Evolving empires

What began as a project in the University of Lethbridge's Integrated Management Experience (IME) class evolved first into a book, and now into a Small Business Institute centred at the U of L.

Dan Kazakoff, director of the University's Theory Into Practice programs, and Dr. Gordon Hunter, professor of Information Systems in the Faculty of Management, are embarking on an undertaking to link small businesses to the expertise of researchers, professionals and other business people.

Recently, the pair co-authored Little Empires (2008), a book that focused on 11 multi-generation small businesses in Lethbridge, and dedicated a chapter to each. Their findings provide insight for small business owners and for those with entrepreneurial goals.

Dr. M Gordon Hunter, left and Dan Kazakoff bring expertise to entrepreneurs through the Small Business Institute

"Many of those small businesses were actually family businesses that had gone through more than one generation," says Kazakoff. "So through general discussion, Gordon and I thought it might be extremely interesting to find out why it is that some companies or businesses are successful from one generation to another."

Little Empires exposed some unexpected practices within family-run businesses, Hunter says.

"One of the things we found was, in order for these businesses to continue on over multiple generations, someone within the family had to step forward and take over—not only the business but the family entity."

He adds that those who take over often feel a responsibility to interact with their family members in a way that their parents would have wanted or expected - they endeavour to make decisions that benefit both the business and the family as a whole.

Following a presentation to fellow faculty members about the book, Hunter and Kazakoff realized their research and findings dealt mainly with success stories and the associated rationale. It spawned exploration into businesses that fail, and the cause.

"We also recognized, of course, that we needed to talk to those other than the original owners," says Hunter. "If, for example, Dan and I had a business and it failed, first of all Dan probably won't provide an interview regarding the cause of the failure. But if Dan does agree, he's going to say the business failed because of Gordon. And Gordon's going to say the reason the business failed was because of Dan."

That realization led them to interview bankruptcy professionals who assisted them with examples and underlying factors that led to business failures. Thus, the concept of a Small Business Institute took root.

"The whole notion is that with an institute, you get people together who might have a common interest in the subject area, so it's more than just complementary; it should also be synergistic," says Kazakoff. "By discussing ideas around the table with other individuals, you may find that you get more depth of understanding. Through that discussion, your research is enhanced and that's really the purpose of the Institute—to bring some synergy to people who have an interest in doing research in small business areas."

The focus of the Institute's investigations will be on privately held small businesses varying from start-up to multi-generational. In addition to entrepreneurship and family-owned operations, other aspects of their investigation will include franchises, not-for-profits, non-participating family members, succession and sustainability.

An advisory council is currently being organized that will provide guidance to Kazakoff and Hunter with regard to the Institute's direction.

"I think you'll see it almost like a viral idea — you start off with that initial spark as a catalyst and as more and more projects are completed, it will just grow," says Kazakoff.

"Students will benefit from the exchange of ideas with business people and faculty. Courses may be developed or modified to incorporate some of the ideas documented in journal articles and conference papers," adds Hunter. "What will make our SBI unique is the focus on Lethbridge and surrounding area within southern Alberta."

Kazakoff agrees: "In Lethbridge you have this richness . . . and possibilities – there was no one really leveraging that."