Lessons in Sustaining Family Businesses with Independent Directors

Mike DeCola, HBM’s CEO and President, moderated a panel discussion at the 3rd annual Olin Family Business Symposium on the role of independent directors in family businesses. 

In February, Washington University in St. Louis hosted their third annual Family Business Symposium.  The purpose of the symposium was to bring together students, faculty, and family business owners to gain insight into the unique challenges family-owned businesses face. The focus of this year’s symposium centered around two key themes:  the sustainability of family business and the role of outside parties, specifically independent directors, in family business operations.

Mike DeCola, HBM’s CEO, moderated the panel discussion on “The Role of Independent Directors in Family Business.” Panelists included John Dubinsky, Independent Director (Drury Inns and Stifel) and CEO (Westmoreland Associates), Jeff Miller, Independent Director (Watlow Electric) and Former President (MARKEM Corporation) and Carol O’Neill, Group President, Packaging (Barry-Wehmiller).

The panelists launched into a discussion on the importance of independent directors in family businesses.  One of the most obvious benefits independent directors provide is serving as a check and balance on management decisions. They can share a perspective on management decisions that offers a complete view of the business to family stakeholders.

Independent directors also play a role as facilitators. Alignment among family members is important, and engagement levels among family stakeholders can vary widely.  Independent directors can help to “connect the dots” among a diverse set of voices. They can also facilitate alignment within the family, which reduces role ambiguity and clarifies the strategic direction of the business.

Engaging independent directors is a step that not every family business is familiar with or sees value in doing. Family stakeholders are wise to consider the overall benefit independent parties can provide both as experienced leaders and as subject matter experts. When appointing independent directors, family members benefit from balancing both the short and long-term objectives of the family business.  Through a thoughtful process, family stakeholders may choose to appoint a subject matter expert to provide additional perspective on strategic areas of focus for the business.  For example, independent directors may come from backgrounds such as general management, finance, commercial (sales and marketing), or proficiency in talent development.

Mike DeCola facilitated an engaging dialogue around these topics related to independent directors, effectively leveraging the expertise of the panel. Based on the audience engagement, it was evident that the role of independent directors is a relevant topic for many family business owners and managers.

You can learn more about Washington University Olin School of Business events by clicking here.