(or should I say a family TOAST, because wine.)
It’s the holiday season in 2020, and family is on my mind in a different way than in years past. For many of us, the holidays are a time to come together with family and celebrate, whether with the family you were born with or the family you choose. This year is, of course, painfully different, with the pandemic keeping many of us isolated from our loved ones. Regardless, this seemed like a very appropriate week to blog about another topic near and dear to our Sip Wines hearts: the family-owned business, which you’ll find among so many of our winery partners.
Funny story: I was very unsure of how to start a blog post about family, given what a complicated topic it can be. I decided a good strategy to get motivated would be to choose a light and fluffy Christmas movie as background noise. Overwhelmed with the number of choices that involved a prince, I instead selected “A Puppy For Christmas,” thinking I couldn’t go wrong with a movie featuring a Cockapoo. Yikes. In a nutshell, Noelle does fall in love with her lumberjack-ish coworker, they do save the family Christmas tree farm (by finding a bag of cash in the barn, no seriously, that actually happens), and they get another Cockapoo to keep the first one company. So that was an hour and a half of my life I’ll never get back, and I didn’t write a word.
Why was it so hard for me to get started on a blog post about family-owned businesses? Maybe it’s the fact that the only thing all family-owned businesses truly have in common, across the board, is the element of family—and literally every family is different. It’s not like sustainability or renewable energy, which have agreed-upon scientific definitions, concrete goals, and manifest in well-established practices. “Family-owned businesses” can run the gamut from the local gas station or bodega, to the fancy restaurant downtown, all the way up to Walmart. It was a daunting prospect to summarize such a broad topic, and I think I psyched myself out a little.
What is a family business, anyway?
Wikipedia defines a “family business” as “a commercial organization in which decision-making is influenced by multiple generations of a family, related by blood or marriage or adoption, who has both the ability to influence the vision of the business and the willingness to use this ability to pursue distinctive goals.” Inc.com says that “a family-owned business may be defined as any business in which two or more family members are involved and the majority of ownership or control lies within a family.”
Actually though, when we talk about a “family-owned business,” I think we usually have something more specific in mind than just a literal description of the entity owning the businesses, and it’s not Walmart (with the caveat that I’m going to have to rely mostly on my own impressions here, because as I said, this isn’t a scientifically-defined topic like renewable energy). To me, there’s a strong element of nostalgia around the idea of a family business, along with a whiff of romance; it suggests something more wholesome, more pure, than the corporate behemoths taking over the world. I suspect that impression stems a bit from the classically American, Reagan-esque notion of “family values,” and far more so from the number of families I know who own businesses. To me, a family business is the “mom and pop” hardware store on the corner, or the local bakery that’s been around for generations, or the quirky bookstore that we hope doesn’t get beaten into the ground by a corporation whose name rhymes with Shmamazon.
Or, in the case of today’s blog, it’s the small winery tucked away in a small Oregon or California or New York valley founded by a family with a dream, run with purpose and a strong connection to the land and its bounty, creating a product deeply imbued with determination and love. And deliciousness. On those points I can speak with absolute certainty, because I’ve spoken with some of our Sip Wines family-owned winery partners and been privileged to hear their stories, and also I’ve tried a lot of their wines and YUM.
A brief business history lesson based on things I know
(I shall now make my words ring with authority.) My impression is that for the vast majority of modern human history, using the term “family business” was kind of like asking for “Italian sausage” in Italy. After all, business usually revolved primarily around family. Farms, markets, tailor shops, whatever, most of them were started by families, run by families, and stayed in families.
Things started to change somewhat with the introduction of factories and mass production and Ford’s good old assembly line, but the 20th century was when all kinds of ish went down, especially following World War II. Thanks to American post-war prosperity and world superpower status, suddenly everyone wanted everything to be the same—automized, streamlined, cookie-cutter. There was a ton of money in the economy, and consumerism skyrocketed. Everyone wanted the same stuff--the house in the suburbs, the car, the TV, whatever—and mass production was the way for the most people to get it. There was also a new emphasis on convenience, especially for housewives, with a particular focus on processed and pre-packaged food (the notorious TV dinner being a prime example).
