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Family business growth pilot prompts vision for national research hub

A national Rural Family Business Research Hub is being proposed for the West Country. The intention is to provide training, research and knowledge exchange.

The Research Hub is being proposed following the success of the Family Business Growth Programme (FBGP) which was set up to boost the regional economy by providing family farms and firms in rural Devon and South Somerset with specialist advice to enable future generations to prosper.

As a legacy of the programme, the University of Exeter and Duchy College Rural Business School have developed a proposal for a Rural Family Business Research Hub. Funding is now being sought to turn the plans into reality.

The FBGP was a year-long pilot project established as part of a government scheme to stimulate enterprise and investment in the countryside.  Over the past 12 months the programme has supported 74 farming and non-farming rural businesses in Devon and South Somerset with guidance on issues unique to family businesses, such as governance and succession planning.

Dr Matt Lobley from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Rural Policy Research explained:“While compiling feedback from the teams of specialist advisers who have been working with rural family businesses on the FBGP over the past year, we recognised that we have gathered a huge amount of information and knowledge and expertise which needs to be available to the tens of thousands of family farms and businesses that operate nationwide.

“Family businesses dominate the private sector economy and therefore play a crucial part in our economic growth. With as many as 70% failing in the second generation, 85% between the second and third generation and 96% between the third and fourth generations, there is a clear reason for establishing a centre of excellence for rural family businesses where there is ongoing research, training for professional advisers and communication of best practice.”

The Family Business Growth Programme was designed and managed by Clinton Devon Estates, itself a 700 year old family business, in partnership with the University of Exeter to support the government’s Rural Growth agenda. In 2011, Defra awarded funding to the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership to become one of five pilot Regional Growth Networks (RGNs) in England and invited proposals for projects to stimulate the rural economy.    

The FBGP pilot involved representatives from 17 professional firms and six not for profit organisations attending a two day family business master class at the world renowned global business school, the Institute of Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland where they received tuition from international family business experts, Professor Joachim Schwass and Ben Bryant. Observers from the National Farmers Union (NFU), CLA and Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) also attended along with two Devon-based family businesses that provided real-life case studies for the delegates. They were Patrick McCaig from Otter Breweries and farmers Peter and Di Wastenage from Budleigh Salterton. 

John Varley, Estates Director at Clinton Devon Estates explained:"By providing the training to professional advisers, such as lawyers, accountants and land agents, as well as not for profit business advisers, the specialist support could be embedded into small and medium sized enterprises straight-away, making a difference to their future success. It would be a truly wonderful legacy of the FBGP if we were able to establish a centre of excellence for rural family firms.”

During the year-long pilot, a total of seven family constitutions and 21 succession plans were agreed, as well as a significant number of conversations being started within rural family businesses on the subject of family constitutions and succession planning. In his final report entitled ‘The Impact of the Family Business Growth Programme’, Dr Matt Lobley said: “Participants strongly asserted that facilitating succession planning was a lengthy process and the impacts hadn’t been felt immediately. However, they clearly anticipated progress in the longer-term.”   

Date: 28 April 2014

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