For Dave Robertson, there’s two ways of looking at economic development.
“One is bringing in new business, but the other aspect of it is supporting existing businesses,” Robertson said. “Eighty to ninety percent of all US businesses are considered a family business. When you realize how significant that number is, and you look at the challenges that they face that are kind of unique, you can see where there’s an opportunity to support them and keep them strong.”
Helping local family businesses address those challenges was a major reason Robertson took over as director of the Family Enterprise Center at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith nine years ago, a program that grows the economy of the greater Fort Smith region by helping local family businesses.
“Family businesses tend to operate in a bit of a vacuum because they want to keep their privacy, so they don’t realize that every family business faces the same types of challenges,” Robertson said. “I like to say we’ve taken the discussion away from the dinner table of the family, where it be can delicate or problematic, and bring it into an open and supportive environment where we can talk about those challenges very objectively.”
The FEC supports more than 35 local businesses through quarterly meetings featuring guest speakers presenting on topics such as succession planning, leadership development, communication and conflict, and best practices for family businesses. Ten additional businesses serve as associate members, denoting professionals that are key players in family business succession planning such as banks and trusts, attorneys, accountants and wealth advisors. Family business members can also participate in small peer groups that meet monthly for confidential discussions of common issues and solutions.
“Family businesses are so integral to this area. They hire our graduates, provide internships, and give back philanthropically,” Robertson said. “They just do so much and I don’t think people realize that. You’re supporting yourself when you support a local family business because so much of that comes back. And they’re not going to fold up their tent and leave for greener pastures when times get tough. They’re not going anywhere.”
One of those family businesses is Hannah Oil & Gas, helmed by chief executive officer Bill Hanna. The company donated money to help start the FEC more than a decade ago after Hanna saw the need to establish a community for local family business owners.
“I was looking for help and didn’t know where to go to get it,” Hanna said. “It’s kind of hard to get in a setting and air your dirty laundry and feel that you’re not going to be judged or some way not accepted because of it. But as it turns out, other companies were facing a lot of the same issues. And even though we don’t have the same issues now that we did 12 years ago at Hanna Oil & Gas, we still have issues that we need to talk through in a setting like the one the FEC provides.”
Hanna said the members of his peer group have become like “his brothers.”
“They help me understand others’ points of views and help get through some of the challenges my business is facing,” Hanna said. “The relationships have been incredible. I’ve only missed a handful of FEC meetings in the 12 years I’ve been a part of it.”
Robertson sees the FEC as another way in which UAFS gives back to the greater Fort Smith region through its mission to drive economic development.
For more information about the FEC, call Robertson at 479-788-7799 or visit http://community.uafs.edu/fec/family-enterprise-center.