And then there was franchising: “A form of marketing and distribution in which the owner of a business system (the franchisor) grants to an individual or group of individuals (the franchisee) the right to run a business selling a product or providing a service using the franchisor's business system.” The concept of franchising has been around for a while, but it really took off in the 1950s with the advent of television advertising and national marketing campaigns. Usually we think of fast food restaurants as the classic example, but it’s definitely not limited to burgers. Hotels, cleaning services, real estate, even UPS stores fall under the franchise umbrella. I don’t want to go down an econ rabbit hole, especially since it was my worst grade in college, but one of the benefits that franchising offers consumers is the ability to rely on consistency across brands—there’s a lot of comfort in knowing that whether you go to McDonald’s in Los Angeles or Trenton, your Big Mac will be basically the same.
Consistency does come at a price, and in most instances, that price is personality. Makes sense, given that personality is basically the antithesis of uniformity. A franchise owner can be pretty far removed from a particular location, in most instances, not to mention the fact that almost all aspects of the business are dictated by corporate. That’s not to say that a franchise owner isn’t invested in the business, but that owner doesn’t have much control over it; I would venture to guess that the majority of people who purchase franchises do so primarily, if not solely, because it offers a way to make money, and not because they feel such a personal connection to, like, the smell of Subway sandwiches.
“Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.”
Oh, that Machiavelli, always good for a one-liner. Actually, I was just looking for a good Renaissance quote as a cute segue into the point I want to make about the recent family business renaissance that I think we’re seeing, running parallel to our renewed desire to preserve historic buildings and areas and manifesting in movements like “shop local.” By renaissance, I mean in terms of our appreciation of family businesses as something to be celebrated and supported, which I think could also correlate to an increased interest in the younger generations to join their own family businesses. My research uncovered at least two reasons for some serious family business love.
First, our culture is back to loving the personal experience. We’re all about connection these days, and it ties together with local and small love. Ok fine, lots of us still patronize the ubiquitous mermaid-represented coffee chain from time to time, but the local coffee shops are where it’s at. And it’s not just finding unique places instead of corporate chains, or trendy new hot spots. I grew up and still live in a small city that’s having its own version of a renaissance, and alongside all the new stuff opening up, I’m seeing all these newcomers arrive and completely embrace the family businesses that have been here since I was a child, precisely because it’s so personal. These families feel like our families.
Second, there’s a lot of evidence that family businesses outperform others, and one of the main reasons is that family ownership leads to its own version of business sustainability. One article I found identified the following factors as significantly more present among family-owned businesses:
- Long-term orientation and a focus on stewardship: “Family business leaders are committed to taking care of the enterprise and handing it over to the next generation in better condition than when they received it… ask owners whom do they work for, they answer ‘for my kids and their kids.’”
- Institutional memory: “[F]amily members’ long relationship with the [business] and deep knowledge of the industry also increased their ability to bet on solid innovation investments… This longevity in the business also partly explains the attitude toward managing assets; [l]eaders of these companies have lived through decades of economic cycles, so they don’t react to these ups and downs in the way many non-family businesses do.”
- Balancing tradition and change: “[F]amily businesses tend to adapt well to technological and other change even as they continue to embrace tradition… because leaders focus on the next generation, and younger family members have the ear of leadership. In other words, dining room conversations move easily into the board room.”
I could go on, but I think you get the point: family businesses can be pretty great.
I mean honestly, when I first started thinking about this blog, those song lyrics popped into my head. How could they not? But in the months that I’ve been working with Sip Wines, it’s really starting to feel true. I’ve had the chance to talk to so many families running these small wineries and learn their stories, and it’s made me feel so connected to them. Some of them were raised on a vineyard and carried on the tradition, while others are newer to the business but raising their own families in the fold, but I feel confident in saying that all of them have incorporated their wines into their families. There’s certainly family love there, and you can tell just by tasting their wine. And the best part is that they’re all willing to invite us into a little piece of their families, by sharing their wines with us. I speak from experience when I say it’s an invitation you shouldn’t turn down, because when you try these wines, you’ll feel the love.