On the Today Programme this morning I was struck by a story that noted 65%1 of all businesses in the UK are family businesses, with one butcher being handed down since the 16th Century! Obviously the weight of this history must bring certain problems but it also places the focus very much on long term planning, the workforce have a significant stake in such businesses and even non family members tend to have much longer tenures of employment. Generally staff at this type of business report much greater satisfaction and they tend to have much lower borrowing than the publically limited counterparts. Better yet they are anchored in communities, they are held to account by the people around them. I know this is naïve and could be seen as the business equivalent of Downton Abbeys paternalist gentry but it is certainly true to say that medium size family businesses are generally more focussed on sustaibaility than your average ftse 350 company.
So the question arises: Why does this 65% of companies in the UK only account for around 5% of GDP2? Where as in Germany nearly 95%3 of businesses have a family at their core accounting for between 40-50%4 of all output? The answer is in two parts, the first I blame management consultants and latterly the tax system.
Most family run businesses revolve around people. They contain a class of owner managers, many of whom grew up in the business, they are not necessarily brilliant managers and rarely do they go on to become CEO's of FTSE 100 companies. Management consultants would say they have too much vested interest to make objective decisions and would doubtless ramble on about emotional connections. We have a culture in the business world of specialism, each role in a business is very tightly focussed on very small areas, in big companies the management are specialist generalists; expert managers who can change the fortunes on enormous organisations simply by arriving each morning. How else would they be worth the millions of pounds they get paid every year? The answer is of course that no one earns that much money, they might be paid it but in reality the idea that they contribute 20-200 times more than a 'shop floor' worker is patently false. And I'm not the first to wax satirical about 'cult of the leader' as often it's called and nor will I be the last, but I digress, this is about family firms (worry not I will come back to this topic).
Many of the problems of a developed world I would put down to over optimisation, the idea that waste is always bad and that we must squeeze every last gram of productivity out of people. This is especially obvious further down the pecking order, there have always been menial jobs and there always will be and often they are the most important to society, I'd sooner live without Doctors than Bin Men or shelf stackers (and last longer too!). But what we have lost in the UK is the mid range job, the job that involved many skills: you may be a shopkeeper but there would be elements of book keeping, stock management and buying decisions. Now each of these roles is separated out in to a tortuous monotony. It is almost impossible to work your way up to the top, there are graduate programmes to ensure that talented individuals waste no time actually learning how the business works, the gap between senior managers and workers has never been bigger.
And the tax system doesn't help either. Lets talk about entrepreneurs, everyone like them right? We need more if anything. And I'd agree. But there is an interesting quirk of a very sensible idea that makes long term considerations almost untenable. Say you are an entrepreneur with a business worth £10million. If you sell it you will need to pay £1million in Capital Gains tax and the rest is yours. If you wanted to keep the business the marginal tax rate is between 42.5%-50% (Dividends vs Income), meaning if you wanted to get the same return over say 20 year the business would need to earn over £20million. For many entrepreneurs it's a no brainer, you sell the business and move on. The incentive to encourage entrepreneurs to start business encourages them to start several with a purely cash motive when what the country really needs is long term investment. Worse yet these small/medium companies get eaten up by big ones, concentrating our productive capacity with organisations focussed on optimising output rather than managing risks and investing in people/communities.
I'm not saying we should discourage serial entrepreneurs; people who have ideas can have lots of them. But it strikes me as no coincidence that the German economy was far more robust to the crisis than the British one and that their midsized family companies have consistently grown even with very weak demand. Where I think the real difference lies is in terms of planning, family business plan to survive the worst, they have low borrowing and big cash reserves so that when recession hits they can weather it with minimal disruption. But big companies (PLC's) need to maximise return on investment investors bond mangers with big debts, reward managers with bonuses on short term gains, focus on the stock price ticker rather than the great grandkids opportunities.
I guess I could equally argue for co-ops, but I'll build up to the outright leftist rantings!
- Institute of Family Businesses http://www.ifb.org.uk/media-centre/press-releases/the-uk's-oldest-family-businesses---stability-in-troubled-economic-times.aspx
- Bit of extrapolation hear based on tax receipts quoted by IFB, but it's certainly no more than 10% based on NS stats.
- Dw World.DE http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,15048390,00.html
- FFI http://www.ffi.org/default.asp?id=398#Anchor-Europe