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Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management Enhances Focus on Family Business

john smithThe Johnson Graduate School of Management is now home to the new Smith Family Business Initiative, which was endowed earlier this year by at $10 million gift from alumnus John Smith, MBA’ 74, and his wife, Dyan Smith. In September, Daniel Garrett Van Der Vliet joined as the new initiative’s director. Van Der Vliet seems the ideal person for the job, coming to Johnson from the University of Vermont, where he spent 14 years building a highly regarded family business program from the ground up.

The Small Family Business Initiative at Johnson will combine family business-focused courses, case competitions for both MBA and undergraduate students across Cornell and executive education non-degree courses and workshops for those involved in running family enterprises.

Under Van Der Vliet’s leadership, the initiative will also have a major focus on scholarship, including generating research and conducting surveys, and it will become a valuable network for people involved in family-owned businesses around the world. Van Der Vliet is currently in the process of putting together an advisory council for the initiative.

Johnson’s global reach, reputation and alumni network were main draws for Van Der Vliet. “Most other centers that offer family business programs tend to be regional; Johnson can be a bigger player,” he said in a statement. “With the help of students, alumni and faculty, we can establish programs in China, the Middle East and Latin America.”

Family businesses are big business – even when they are small. Indeed, the are “the most common type of business on the earth, particularly in developing countries,” and are recognized as key drivers of economic growth globally, Professor Wesley Sine, faculty director of Johnson’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute (EII), said in a statement. And nonprofit Family Firm Institute (FFI) reports that family firms create an estimated 70 to 90 percent of global GDP annually as well as 50 to 80 percent of jobs in the majority of countries worldwide.

The initiatives first new courses are scheduled to be offered in fall 2015. The first, the Smith Distinguished Family Business Lecture Series, will feature executives from the world’s most successful family businesses. A second course will focus on family businesses’ unique benefits and challenges, such as succession planning and developing leaders with sound management, financial, and leadership skills while navigating often complex inter-family dynamics. Van Der Vliet is plans to host a Family Business Week focused on leadership skills unique to family enterprises and featuring guest speakers.

The Smith Family Business Initiative is housed in Johnson’s EII, where it fills an important void. “Without family business education, there was a big gap in the offerings to students,” Rhett Weiss, senior lecturer of management and EII executive director, said in a statement. “I see an overlap between the institute and the family business initiative when it comes to starting and scaling a new business.”

Students at Johnson are getting in on the family business action by launching their own Family Business Club, which held its inaugural meeting in September. The students hope the club will provide a forum for exploring issues unique to family businesses, including family dynamics and estate planning, as well as entrepreneurship, strategy, and management. Forty students have so far signed up to take part in the club.

Learn more about the Smith Family Business Initiative and Johnson.