As the recession delivers stinging blows to many small businesses, some ventures — the ones owned and operated by families — may be in a unique position to survive and even prosper.
Family businesses often have been around for a generation or more, giving them the experience of riding out economic ups and downs. And they have another advantage that sole proprietorships do not have.
“They can have the strength of the entire family, meaning all sorts of thinking and fiscal resources,” said Jeffrey A. Miller, a family business consultant based in Coral Cables, Fla. “There may be a consolidated family ethic, sometimes traceable for hundreds of years, which in tough times will help them hold steadier than businesses where people aren’t related.”
Of the nation’s seven million or so businesses employing 100 or fewer workers, about 20 percent are owned and operated by more than one family member, said Joseph H. Astrachan, executive director of the Cox Family Enterprise Center at Kennesaw University in Atlanta.
One of those businesses is the Knight family’s 500-acre Smiling Hill Farm, located near Portland, Me., that sells dairy and lumber products. Six 12th-generation Knight siblings in their 40s and 50s — including two sets of fraternal twins — own and manage the farm. Four members of the 13th generation also work there.
Last year’s sales were down about 23 percent from 2007, said Warren Knight, one of the owners. “In challenging times, the history is what keeps you going,” Mr. Knight said. “You don’t want to be the generation that failed,” adding, “Our father, Roger Knight, always says the last crop we raise will be asphalt.”
Mr. Knight’s father recently took each sibling aside to relate cautionary Great Depression stories that his father and grandfather had told him. “At first I listened politely and told my father he was watching too much television,” Mr. Knight recalled. “But he was doing what we all are — drawing on accumulated knowledge and experience.”