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  • Writer's pictureJudi Cunningham

Canada’s Family Enterprise Field: Reflections on Twenty Years

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

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The beginning of 2021 has proven to be a time of reflection. While my reflections were undoubtedly sparked by the unexpected realities of the last year, they have taken me farther back, to a deeper contemplation of the processes, events, and choices that have shaped so much of our present realities. Through this, I recognized recently that June 2021 will mark twenty years since we started the Business Families Center (BFC) at the University of British Columbia (UBC). And, in turn, twenty years since Canada began to be noted as a leader in the family enterprise space. In thinking about two decades of transformation, I was also struck by a recognition of who, and what, made it all a reality. It was by no means the effort of any single person and it certainly did not happen overnight, but it was only possible through the dynamic, overlapping, dogged commitment from some notable people and organizations.

Early Leadership Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, some of us were working in the family business space, but with few formal organizations or intellectual institutions to draw us together and promote discussion. During this period, “family businesses” or “family enterprises” - synonymous terms for most - were areas of interest for me and becoming increasingly vital components of my work and thinking.

Before 2001, the key - and often lone - organizational voice in commitment to family businesses was the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise (CAFE, now the Family Enterprise Xchange). Since 1983, they had made Canada a leader in the family enterprise realm - at the time we were one of the only countries in the world that had a national association dedicated to family business. Gradually other organizations - like the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and the Family Business Network (FBN) - began to attract families as well, but recognition of families as key economic players nevertheless remained relatively nascent in wider conversations about entrepreneurship and Canadian business.

Leveling Up

Some of the initiating energy that led to Canadian leadership in the field first began with the vision, enthusiasm and support of one key family, namely the de Gaspé Beaubiens. The de Gaspé Beaubiens are a powerhouse enterprising family in Canada. They founded Telemedia in 1968, and had great success in business and entrepreneurship. But with consistent challenges with succession, they became committed to bolstering support systems for enterprising families.

Their commitment to supporting families across the world defined their leadership in Canada, and by 2000 they were working towards integrating family enterprises into academia and business education. They founded the Business Families Foundation (BFF) over 30 years ago, encouraging enterprising families to connect with one another around mutual learning opportunities. More than this, they developed their own education programming (the Roadmap program and more), which became instrumental in the growth and development of the educational programming that followed.

The recognition by the de Gaspé Beaubiens – particularly Philippe and Nan-b – of the importance of bringing families into the business and entrepreneurship education space, and their tireless efforts to position the right people together to make it happen, was a crucial development in Canada’s role as a leader in the family enterprise field. Before 2001, the University of Alberta’s Centre for Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise (CEFE) was the primary place in Canada where you could find academics thinking about enterprising families and teaching students about the intricacies of the space. Their presence, from their inception in 1999, was vital but singular in the country before the push of the de Gaspé Beaubiens energized academic institutions and, in turn, the entire field.

After countless discussions and much persistence, the de Gaspé Beaubiens managed to achieve the vision that they had long persevered with. Through the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Dean of the Sauder School of Business, Daniel Muzyka, several key players were brought into the scene in the creation of the Business Families Centre (BFC) at UBC in 2001. David Bentall would become the Chair of the BFC, Nancy Langton was named the Academic Director, and I became the Executive Director. In the creation of the BFC, we joined the University of Alberta in focusing academic attention, research, and education on the enterprising family realm.

In the early years of the BFC, we focused most of our energies on working with and for families. We ran BFF’s Roadmap Program, developed other specialized programs for families and conducted countless consultations with business families. One of our flagship events was our Family Legacy Series - an annual event honouring the legacies of enterprising families in Canada. By 2007 we had begun to think more specifically about the advisors that worked with family enterprises and how we could deepen their understanding of the unique needs of their business family clients. We wanted to create a standard of practice that would allow advisors to provide the best advice possible to their clients. This led to the development of the Certificate in Business Family Advising in 2007, which evolved into the Family Enterprise Advisor (FEA) program. And then, with the urging of advisors, we created a designation and the Institute of Family Enterprise Advisors (IFEA) in 2010. IFEA’s role was to maintain standards and ethics in the field while developing educational opportunities that comprehensively strengthened the entire field. Finally, in the fall of 2016, IFEA and CAFE merged, forming the Family Enterprise Xchange (FEX).

Wider Uptake The foresight of the de Gaspé Beaubiens and the resulting initiatives that began at the BFC also bore fruit in broader awareness and interest. From these early years, we were inspired, moved, and ushered into working in the field, raising new questions, and instigating inaugural explorations. From the onset, our focus was especially honed on education, which led to the expansion of education programs for families and their advisors both inside and outside of universities across Canada.

While our efforts at the BFC and later within IFEA were formative, they did not operate in isolation. Following closely on the creation of the BFC at UBC, the University of Alberta added Alberta Business Family Institute (AFBI) to their roster. With the strong focus, support, and coordinated efforts of the de Gaspé Beaubiens, schools from Ivey and the HEC at the University of Montreal, to Dalhousie and Memorial University set up centres dedicated to business families. Since these early days, new players have been added to the scene, with schools like University of Ottawa, Concordia, and others are adding their own resources and programming.

What started as an initiating push into higher education led to healthy competition across the Canadian business and education spheres in family enterprise work, and raised the bar in terms of the quality of programming and depth of conversation. Today, FEX operates nationally as an association dedicated to families as well as the advisors that work with them, professional advisor organizations have specialized practices for working with family enterprise clients, family offices are springing up across the country, and the quality of research and number of researchers working in the field has grown significantly. Canada’s commitment to family enterprises has strengthened families, advisory firms, and our national reputation as leaders in the space.

Continuing Leadership Canada was noted as an early leader in family enterprise organizations, education, and research globally. In my work over the past two decades, I have travelled to countries around the world and received persistent feedback: what is going on for enterprising families in Canada is internationally noted. From universities, to the expansion into advisor education, and widening understandings amongst advisors and families about the importance of family enterprises, Canada has long been a leader in the field. While many have poured time, effort, and creativity into getting us to where we are today, in reflecting on the last two decades, I am struck by the role that the de Gaspé Beaubiens have played.

They catalyzed our movement, got people talking, and got families, universities, major firms, and organizations involved. They reached out into their communities, energizing families and laying the groundwork for deeper mutual connections. They were motivated by a deep spirit of collaboration and mutual uplift, always with families at the center of their focus. All of us in the realm of family enterprise education in Canada are in their debt. The result? A strong, thriving, and continually evolving Canadian family enterprise space.

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Judi Cunningham was the founding Executive Director of the Business Families Centre at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. She is also the founder of the Family Enterprise Advisor (FEA) accreditation program - which is now run by the Family Enterprise Exchange (FEX) - Canada’s key education program for advisors who serve enterprising families. She remains a faculty member of the FEA program, while also continuing to innovate family enterprise education in her work with the Trella Advisory Group.

Learn more about Judi and the rest of the Trella team on our About page.

To hear more about Nan-b de Gaspé Beaubiens reflections on her family’s role in establishing Canada’s family enterprise leadership, listen to her interview with Steve Legler from October 2020 on the Family Enterprise Xchange podcast.

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