Family Owned Business in Maine: Challenges and Opportunities – Catherine Fossett

There are plenty of unique obstacles and opportunities for a family owned business. From succession plans to family dynamics, these companies face challenges other companies don’t run into.

Thankfully, there’s an organization in Maine dedicated to helping these businesses grow and improve: The Institute for Family-Owned Business.

Rich: Prior to joining the Institute for Family-Owned Business, IFOB, in 2014 as its executive direction, our guest was the executive director for the Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce, where she oversaw the 50th anniversary of Windjammer Days, developed the Claw Down Lobster Bite Competition, and annually produced the region’s definitive travel guide. She’s a graduate of the Maine Association of Nonprofits Executive Leadership Institute. Her prior experience includes 20 years in the travel industry at Hewins Travel as director of marketing, and Hurley Travel Experts as director of sales. A graduate of Bates College, she has served on dozens of boards, including the Advertising Club of Maine, the World Affairs Council of Maine, Mid Coast Chamber Council, Mobilized Mid Coast Maine Leadership Committee, Rotary, Maine Sports Commission, to Amputee Association of Maine, the advisory board for the MWM, Maine Women Magazine, and the Boothbay Sea and Science Center. She lives with her husband in the Mid Coast, is an avid boater and outdoor enthusiast with a love of great foods and local crafts.

Rich: We are very excited to have as a guest Catherine Wygant Fossett. Catherine, welcome to the show.

Catherine: Thank you so much, so glad to be here.

Yury: So Catherine, could you tell us what is the Institute for Family-Owned Business, and how did you get involved?

Catherine: The Institute for Family-Owned Business is a nonprofit that helps family businesses succeed. We just celebrated our 25th anniversary for IFOB, and our 20th for our Maine Family Business Awards, and my personal five years with the institute. And I started … I was at the Chamber of Commerce in Boothbay Harbor, and I went up to the Maine Society of Association Executives Lunch in Augusta, and I met my predecessor, Gina Weathersby. She’s a lovely lady with a southern accent from Georgia. And we were exchanging like, where are you from, where am I from, she’s like, “I live in Damariscotta,” I’m like, “Oh, I live in Boothbay.” We gave each other our cards. I get home, I get an email from her and she’s, “Catherine, you won’t believe it.” She’s like, “Our husbands have known each other and been friends for 30 years.” I’m like, “Well that’s a typical Maine story.” So, connections. And so she said, “I need you to be a judge for my awards night.” So in 2013, I was a judge and learned about the whole institute, and the program, and how it works. And then you fast forward to the winter of 2013. Does anyone remember the winter of 2013?

Rich: I’m sure I remember elements of it, but-

Catherine: There was four feet of snow.

Rich: Oh.

Catherine: My house was buried in Boothbay. And blizzards, and it was lovely. And Gina’s like, “I’m out of here.” So my husband happened to be over at the house and she, knowing about succession and being the executive director, you have to have a good plan when you’re transitioning, and she’s like, “I need to find somebody to replace me.” And my husband’s like, “Well what about Catherine?” And so she called me up, and she’s like, “Catherine, you have to apply for my job.” And I said, “Gina, I have a job.” She’s like, “No, no, no, you have to apply for my job.” And I’m like, “Okay.” So I sent in my resume, didn’t expect anything. Had one interview, had the second interview and then they’re like, “We want to hire you.” And I’m like, “Oh, you’re serious.” I’m like, “Okay, all right.” So-

Yury: And now we celebrate a fifth anniversary, right?

Catherine: Yeah, not it’s five years. And I never worked from home before, so I didn’t know what that would be like, and actually I really enjoy it very much.

Rich: Awesome. Now I was just at your awards dinner just the other night. I know Machias was involved as well as Flyte New Media, but just tell us a little bit about what was going on with the awards, because I think you also were celebrating a couple of anniversaries for IFOB as well, weren’t you?

Catherine: Yes, we were celebrating the 25th for the institute. It was started 25 years ago. There were 20 family businesses that were all driving to UNH in New Hampshire, and that included the Hancock Lumber, Hussey Seating, Oakhurst, and they were all driving to UNH. And it was also [inaudible 00:03:52] Shepley from the auto malls. And Shep said, “Well, why don’t we have this in Maine?” So he and his daughter Cassie Lee started it, and it was part of USM. And then in 2008 they had funding challenges. At the time, there was only one bank, one law firm, one insurance agency that was involved. And they were … that’s not really sustainable unless those sponsors want to be really generous. And so they broke away, and became their own 501-C3, and then they had at the time, the executive director was more of an academic type person who was tied into it, and then they had a physical location, and then my predecessor, Gina, is like, “With the World Bank remote, why are we paying all this money on rent?” So it’s a little bit like the Wizard of Oz, where I’m like paying no attention because it all happens in Boothbay.

Catherine: And so that was 25th for the institute. But it was the 20th for the awards, and we did a really great tribute to Maddy Corson-

Rich: Yes, you did.

