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Family business: bringing family together for a business retreat is the secret to achieving long-term plans and short-term goals. (Money Management).

IT TOOK PLACE AT A HOTEL NESTLED HALFWAY BETWEEN Kentucky and New York City, along Highway 80, just a half mile off Exit 221 in eastern Ohio. My siblings and I had gathered to talk serious business--family business. We weren't having a reunion, and it wasn't a holiday get-together. I, along with my three brothers and sister, sat in a room discussing our family's financial affairs: Did our parents have adequate insurance? Did mom and dad have a proper estate plan? What about long-term versus short-term care for the two of them?

Our family may not own a business, but we govern family matters in a professional manner. We use the same principles, standards, and parliamentary procedures that a board of directors in any multimillion-dollar corporation might use. We also held a family business retreat for the very same reasons large corporations do: to map out long-term and short-term goals and to develop a strategy to accomplish those goals.

Each year, thousands of private and public companies hold annual working retreats to devise a game plan for the business over the next year or two. Such retreats allow employees an opportunity to understand the inner workings of various departments within the company, while fostering a sense of teamwork and camaraderie.

As managing editor for BLACK ENTERPRISE, I've attended the magazine's company retreats over the past four years. I've always thought that if such a venue is good enough for a major corporation, then it's good enough for my family. Using BE as a guide, the Meeks family held its first retreat last October.

It was our parents' health and state of affairs that set off this gathering of the Meeks children, ranging in age from the youngest, myself, at age 39 to my sister, the eldest, at 52. My siblings and I have become distant, living in three different states, separated by hundreds of miles. In fact, it had been at least 10 years since the last time we were all under one roof.

Coming together as a team to create a family plan instead of waiting until a tragedy occurred was the best thing to happen to us. Now no one is in the dark about the family's financial affairs. Your family, too, can create a plan to preserve and protect generational wealth with the proper preparation.


I can attest firsthand that family retreats can be a sound part of estate planning. Since no statistical information is available on the number of families in the United States who go on such retreats each year, BLACK ENTERPRISE magazine, with the aid of, conducted its own informal survey. The results were disappointing. The majority of those who did respond when asked about their family business retreat actually described what is defined as a "family reunion."

It is important to note that a family business retreat is not the same as a family reunion. Reunions are usually held for a day or two and are designed for relatives to get reacquainted. Aside from each other's company, family members enjoy elaborate meals, planned games, and fun activities. Family business retreats, however, are gatherings in which family members also enjoy each other's company but, more importantly, focus on ensuring the family's inheritance and legacy. Group sessions are designed around specific subjects (e.g., household budget, insurance policies, medical concerns, education, and living trusts).

Steven White, president and CEO of S.D. White & Associates, a Lanham, Maryland-based organizational development and management consulting firm that puts together retreats for small businesses and nonprofit clients, suggests family business retreats and reunions can work together, but it's best to keep them separate. If you plan your retreat when family members meet for a reunion, make sure to have the retreat first. "You need a moment before the reunion itself when the leaders of the family get together to discuss important family issues and create plans," he says.

"The reality is that our white counterparts tend to do this in the context of family financial planning," he says. "They have meetings in the context of trusts, growing endowments, and charitable contributions that they've been making for years. We're not far away from that, but we [as a race] haven't gotten to the point where we're doing more at our family reunions than just getting together and talking about where we come from and who graduated this year. And that's not bad. But before we have the fun, we have to deal with the business."

In and by themselves, family business retreats are about discussing the goals and objectives for the future of the family. Depending on the size of your family, you may break up into small, select groups--for example, parents or children only; immediate family; or aunts and uncles on your mother's side. However, there should be at least one session designated for attendance by the entire family (see sidebar, "Steps to a Successful Family Business Retreat").

Family business retreats should last as many days as needed to accomplish your objectives. Size isn't a major issue as long as relative goals and strategies are discussed and set into motion. Meaning, your gathering might include every member of the family, your siblings, or just you and your spouse. You'd be surprised how differently husbands and wives think about household affairs. By sharing their views at a family retreat, couples can come to a better understanding on these issues.

For the past 10 years, Paul T. Williams Jr. and his wife, Ammie, have held regular retreats that exclude their children. Married 17 years, the New York couple started out having yearly meetings of the minds, but now it's a biannual event. The Williamses had been working long hours, with Paul practicing corporate litigation and government relations law as a partner at Bryan Cave L.L.P. in New York City, and Ammie working as a realtor at Marjorie Wohl, Town & Country Realty in New Rochelle, New York Add to that the stress of taking care of three children (ages 14, 11, and 7), a dog, and a house, and--the couple says--they needed time alone to reconnect, if just to discuss family matters.

