Outside influence creates cross-border perspective for family businesses

The greater the influence of non-family members on the strategy of a family business, the better the company does internationally, and the higher the revenue it generates abroad. Family businesses set themselves apart in the global arena by their long-term orientation and their focus on sustainable business relations. International success is contingent on such factors as a well-functioning labour market and a high level of interpersonal trust in the country in question.

These are the main conclusions that are drawn in the report ‘Grenzen verleggen’ (Expanding horizons), a study conducted by the Erasmus Centre for Family Business (ECFB) at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), in collaboration with BDO Netherlands and Rabobank. The report looks at how family businesses tackle globalisation.

The report shows that although family businesses are known for being conservative, their approach to international business is nothing short of expeditious. Over 60 per cent of the about 270,000 Dutch family businesses export products; 70 per cent invest internationally or have a foreign associate. And, nearly 60 per cent have one or more subsidiaries outside of the Netherlands.

Cross-border growth opportunities and risk diversification

It is only natural for family businesses to look beyond the border, given that they clearly stand to benefit from pushing their boundaries. To illustrate: internationally operating family businesses post a gross profit margin of 7.9 per cent on average; this margin stands at 4.8 per cent for family business with domestic operations only. Foreign markets not only offer growth opportunities and a perspective of higher revenues, but they also allow family businesses to spread their risks better and give them the chance to expand their product offering.

“Technological developments and less restricted trade have made it increasingly convenient and appealing to do business internationally,” says Pursey Heugens, Professor of Organisation Theory at RSM and Director of the ECFB. He says family businesses are reaping the benefits of these opportunities too, especially in emerging economies. What is unique about family businesses is that they are looking for sustainable business relations with like-minded partners. “That’s what gives them a particular strategic edge in countries that focus on the long term,” says Prof. Heugens.

Outsider gives that extra push

One of the factors that determine the degree to which family businesses focus on globalisation is the level of control family members want to keep of the company. “Companies that are open to welcoming an outside shareholder or CEO to provide input into their strategy are generally more internationally oriented than their counterparts that aren’t open to that option,” says Joost Vat, Partner at BDO and an expert in the area of family businesses.

The home culture also plays a role in Vat’s opinion: the more faith family businesses have in foreigners, the sooner they will decide to take their business across the border.

Challenges: labour and capital

Family businesses are not always successful abroad. A problem that affects them more than the average company is a relatively poorly developed labour market, for instance if workers do not have the required qualifications.

“The scarce talent that is available then tends to prefer an established corporate rather than joining a relatively unknown foreign family business, which is usually a little smaller,” says Mirelle Pennings, Director of Corporate Clients Netherlands at Rabobank. She goes on to explain that culture plays a role here too. “Conversely, in countries where there is a lot of interpersonal trust, such as Denmark and Germany, it’s easier for family businesses to gain access to the labour market. The same goes for local financing.”

About the study

The information on the globalisation of family businesses is based on two recent studies of the Erasmus Centre For Family Business (ECFB). The first study looks at a large number of countries and maps out how appealing the social and economic climate is to family businesses in particular. The study took a three-step approach. First, it was determined for 49 different countries whether family businesses did better or worse in that context than non-family businesses. In the second step, the ‘family business bonus/penalty scheme’ was linked up to a number of formal (statutory) and informal cultural and social location-based factors. The third step was to compile an international index based on factors that had a significant effect on the performance of family businesses; this index also included countries outside the original set of 49.

The second study is qualitative in nature and designed to find out more about how enterprising family businesses shift their operations to a foreign location. The study focused on companies from three European countries: the Netherlands, Italy and Switzerland.

Download the full report ‘Expanding horizons’ (in Dutch) here.

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

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