Gutsy Governance for Family Business Boards

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The Family Business Board Volume 2“We can’t afford the cost of harmony!” declared Bruce Dayton, former CEO of the Dayton Company. He was referring to the way Dayton’s family-only board made decisions through a time-consuming process to achieve consensus. He sensed that the accelerating pace of the retail business required a change in the company’s governance model. The year was 1950, and the five Dayton brothers had not yet grown the single department store—inherited from their father—into what would eventually grow to become Dayton Hudson Corporation and later the retail giant Target Corp. “There is a new phenomenon coming called the mall. At present we don’t have the distribution, financing, and real estate know-how to go there. But the longer we wait the harder it will be to get in. And if we don’t go, we will become five brothers owning a smaller and smaller business together.”

The Dayton brothers’ way out of that dilemma, which was courageous at the time, was to compensate for their lack of know-how and clear strategy by bringing in outside expertise onto their board, while making a personal commitment to become students and proponents of excellent corporate governance. They recruited independent directors who could help the company select real estate, raise capital, and set up a multi-store distribution system. They saw reshaping the board as a key first step in developing the strategy and capability needed to pursue an opportunity for exponential growth.

Bruce Dayton provided these insights in an interview with me a few years ago, and his story is included in the newest addition to the NACD Director’s Handbook Series, The Family Business Board, Volume 2: Governance for Agility and Growth, published this month (March 2016). Dayton was ahead of his time. His strategic use of the board is becoming more common among family-owned companies today, as evidenced in the 2015–2016 NACD Private Company Governance Survey: Family Business Boards. The survey showed many points of comparison between the boards of family businesses and public companies, and also revealed that family business boards have their own governance style oriented to the long term. The proliferation of family-business education programs and peer networks for directors of large family-controlled companies, including NACD’s upcoming Advanced Director Professionalism, is empowering more owners to create sophisticated, tailored governance structures that include independent director expertise while also cultivating the family’s continuing contribution to the value of the business.

Family business board development requires a champion and a plan.

The Dayton brothers’ story illustrates important steps on a path to more effective family business governance. Because there may be many obstacles (sometimes political and emotional) to be overcome in advancing the capability and composition of a family business board, the best leaders of board change are usually well-prepared insiders—who have both strong credibility within the company and high levels of trust among the owning family members. NACD’s new handbook is designed for these “board champions” who want to spark development and expand the capability of an existing board to help the business meet new challenges. The handbook suggests strategies for addressing common sources of resistance to board change in family business and describes the following fundamental steps of board-development planning:

  • Identify and communicate reasons to advance the board, such as new realities on the business horizon, that compel a strategic response.
  • Assess board capability and effectiveness gaps.
  • Bring on independent directors while building owner confidence.
  • Facilitate constructive contributions from both independent and family directors.

Because every family business is different, these basic steps should be customized and implemented in a manner that is acceptable to senior management and leading shareholders. These stakeholders must have confidence that the board changes are the best way to move the company forward. But before that confidence can be built, acts of courage are required. A “champion” has to raise the issue of board readiness and articulate compelling reasons for advancing the board, while charting a board development plan that brings others along.

The risks are higher when family relationships are at stake.

The Dayton brothers reshaped their board as a first step in achieving a series of advances: building the first indoor mall in the United States, becoming developers of mall anchor stores, and later, buying a competing public retail chain before selling their interest in that business to focus on a new quality discount store concept, Target.

For the Daytons, as for many family business owners, recruiting outside, independent directors required the support of informed and educated family members. In their case the speed of change in the business environment required action before an informed family consensus could be achieved. “We recognized that success might require that each of us would eventually have to give up our current management job to someone who could do it better, and even sacrifice our good salaries in the short term for the goal of higher profits and greater long-term returns,” said Dayton. “We knew that sacrifice might be hard for our [families] to understand, but board discussions boosted our confidence that profits would rise, and shared profit would eventually smooth any hard feelings.”

The brothers’ gutsy steps toward better governance not only produced a more powerful company, but also they established precedents that inspired generations of creative family contributions in entrepreneurial business, philanthropy, and public service. The potential to be a part of that kind of long-term generativity is a reason why many of the best independent directors want to work with great family business boards.

Allen Bettis is the author of NACD’s latest handbook for family business boards and is a leader of the NACD Minnesota ChapterAllen will be facilitating a discussion with directors from the featured case study in the newly released handbook at Advanced Director Professionalism in June. If you are interested in attending, click here.

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