What the future holds for Manchester’s family businesses

Great Manchester Business Conference

The Great Manchester Business Conference on Friday March 6th 2015 was a busy, content-packed day, outlining the trends and opportunities for Greater Manchester’s businesses in the next few years. Here’s my take on what the future holds for family firms:

Devolution

Sir Howard Bernstein outlined the huge impact of devolution to a Greater Manchester combined authority: Manchester will take control over a single budget for housing, health and transport. For firms whose staff live and work within Manchester, improved commuting could be an early win. Many family firms employ older people and with better healthcare resulting in even more workers being fit and healthy beyond the traditional retirement age. Improved housing means that more students and those seeking work will be able to move to Manchester to find jobs, meaning a larger skills pool for family firms looking to recruit.

Manufacturing

The irrepressible Wayne Jones, Chair of Stockport Economic Alliance and champion of manufacturing, reminded us that “products are make in a factory; brands are made in your mind”. Family firms need to promote their unique brand to customers, suppliers and end-users if they are going to retain a competitive edge in a highly globalised and competitive industry.

Family firms should take advantage of the increased government funding for innovation in Greater Manchester Manufacturing Strategy and the trend for reshoring described in the Alliance Report on textile manufacturing. Technological innovation, close understanding of customer requirements and responding quickly to requests for new products will be crucial for survival.

Tourism

Family firms in the tourism industry could take advantage of an increase in hotel beds from 8.5K to 9.2K in the next two years. Tourists from China and the UAE continue to increase, to the extent that Manchester is now the number 1 shopping destination outside London. Family firms in the restaurant business, looking to expand a known offering, will do well in Manchester.

Technology

The Manchester Corridor and Manchester Science Park continue to offer an agglomeration of skills and financing for family firms in the high-tech industry. Microsoft’s speech recognition and translation software will make internationalisation easier for family firms who do not speak other languages. The megatrends of big data, social engagement, mobile users and cloud computing will continue. Family firms who underestimate the potential of their young employees and customers will be left behind.

Financing

Family firms can take advantage of an increasing number of financial products: Urica as an alternative to invoice financing, the British Business Bank for firms who want to grow. While the banks speaking at the event seemed to think there were plenty of products and clear signposting for SMEs, the businesses themselves were not convinced.

John Ashcroft and Steph McGovern

John Ashcroft from GMCC and Steph McGovern from the BBC – our hosts for the day

In conclusion, the future is bright for family firms who can provide high quality, scaleable products and who are able to respond quickly to technological change.

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Interviewing as a Martial Art

Pierre Bourdieu, the provocative, brilliant, exasperating French thinker, described sociology as a martial art:

I often say sociology is a martial art, a means of self-defense. Basically, you use it to defend yourself, without having the right to use it for unfair attacks. Pierre Bourdieu

Now in my second year of my PhD, I have completed and transcribed around 30 interviews, of both family firms and policy makers. These interviews have, at times felt, like defending the value of research. Particularly if the interviewees have not themselves attended university. They are keen to talk about their struggles and successes. They also want to know how my research will help other family firms. These are valid questions and ones that every business school academic should be able to answer: why is theoretical, conceptual work important in a business school? How do we help these many small businesses succeed, or make their exit less traumatic? I hope that, for a start, putting these businesses in touch with our students, researchers and other resources can help them grow. And that eventually, yes, my research will help explain why some family firms successfully innovate, why others do not, and what “familiness” even means in the context of business innovation.

But a martial art involves violence and we should not be afraid of passionately defending our right to understand the world in more depth and to explore areas that have not previously been studied. This is, partly, what universities are for.

Martial Arts by dunnodt

The family firms who have been willing to talk to me have been curious about the research, though I suspect that they are delighted someone takes an interest in their business, and wants to learn more about them. Bourdieu was passionate about the need for academics to take a stand, to be activists in the real world. As a business school researcher, taking a stand for me will involve teaching the “attack and defense” moves learned by family firms, to students, policy-makers and firm owners themselves. This will also be a way of honouring those who have given up their time to talk to me.

“La Sociologie est un sport de combat” http://icarusfilms.com/new2002/socio.html