard to gain the networks, skills and confidence to stay and grow the businesses their families have created in Rochester.
Are you in?
Carol B. Wittmeyer is associate professor of management science at St. Bonaventure University.2/8/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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