The Good, The Bad, And The Blood (Relatives): Vermont’s Family Businesses

Jun 4, 2019

What does it take to run a business not only successfully, but across generations? Is it any easier when your work family is also your actual family? We're talking about Vermont's family-run businesses and the trade-offs and challenges that come from keeping a company within the family.

Joining Vermont Edition for the discussion is Rocki-Lee DeWitt, a management professor at UVM’s Grossman School of Business, sharing her work and research on family-owned farms and small businesses and the inherent hurdles and advantages that come from involving relatives in a business.

And we'll hear from Gina Akley, the sixth-generation president of Trow & Holden Company, a Barre-based toolmaker crafting stonecutting tools since 1890; and from Sam Hooper, owner and president of Vermont Glove in Randolph, who took over what had previously been a business led by one family for generations.

Roughly half of Vermont’s small businesses are family-run, DeWitt estimates, but she says transferring the business between generations can be the most difficult challenge these companies face.

DeWitt compared U.S. Census data and the Small Business Administration's 2019 Vermont profile to estimate 40% to 50% of Vermont's companies are family enterprises where "two or more related parties are working in the business."

"But I know a lot of sole proprietorships," she adds, "and there are a lot of family influences on those enterprises, too."

DeWitt says family companies succeed when new generations are able to work alongside the current leaders for years, often decades.

But the handover from one generation to the next requires careful planning.

“Transition, it takes time," she stressed. "You don’t want to be built around, somebody passes away and now you’re trying to scramble to figure out how to go from point A to point B."

"Absent doing formal planning for that, inheritance laws, regimes, property rights effectively determine what the future of the enterprise is going to be," she said.

Listen to the full conversation above to hear more from DeWitt's research and from the current generation leading Trow & Holden Company and Vermont Glove.

Have a favorite family business? Nominate them for a UVM Family Business Award.

Broadcast live on Wednesday, June 5, 2019 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.