Inside Business: Myths exploded by family firms

In the popular imagination, family businesses tend to be like that depicted in the television soap opera Dallas. But, according to research just published by the management school at Imperial College, London, that is just one of a number of myths that need exploding.

Contrary to popular belief, most family business owners do not believe in pressurising other family members to join and most people working in the businesses have no regrets about joining up, says the research released last week.

The school's Professor Sue Birley, who carried out the research on behalf of Grant Thornton, an accountancy firm specialising in advising businesses of this type, said: "The study shows that family businesses face a range of complex issues and that their attitude is not necessarily related to their generational position, industry or size. It explodes the myth of family businesses as 'dyed-in-the-wool' dynasties - although they do, of course, exist. Above all, it shows that experience and realistic expectations really do count."

Instead, three distinct groups emerge. These are:

q The Family Out group, made up of those who are most likely to have worked elsewhere before joining or starting the business and as a result have wider business experience. It believes the needs of the business outweigh those of the family.

q The Family Rules group, made up of those more likely to have founded or joined the business directly from school. It believes it is important that family members are closely involved in all aspects of the business and feels strongly that children should become involved at an early stage.

q The Family-Business Jugglers, so called because they seek to achieve a balance between family and business issues. They believe children do not necessarily have to take an interest in the business early on, but that if they do join they should start at the bottom and receive the appropriate training.

Andrew Godfrey, head of the growth and development service division at Grant Thornton, said that he felt the research was good news because it suggested that family businesses were far more professional and commercial than was realised.

The study was based on the views of over 530 members of family businesses with turnovers ranging in size from less than pounds 2m to more than pounds 10m.