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Family Business in Asia: Notes from My Travels

By Dennis T. Jaffe, Ph.D.
Saybrook University

We all know that family business is a universal, completely global phenomena, but to see the vitality and diversity of families in business everywhere is deeply moving.
I have just returned from a month in S. Asia and Australia, filled with the memories of meeting scores of families, who are nearly all actively engaged in navigating between generations.

Are family businesses different there? Of course they are, but what was most striking to me was not the diversity and cultural differences, but the universality of the dramas of family and business transition. It is breath taking to see the speed of change that is engulfing Asia. While we know that many family businesses cannot survive, those that do are all taking a global view of growth. To help them, the next generation family members I met have used the family resources to get the best educations they can. One seeming difference in Asia is that the tradition of serving the family means that every scion is ready and willing, and striving to be able, to lead the family. I met many medium sized businesses where every sibling (emphatically not just the males!) would apprentice somewhere with the ultimate intention of being ready to enter the service of the family. The willingness of several family members to be part of the business, and the family’s interest in funding sometimes several businesses is a source of strength as the businesses seek to expand but to maintain ownership within the family.

I had the privilege of doing a workshop at the Asia-Pacific conference of the Family Business Network, on defining one’s personal values to the whole workshop. Everyone was able to use values cards to develop their personal values pyramid. The intensity of the sharing of values within families showed me that the stereotype that Asian families are not comfortable in dialogue and sharing within the family may have been true in the past, but is not longer the case. Indeed, the sharing in the conference was dramatic. There were panels and presentations about being part of the next generation, for women in family business, and also a very unique and quite unprecedented discussion by the matriarchs of some very large families, where they talked about the difficulty of being both a traditional Asian wife, and working within a family business.

As the families go through the transition, mostly from the founder to the second generation, with the third generation growing to adulthood, the many families I met were eagerly seeking guidance on how to set up family councils, create a family constitution, define family values and mission, and to work collaboratively and transparently in the next generation, to keep the entrepreneurial spirit of the family alive. The Asian families seem very thoughtful in how they diversify into the next generation.

After my trip to Singapore and Malaysia, I journeyed to Sydney and presented at the second annual conference of family offices in Australia. This gathering, like the FBN, was well attended by committed families eager to consider the transition from having a legacy business, to becoming a family with diversified family enterprises. There were many third and even fourth generation families present, who were making this transition, and, like their Asian counterparts, considering the need to become more conscious and explicit in defining their governance and development of family leadership for the next generation.

I came away feeling that the focus of family business is no longer just a Western, or US field of study. Universities and organizations of family business are emerging in every country, and they are in communication through writing and conference, but the new ideas, and even the new energy, can arise anywhere in the world. To be informed about what happening, you cannot gather ideas from any single country.

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Comment by Ricci M. Victorio on May 14, 2010 at 5:40pm
Dennis - what a fascinating trip and how I wish I could have been there!! This continues to justify that the basic tenets of what makes up for successful families that own businesses are universal. Thanks for sharing!

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