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By Wayne Messick

I am looking for business owners who are using the Internet as part of their strategy for growth. I have spoken to dozens of trade association execs, asking for an introduction to one or more of their members. The result is a collection of excellent stories published during the first quarter of the year.

But it has not been as easy as it looks. Getting a busy trade association executiveīs ear is a challenge, as is running down the business owner when there are a few minutes to talk. And then there are all those interviews with less than perfect results. Sometimes, the company is not online yet – still just talking about it. I began to keep track of the reasons why they have not moved forward.

One son-in-law of a business owner told me he was excited about how a web site would help them reduce overhead by putting all those frequently asked questions about their warranty procedures online, and by allowing customers to schedule warranty service via email. He got together with a web designer who put together a great PowerPoint presentation for dad.

He told me that dad sat through the presentation asking few questions. He leaned back with his feet on the desk during with the designerīs laptop perched a few inches away from his Red Wing boots. Looking back, "the boy" believes he should not have scheduled the presentation for 4:00 Friday afternoon.

Dadīs response to the ideas presented? He stood up, reached for his jacket, and turned to his son-in-law and the designer and said, "Not with my money you arenīt."

Last week we published the article, "How To Get Senior Management Buy-In" for a reason. I spoke to so many people who seemed to have well-thought ideas for developing an Internet strategy, but the idea was scuttled by the senior generation (the people with the checkbook). The decision to "wait for a while" was often supported by dadīs cronies (who were resisting the inevitable), and often included others in the business who feel threatened by the idea of the Internet.

Why are these forward-thinking ideas being rejected? Or are we nuts, and the Internet is just a fad that will quickly disappear like Nehru jackets and leisure suits? Half a lifetime spent working with family businesses has taught me about the fears, concerns, and motivations of Americaīs typical family business owner.

During those years, I helped business owners understand how to work more effectively together through the succession process. Succession planning is critical if a business is to survive from one generation to the next. It deals with both operational and behavioral elements – to take advantage of the familyīs strengths and help them shore up their weaknesses. In the right context, this addresses the most effective ways for the business to grow, going forward into the next generation.

From dadīs perspective, things are often going just fine without the Internet. One wholesaler I called, at the suggestion of his trade association, was so hard to reach I asked the receptionist if I could have his email address to stop the endless rounds of telephone tag and to see if he was interested in talking. The receptionist replied, "Oh, we donīt use THAT around here."

When he and I did speak, his comments echoed what Iīd heard from others. Things were fine the way they are so he was holding off doing anything. He said he had gone to register.com and secured their domain name, just in case. He also seemed unconcerned about the effect on his successors as their competitors get online. Why?

Often it is fear of failure --looking bad to their contemporaries and competitors-- that causes them to hold back.

"What if we start with a web site and then donīt have the ability to keep up with it? Iīve spent 45 years in this business and am on the Board of the national association. Iīm thought of as a successful guy—heck, I am a successful guy. I am not going to get involved in something which, if we donīt handle it right, can make me look bad."

He has always faced challenges, new technologies, etc. He and his people have learned and adopted them. But not this time, too much risk to his self esteem to turn something over to others who say they know what to do and hope for the best.

Some family companies reach outside the family for talented professionals who can help them. Bringing in professional managers is not new and it is not easy. One company, EP Henry, did just that with incredible success. It does take an enlightened view by the business owner and it can be difficult – but the rewards outweigh the difficulty.

"What if it works too well? Iīm trying to slow down somewhat, get to Florida a little earlier each winter and come back a little later in the spring. If this thing is as great as my son-in-law says, next Iīll have to go to the bank for more capital to grow or miss the opportunity and then look really dumb. I canīt win."

Iīve heard this over and over. This fear is very real and never addressed by the experts. The fact is just the opposite. The nature of the "on the fly" Internet often allows companies to grow exponentially with very little additional capital. And if their Internet strategy works as well as the son-in-law believes it will, dad will be able to spend a lot more time in Florida – checking in via the Internet both before and after his daily rounds of golf.

After all, the Main Street equivalent of an IPO is an FLA. Thatīs when dad moves to Florida.

Not only can the business grow, perhaps without the additional capital required for another store, plant, shop, or warehouse; it may provide opportunities for family members who would otherwise look elsewhere for their career opportunity.

For those family members who donīt see themselves fitting into the traditional roles the business provides, the Internet offers new opportunities for them to create innovative positions within the company. This is valuable, because when more family members stay involved in the business, more revenue is likely generated. Integrating the Internet into the business provides added opportunities for smooth succession.

The business owners we have profiled so far have all said the same thing, in different ways, "Jump in, get started whether you think you are ready or not."

Owners of established traditional companies have three choices when it comes to adding an Internet component to their business. They can ignore it, since many of them report that their customers are not yet demanding that they be available online. They can take the initiative and use their flexibility to integrate the Internet into their business quickly, before their competitors. Or they can wait until everyone else has taken advantage of it and then try to catch up.

The opportunities available are unprecedented - never before have the tools for growth been as available as they are today. But only those who take the right steps at the right time will be the winners. A carefully planned Internet strategy is vital in making the ownerīs dreams for the business come true.

Article courtesey of Family Business Strategies.

About the author: Wayne Messick can be reached via email or at http://www.fbnews.net. Wayne knows how the emotional climate in a family business impacts the decision-making process and he will transfer this valuable knowledge to your audience. He demonstrates to attendees of trade association events how to map out their company vision, how to incorporate the Internet into their plan, and how to address the challenges of involving (and placating) all family members in the process. They walk away with an outline for a viable plan that will take their business to the next level.

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