Facing down the family firm’s fear of investment

Posted on 28 Oct 2015 by The Manufacturer

‘What’s stopping your business from investing?’ asks Casey Bowden, MD, Harvey Water Softeners.

There’s probably a dozen things that come to mind for manufacturing firms – export prices, fluctuating demand, recruitment issues, supply-chain pressures, politics – the list could go on.

Casey Bowden, MD, Harvey Water Softeners
Casey Bowden, MD, Harvey Water Softeners.

For successful, family businesses though, the problem isn’t a monetary one. Finding the cash to fund investment usually isn’t hard.

Aside from all the traditional models of finance available – investor backing or bank funding – or modern, crowd-funding techniques which offer injections of prepaid cash, family-run firms often also have access to a much wider set of options through stakeholders, equity partners or other interested parties.

For companies with that much history behind them, getting hold of the money isn’t normally the problem – the difficulty isbeing brave enough to spend it.

Anyone running a business with two or more generations of their own family history invested within it will know the experience of growing up inside a firm and learning the ropes from the elders.

The desire to do the family proud is strong, and it often manifests itself in a reluctance to change too much for fear of ‘rocking the boat’.

The world does not stand still however, and when the firm you’re running is in the business of manufacturing, the need to keep up with the latest technologies is doubled.

It usually takes something significant to make this happen. For us it took a new generation taking over – a shift which gave us the chance to work on the business through professional management training rather than just working in the business.

Stepping away from the day-to-day and into professional education gives you space, a rare commodity as a senior manager. That space gives you new insight into how and where investment is most needed in your business, and what you have you do to to make it happen. In short, it makes you braver.

Of course this change in thinking can’t happen overnight – cue the inevitable ‘turning an oil tanker’ analogy – but the best courses help you begin to look at your business objectively rather than emotionally. This makes the investment decision easier and more tailored to your company – because no two situations are ever the same.

The firm I run is not extraordinary, we just make sure that we do one thing extraordinarily well. In our case that’s making household water softeners better than anyone else, and it’s only by daring to invest that we’ve managed to achieve this.

Professional management helped me think about leadership, long-term planning and competitive advantage in a new and structured way. It gave me insight into how other leaders operated their businesses and helped me formalise the right investment strategy.

We’ve since invested £2.5m in our expanded R&D department because technology is where we can find that extra edge over our competitors. We brought in a new operations director to oversee the investment – someone from outside the family with external experience to act as a critical friend to me and, most importantly, get things done.

It’s investment like this which really honours the family firm by ensuring it’s strong enough and well positioned to succeed in the future.