The first order of business was to hire an overnight baby-sitter and check into a nearby hotel. The Williamses purchased individual notebooks, a calendar, and a calculator to go over the household budget. They dedicated an entire weekend to working on their finances. "I think in the beginning of [any] marriage, there are shared goals, but you have to revisit those goals," says Ammie. "You need to tweak [them] if [they aren't] working." The couple also discusses individual goals so that they may be more supportive of each other. "We discuss what's important to me as a person, so I am not just a wife and mother," explains Ammie.

These individual goals can be professional or personal. While Paul might set professional goals such as generating his "gross billings" at his law firm for the year, his personal goal is to develop any hobby--a specific retreat agenda item he admits is so far unsuccessful. Ammie, however, might set a personal goal to get started on that book she's always wanted to write. The Williamses are constantly revising their shared goals as a couple, too. When they were a young couple living in an apartment, one of their shared goals was to buy a house. Having accomplished that particular goal, they are revisiting old goals and establishing new ones.

For instance, budgets and expenditures are always a big item on the Williamses' agenda, according to Paul. He says that they live in an old house, built in 1902, that needs "a lot of help from time to time." Paul and Ammie use the retreat as a time to sit down and map out what they want to accomplish: rewiring the electricity, putting on a new roof, or building a new deck. From there, they will plan it out in the context of budgeting and priority. Today, they are developing a plan to prepare them for life when the children are away at college. (Their oldest child starts college in four years.)

"We end up getting things done by looking at items on a longer time frame," he says. "One year, we'll look at things we want to do. Then, we'll look at our time line: When can we do them? Can we do them within the year? Or do we need to [extend the time frame]? Retreats give us a planning tool. On the other side of the coin [regarding] more people-oriented things, we will sit down and talk about activities for the kids. We look at what we are doing now; where we want to enhance and augment [our children's education]; and how we do that. We'll take steps to put one of our kids into a program during the year that we might not have thought about if we hadn't spent time thinking about that [at a retreat]."

Sometimes a discussion on the possibility of private school comes up, but because his oldest child is in the eighth grade, most of the school-related discussions are about supplementing their children's current education with existing programs offered within the community.

For the Williamses, it's only a matter of time before they bring the children along on the family retreat. "As they get older, we have to include them," explains Paul. "We're sitting around dealing with financial issues--that wasn't part of my upbringing. I didn't get involved with the nuts and bolts of a budget until I was a grown man, and that's a disadvantage to our youth." Paul doesn't want to wait until his children are in their 20s to expose them to the family's finances.

"The only way we're going to be prepared as a family unit is to plan, and this means having serious conversations," says White. His wife, Jeannine, is an officer in his company, therefore the Whites understand the benefits of a family business retreat.


No family retreat is official without an agenda; it helps keep discussions on track. The agenda ensures that the family discusses the items that need to be dealt with. This is the document members will use to help guide topic discussions and plan for the future.

The Williamses typically have an agenda outlining the primary focus of the retreat. Depending on what's going on in the house, that focus might shift from time to time. Paul likes his family agenda items to start with finances, followed by (though not necessarily in this order): the children, the household, estate planning, and vacations. The agenda can include a time frame for various discussions, breaks, and lunch (see sidebar). "We know we have a limited number of hours to spend on this, so we try to have an agenda where we have a time frame identified for each topic, and we try to stick to the time frame," Paul says. "[Since] it's just my wife and me, it's easy to get sidetracked, but we try to keep it as close to a regular business meeting as we can by moving the agenda. It keeps us on track."

Although the mission of the Meeks family business retreat was to focus on the care of our aging parents (my father is 80 and my mother is 78), we had several line items that discussed basic financial and property issues. We set the foundation for a "board of directors" of sorts, designating our absent parents as co-CEOs. We established our roles in keeping our parents' estate intact, much like a company owner creating a "plan of succession."

In 55 years of marriage, our parents had accumulated a modest degree of wealth, which we didn't want to see squandered. They own three houses in our hometown of Louisville, Kentucky (one of which has already been allotted to a brother), a small farm, and joint ownership of a plot of land, both in my mother's home state of Tennessee.

Concerning the primary item on our agenda, care of our parents should their health suddenly deteriorate, we put on our to-do list a meeting with our parents' doctors to get a better assessment of their medical conditions. We accomplished this over the Thanksgiving holiday. Other important aspects of our retreat included defining personal aspirations, professional objectives, and financial goals. We also discussed where we envision ourselves as a family over the next year. We didn't invite a financial advisor to speak to us as a family last year, but perhaps for our next retreat, we'll make it a point to meet with a financial planner.

We have already set the wheels in motion for next year's business retreat There will be an item on the agenda under the heading "A Year in Review," in which we will revisit and measure the success or failure of our family plan. We will go back over our notes to see what we've accomplished. Did we set up wills and living trusts like we said we would? Did we designate guardianship in terms of our own children? Did we set aside funds in a family pool? Unless otherwise needed, we will take care of our family one step at a time--one year at a time.

