Colin Bierbaum grew up watching his father head out each month for personal advisory group meetings – structured gatherings where members discuss the challenges and experiences of being part of a family business.
“My father had been involved in his personal advisory group for about 20 years,” says Mr. Bierbaum, president of BlueStone Properties Inc., a London, Ont., property management and development company. “So I have all these memories of observing him attend these meetings.”
Today, as a third-generation member of his family’s business, Mr. Bierbaum has his own personal advisory group – a benefit included in his membership with Family Enterprise Xchange (FEX), an Oakville, Ont.-based national association of business families and their professional advisers.
“There are a lot of unique challenges that family businesses must overcome above and beyond the challenges faced by businesses that aren’t family-owned,” says Mr. Bierbaum. “That’s why these personal advisory groups are so important – they offer a forum where people can share experiences and lessons learned with other people who know first-hand what it’s like to be in a family business.”
Personal advisory groups for family businesses aren’t new or exclusive to FEX, and their structures, mandates and rules may vary from one organization to another. At FEX, these peer groups are organized by geographic regions and typically limited to fewer than a dozen members per group.
Family members and competing businesses cannot be in the same FEX personal advisory group, and all members are bound by strict confidentiality rules – even long after they’ve left their group.
“Mutual trust is a key factor in the success of personal advisory groups,” says Bill Brushett, president and CEO at FEX. “Another important factor is time commitment: when you join a personal advisory group, you need to be able commit to attending all the meetings, which take place every four to six weeks and last about three hours. There’s also a retreat once or twice a year, and these are usually held over two to three days at a remote location.”
Personal advisory groups aren’t meant to be how-to sessions on solving business growth or revenue problems, says Mr. Brushett. Instead, they’re intended to provide safe spaces where members can talk about issues such as tricky family dynamics, acquisitions and succession planning from the vantage point of their own experiences.
“These discussions are usually centred on the human side of family businesses and not about how members can grow their business or how they should deal with their competitors,” says Mr. Brushett. “The focus really is on relationships and the challenges of maintaining harmony with family members while also managing a very competitive business.”
The discussions can get very candid and personal, says Mr. Bierbaum. For him and other members of his personal advisory group – which has been together for almost 10 years now – the monthly updates on family and business affairs has developed into deep, lifelong friendships.
“My group has been through so much together – weddings, births, deaths, divorce and also the highs and lows of our businesses,” says Mr. Bierbaum. “We talk about so many things – our families, siblings, spouses, as well as who’s growing through an acquisition, launching a new product or shutting down a shop.”
To date, FEX counts about 50 personal advisory groups across the country – a number that continues to grow, says Mr. Brushett, who notes that there’s currently a waitlist to get into a group.
“Our members get a lot of value out of this program,” he says. “We’ve gotten testimonials like ‘It saved my family’ and “I wouldn’t be working in my family business if not for the help of my personal advisory group.’”
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