Don’t Overlook the Power of the Family Business

The following article was written by Jamie Shah, entrepreneur-in-residence at the Polsky Center, and originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business on October 16, 2023. Read the original article on Crain’s.

Jamie Shah

Growing up, business was always a topic of conversation in our family. A meal out with the Shahs typically involved a back-of-the-envelope analysis to get from restaurant capacity to restaurant revenue. We learned this primarily from my dad, who truly found joy in learning about all of the ways a living could be made. As an immigrant and a self-made businessman, my dad would often say in awe, “There are just so many ways to make money in America!” His enthusiasm was infectious, and it instilled in us a deep appreciation for business and the myriad opportunities that lay before us.

Over the years, this passion for business expanded far beyond dinner conversations — especially now, since my father is also my boss. Together with my twin sister, our mom and 30 other extremely talented people, we run a life sciences business called Chem-Impex. Working side by side, I’ve had the privilege to witness firsthand his dedication, resilience and the values he brings to our business. The power of family business and just how fortunate I am to be a steward of one never ceases to amaze me. However, this sentiment is not what is reflected in popular culture, which has long been predicting the death rites of family business. (Logan Roy did us no favors, either.) Family firms are overlooked in the broader business context, despite being a dominant force for global employment, business activity and the GDP.

Despite the negative perception, family businesses have outperformed their non-family counterparts. In 2020, research conducted by Credit Suisse found that “family-owned companies have outperformed non-family-owned peers on average by 370 basis points per year since 2006.” Not only do family firms outperform, they are also more stable. According to the Harvard Business Review, “results show that during good economic times, family-run companies don’t earn as much money as companies with a more dispersed ownership structure. But when the economy slumps, family firms far outshine their peers.” This stability contributes to higher average long-term financial performance.

This May, I took my dad to the ultimate celebration of business: the Berkshire Hathaway annual conference. The experience offered insights both professional and personal. A highlight was a 2003 video of Warren Buffett on his decision to continue running Berkshire Hathaway. “I get to paint my own painting,” he said. “I do not have people saying, ‘Why don’t you use a little more red paint, or blue paint? Why don’t you paint a seascape instead of a landscape?’ I get to do my own thing. It’s a form of creativity. It’s exactly like somebody feels as a professional golfer or as a painter. They’re not doing it for the money, primarily. They’re doing it because they like doing something well and that happens to be down the route of their talents.”

It was a powerful metaphor that spoke of passion, creativity and autonomy in business. This sentiment felt familiar. It echoed the principles I’ve seen my father uphold in his own business journey. He’s always valued independence, building with a mindset of optimizing for freedom.

While the weight of running a family business can be daunting, Buffett’s words served as a reminder of the beauty in that challenge. It made me reflect on my family’s journey, the setbacks we’ve faced and the legacy we’re building.

Never has our family’s business been just a means to an end; it is a canvas for creativity and expression, one that we get to create together. It is because of our family ownership structure that we are able to focus on maximizing our own personal values by creating value for our customers.

Jamie Shah is an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation and an assistant adjunct professor at Chicago Booth. She is managing director of her family’s business, Wood Dale-based Chem-Impex, and former chief operating officer of The Spice House. She was also previously lead associate at Hyde Park Angels and Hyde Park Venture Partners, and was selected as a Kauffman Fellows Finalist.

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