The Williamses measure the success of their business retreats when they look back at the planning sheets they developed at the previous retreat "We tend to do it at the beginning of the [retreat]," explains Paul. "Because we keep the books that we use, we'll look back at the to-do list and the schedule that we made, and we'll look at what we've been able to accomplish. And it gives us a sense of satisfaction and success.

"One thing that helps us is that we try to be outcome-oriented in terms of the discussion, so that we end up with a to-do list or an action list at the end of each agenda item. We always try to push it toward 'What are we going to do? ... What are we going to put down as our goal or objective?'"

Having a family business retreat sends the message that you can have some control over your destiny by virtue of planning, summarizes Ammie Williams. "You work so hard and so many hours for other companies and people, but [you] need to spend that kind of quality time focusing on [your] goals as a family unit and treating your family as a corporation, with a bottom line, with a budget, and with certain financial goals," she explains. "If you can state a goal for yourself and your family, then you can reach it. And that's what the family business retreat is for."

Steps to a Successful Family Business Retreat

every organization or family has a culture and the way we deal with life is based on the way we've been enculturated. According to Steven White, CEO of S.D. White & Associates, every family business retreat will be different because every family is different. A family business retreat is like a fact-finding mission whereby you get to assess financial matters, from real estate to living wills and trusts. The only way a family is going to be prepared for the future is to plan, and this means having a serious conversation. Use the following guidelines to prepare your family retreat:

Step 1 Set a time and place. Obviously, the place to begin is to decide on a convenient day, time, and central location for everyone to get together." Find a location that is not your home," suggests White. "Consider a hotel or your church. Get into a space that is safe and allows you to feel comfortable."

Step 2 Distribute the agenda. If you plan on having five or more participants, it's best to distribute the agenda before the first meeting so people have an opportunity to read it. The agenda can be made available, perhaps, as family members J checking into a hotel or arriving at the designated location. The person who creates the agenda should oversee the meeting, unless otherwise decided according to family traditions and hierarchy.

Step 3 Give a point-by-point play. Start with a heading and theme. In our case, it was the "2002 Meeks Family Retreat: Staying Connected with Pride." Detailed breakout sessions with specific time frames work best (e.g., 8:01 a.m., Continental Breakfast; 8:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., Financial Affairs; 11:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m., Refreshment Break; 11:15 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., Estate Planning, etc.). Allow for refreshment breaks to give people time to digest, and even briefly discuss in smaller groups, specific agenda items. Also, schedule at least one night when the entire family can do something fun, such as charter a boat ride.

Step 4 Let everyone have his or her say. Even before creating the agenda, send everyone an e-mail requesting possible discussion topics. Be mindful that it's okay to time to let the conversation wander off course from time to time as therapeutic banter. Just don't stray to talk about personal matters that don't affect the family's finances as a whole (in other words, Uncle Joe's drinking problem should not be a topic of discussion). White suggests family members be honest and don't interrupt others.

Keep it professional. While various family members should be allowed to express their opinions, try to keep the conversations professional. Maybe you can't expect family members to control their emotions at all times, but they should never at any point become hot-tempered, volatile, or frantic, Ultimately, everyone should walk away from the retreat with a sense of pride and accomplishment, and the feeling that everyone is on the same page regarding family affairs.

"I'll be honest, I haven't used Roberts Rules of Order in a long time because for us, for African Americans, it doesn't work very well, not for retreats," explains White. "You need to set the rules to govern how you're going to move forward yourself. Setting rules yourself is a personal touch that is about your family. If you're committed to making your retreat happen, there is going to be stuff about your family, your family's culture, and how we get together that Robert's Rules isn't going to deal with."--K.M.

Family Business Retreat Resources

If you're looking to start a family business retreat, Steven White, CEO of S.D. White & Associates, suggests that you consider finding someone outside the family to facilitate your retreat. "This doesn't mean hiring someone, but bringing in an experienced facilitator is a good idea, particularly for retreats that have more than half-a-dozen people."

The facilitator helps to ensure that everyone in the family participates in the retreat. "You don't want anyone who is not able to completely participate in the discussion, the dialogue, and the process of creating a plan and goal for the family," he says. The role of the facilitator is to move the conversation along. "The other danger of not having a facilitator is that you might have a strong family member--a matriarch or patriarch--who is going to push his or her own agenda forward whether they mean to or not."

There are a number of companies and consultants who can help you coordinate a family business retreat. They can provide the technical support that will help you with your family retreat. Consider these resources to start:

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Author:Meeks, Kenneth
Publication:Black Enterprise
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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