Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley

Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley

excerpt from the new book by Ross Shafer (coincidentally, it's an interview with Ira Bryck)

Are You Relevant?

Twelve Reasons Great Organizations Thrive in Any Economy

by Ross Shafer, copyright Ross Shafer Productions, LLC 2009

Publisher: Thomson-Shore - First Printing 2009




from Chapter 13: Don't Let Your Expertise Expire

How to Keep a Family Business Relevant

Are you in business with your dad?

I honor any family who works hard to build up a family business, and then has offspring who want to take over the reins when the previous generation wants to retire. However, there is a tendency for some family businesses to insist that the next generation of management try to behave like the older generation.

That’s why I applaud people like Ira Bryck, who created the Family Business Center at the University of Massachusetts. Bryck is a product of a family business himself, and he knows the pitfalls of transferring ownership and management styles within the family. His approach to challenge family members and keep them thinking in relevant terms is remarkable, and may be necessary for some of these venerable businesses to survive.

Ross Shafer: You believe that you have been able to challenge family businesses in Massachusetts to stay relevant. How do you approach this?

Ira Bryck: I swear that I invented the phrase “learning community,” but since everybody else is using it, I probably just picked it up somewhere. Basically, what I think I’ve created is a community of people who describe themselves as non-joiners and cynics of fads and management theories. I also know my audience. As successful as they are, they don’t think of themselves as great thinkers. So to keep their interests piqued and get them talking with one another, we bring in challenging speakers to shake them up. That’s why we had you come in.

The other thing about closely held businesses is that they’re run by very secretive people. I think that’s part of the reason why they hire family members. It’s like a phrase in the Mafia called “omerta” which translates to, “you tell, you die.’ Family businesses keep things very close to the vest. I came from retail, where I sold underpants, Boy Scout uniforms, Girl Scout uniforms, suits and dresses, etc. We sold thousands of items. Here, I sell wisdom, in the form of outside speakers, experience, frankness, and honesty. And that’s where I feel like I need to stay ahead of other organizations, like a chamber of commerce, or a Rotary, or a trade association. When they get together at one of those meetings, they do a lot of chest pounding, or do a lot of bragging. They really can’t get down in the dirt of that honest discussion like we do. I’ve been told many times by my members that they feel more wise and honest and frank in my room than even in other organizations.

RS: How is your organization different?

IB: I really have made it a point that you can ask a stupid question and you can disagree with the speaker, and on evaluations, many times the gem I get is something that another audience member said while disagreeing with the presenter. And so I really do try to make this a learning community in which the learning is a two-way street.

RS: You also believe the diversity of your group works in its favor.

IB: I do. A lot of people tell me that they belong to trade associations. And what I say to them is, “OK, so you get together with a thousand other precision machinists. You all have the same problems and you all have the same solutions, and I’m a believer that you can’t think out of the box in that setting. You can only really think with people who are not in your box, so you need to get together with a diverse population, and build that diverse population." We figured out a way that people can talk about what they have in common, which is nothing obvious.

RS: You would get along well with the business trainer Joel Barker. He is a huge fan of cross-pollination of diverse ideas.

IB: I know about Joel Barker. But what he says is that you always run out of the useful thoughts and you always need a wacky outsider. The wacky outsider is always the person that’s going to say, “Why don’t you have the customer surrogate?" I think that I have given permission to people to take a risk in the room. The other thing I repeat so often is the scene in the movie Annie Hall, where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are walking down the street, and Woody Allen stops her and says, “Gimme a kiss ... because we're just gonna go home later, right? ... And there's gonna be all that tension. You know, we never kissed before, and I'll never know when to make the right move or anything. So we'll kiss now, we'll get it over with, and then we'll go eat. OK? ... And we'll digest our food better." So I frequently will say to my audience, “I give you permission to kiss. I give you permission to be brave, to talk about things that you’re nervous talking about.”

RS: What would they be nervous talking about?

IB: A lot of them feel ashamed. They’ll say, “We are the most dysfunctional family.” And then I say, “Raise your hand if you were raised in a dysfunctional family.”" Everybody raises their hand. I say, “OK. Get over it.”

RS: You are providing safety in a high-level university setting.

IB: Right. And it’s normalized. People go home from the first meeting, and a lot of times they’ll say, “I don’t know what I learned specifically, but I feel so much more normal.”" And one of the biggest learning disabilities is thinking that you have a learning disability. So if I say, “I want you to be able to go home with one thing you’re going to do differently," that’s not a huge task. They can do it.

RS: The “no-stupid-questions-and-no-stupid-answers” rule?

IB: Right. My father had an expression in Yiddish that, when translated, said, “From a fool, you can also learn.” What I say is, “From a retailer, you can also learn. From a hospitality person, you can also learn. Just stay open to the fact that somebody tonight is going to say something that’s going to save you time, money, aggravation, and so on.”

RS: You meet once a month. How do you select your topic?

IB: I always try to keep my ear to the ground to hear where people are suffering. They have frank conversations with people. I’m always doing these mini focus-group conversations with whomever I get on the phone. I ask, “How are you doing?” “Where does it hurt?" “What does the quarter look like for you?” If I start to see themes, then I’ll say, “OK, we’re going to do a program on ‘blank’.’”

I feel like a bumblebee. If I pick up this piece of pollen from over here, I may drop it over there. I’m saying, “Does this pollen from retail help you over here in manufacturing?”" And then if a lot of people tell me, “You know what’s frustrating to me is I hear all these great theories, and I never know how to plug them in, and my siblings and my parents and my cousins back at work create a real problem for me,”" and I’ll start to say, “You know what, here is a disease that’s very common.” This person thinks that they’re the only one to suffer like that, but it’s very common.

So then I’ll start to gather info for my next meeting. I have a long list of speakers and topics and I might think of three or four people who I think can tell great relevant stories about “Here’s how we deal with resistance from family members.” “Here’s how we realize that we’re about to hit an iceberg.” “Here’s how we figure out our options.” “Here’s how we figured out that it was worth the time and money to fix things in this way.” Invariably someone will leave the meeting saying, “You know, I think we just figured out how to drop being a manufacturing company and become a marketing company.”

About The Author: Ross Shafer is also the author of Nobody Moved Your Cheese, Customer Empathy, and The Customer Shouts Back. Organizations hire Ross as a keynote speaker and trainer for this ability to cross-pollinate best practices and innovations from a myriad of industries.

To contact Ross go to: or email

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