In a year where business has had to transform the way it meets the needs of society and the environment, family owned businesses risk falling behind, according to a new global survey by PwC of 2,801 family business owners. While more than half (55%) of respondents saw the potential for their business to lead on sustainability, only 37% have a defined strategy in place. European and American businesses are lagging their Asian counterparts in their commitment to prioritising sustainability in their strategy. 79% of respondents in mainland China and 78% in Japan reported ‘putting sustainability at the heart of everything we do’ compared to 23% of US and 39% in the UK. Larger businesses and those owned by later generations also buck the trend, with greater focus on sustainability.
This reluctance to embrace sustainability comes despite the fact family owned businesses are highly likely to see a responsibility to society. Over 80% engage in proactive social responsibility activity, and 71% sought to retain as many staff as possible during the pandemic. Nor is it a function of economic pessimism – less than half (46%) expect sales to fall despite the pandemic and survey respondents felt optimistic about their business’ abilities to withstand and continue to grow in 2021 and 2022.
Instead, the issue is an increasingly out-of-date conception of how businesses should respond to society, with 76% in the US and 60% in the UK placing greater emphasis on their direct contribution, often through philanthropic initiatives, rather than through a strategic approach to ESG matters. Family businesses are also somewhat insulated from the investor pressure that is currently pushing public companies to put ESG at the heart of their long term plans for commercial success.
Peter Englisch, global family business leader at PwC says, “It is clear that family businesses globally have a strong commitment to a wider social purpose. But there is a growing pressure from customers, lenders, shareholders and even employees, to demonstrate a meaningful impact around sustainability and wider ESG issues. Many listed companies have started to respond but this survey indicates that family businesses have a more traditional approach to social contribution. “Family businesses must adapt to changing expectations and, by failing to do so, are creating a potential business risk. This is not just about stating a commitment to doing good, but setting meaningful targets and reporting that demonstrate a clear sense of their values and purpose when it comes to helping economies and societies build back better.”
The survey suggests family businesses have weathered the pandemic relatively well. Less than half (46%) expect sales to fall despite the pandemic and survey respondents felt optimistic about their business’ abilities to withstand and continue to grow in 2021 and 2022.
Family business lagging on digital transformation
Even though 80% of family businesses adapted to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic by enabling home working for employees, there are also concerns about their overall strength when it comes to digital transformation. 62% of respondents described their digital capabilities as ‘not strong,’ with a further 19% describing it as a work in progress.
Yet here there are clear generational differences: 41% of businesses that describe themselves as digitally strong are 3rd or 4th generation, and Next Gens have taken an increased role in 46% of digitally strong businesses.
Peter Englisch says, “It is a concern that family businesses are lagging behind the curve. There is clear evidence that having strong digital capabilities enables agility and success and that they have a similar enthusiasm for sustainability “Businesses should consider how they can engage the experience and fresh insight of Next Gens when it comes to prioritising their digital journey.”
The governance gap
While family businesses report good levels of trust, transparency and communication, the survey highlights the benefits of a professional governance structure. While 79% say they have some form of governance procedure or policy in place, the figures fall dramatically when it comes to important areas: just over a quarter state they have a family constitution or protocol, while only 15% have established conflict resolution mechanisms.
Peter Englisch says, “Family harmony should never be taken for granted – it’s something that must be worked on and planned for, with the same focus and professionalism that’s applied to business strategy and operational decisions. “There are growing concerns from regulators around the world about family business succession, especially with a third of 1st, 2nd or 3rd generation businesses expecting the next generation to become majority shareholders in the next five years. “It is therefore vitally important that businesses take a lead on ensuring they have formal processes in place they can ensure stability and continuity in the long run.”