Catherine: For the Lifetime Achievement Award, and Maddy had her family business, her grandfather had the Portland Press Herald originally. And she wanted to be able to celebrate family businesses, so she started the awards and had the idea 20 years ago. And so we wanted to have our first Lifetime Achievement Award, so we celebrated Maddy, and we brought in the Gay Men’s Chorus, and then-

Rich: They were fantastic.

Catherine: They were really fun. And then we also had LL Bean with Shawn Gorman, who we were very excited to have with the largest family business in the state. We had tap dancing Bean boots people in the … down below, and we had the Bootmobile up front, so-

Rich: Yeah. And 500 people that were there.

Catherine: Yeah.

Rich: And it was a great energy, it was really well done, so congratulations on that.

Catherine: Thank you. And we have 157 nominations, we had 32 semifinalists, we have 25 finalists, and then it’s like the Oscars and we have seven winners and they … I just got the video link, so we’ll have the acceptance speeches that we’ll put up on our website.

Rich: Awesome.

Catherine: And it’s just a big fun night to celebrate family business.

Rich: Absolutely.

Yury: So, with all the celebrations, congratulations.

Catherine: Thank you.

Yury: Of course. So could you tell us a little bit more about the purpose of IFOB, and what makes it different from other organizations?

Catherine: Okay. Family businesses are very private. And they think they all have unique challenges. And then they get in a room and they find out oh, we’re maybe not so unique. And we do … I do 52 programs to help family businesses. And there’s only 52 weeks in a year, so I just said that’s enough. It’s very busy. So what we do is … we have our awards night, which is one of biggest pieces that we do. We also done a transformational growth contest that we tie in with the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, that’s going to be on November 19th, and that’ll be another big event where we’re going to take four business leaders who have a transformational growth idea, and it’s kind of like a TedX. And they get on stage, and they talk about their growth, and we want it to be something so that people can from that and apply it into their own business.

Catherine: And then … they’re competing for a trophy like the Stanley Cup that we had a local person make for us.

Yury: Are we rooting for the underdog?

Catherine: Yes. We won’t talk about the Stanley Cup. And so … but I do have a jersey from the Bruins that we also do a golf scramble that I think will be very valuable for a donation piece in September, but I digress. So … so when we do the Spark event, we have four business leaders that winner gets a thousand dollars towards their favorite charity, and the runners up get 500. Last year it was Margo Walsh from Maine Works, and the audience votes on it, and while I’m counting and tallying the votes behind stage, our board … one of our board members, Steve Tenny, from Great Diamond Partners, he then interviews the CEOs and the audience gets to go back and forth. And so that’s one of our bigger kind of interesting events. And we tie in with the Portland Chamber for that.

Catherine: We also have a series called How Tos, so we help family businesses based on different sizes. So our institute can have people think they’re very large businesses or very small businesses, but Maine has a wide range of that. So next, we have a three part series that we do for How Tos. So we did one on crisis communications, we had The Wallet Group, Dunkin Donuts had a challenge in one of their … in their businesses up in New York. They had one of their employees pour water on a homeless person to try and get them out, because they thought it was funny.

Rich: Oh, geez.

Catherine: And it was not funny, and it blew up on social media, and they had death threats, and they had all kinds of things, so Kim’s on our board, Kim [Wallack 00:08:31] and she’s like, “This came out of nowhere and it really surprised me, I really want to be able to help family businesses in case they have a situation like that.” So we bring in our best practices expertise who come in, so Linda [Vero 00:08:44] from Broadreach Public Relations spoke, and then Peter Lowe from Bonner and Isaacson, so you’re hearing from the family business, but then you’re also hearing from the professionals who help people manage those things.

Catherine: Then a big question that everyone asks, they need employees. So we did a recruit, retain, and engage program that we did. And when we do these educational programs, we do them at Husson University, and we can remote in because we cover the whole state, but a lot of things happen in the greater Portland region, so a lot of people will remote it. We’ve had somebody remote in with her cup of coffee and her cat on her lap. And then we record it and they can watch it later on YouTube.

Catherine: And next week on Thursday, June 20th, we have a succession program, and we always do a program on succession, because 96% of business owners think it’s important to have an exit plan, but only 13% have a report that’s written and viable. So if you get hit by a bus, you want to have a plan. So we-

Rich: Or if you win the lottery.

Catherine: Right. So we do the succession program, we’ll have three family businesses that are at least three generations that will be coming and speaking about their experience. It’ll be Nick [Papadopoulos 00:09:56] from Jasper Wyman & Blueberry, he’s fourth generation with the family business. We’ll have Susan Weir Page, she’s the president of Maritime Energy, and John Beauregard, he’s the owner of Beauregard Equipment. And they’ll be facilitated by Janice [DePitro 00:10:11], who’s CEO and founder of Exceptional Leaders International, that’s a Boston based consulting group. So we’ll do that in the morning, and then we’ll break for a little bit, and have some pizza, and then we will got an afternoon session called the Texas Hold Em Moment, Strategies to Know When to Hold, Sell, Buy, and Execute Other Winning Options for Your Business.

Catherine: So we will have Seth [Wever 00:10:34] from BerryDunn, Tim Benoit from Parkins Thompson, so we’ll have accountants, lawyer, and then we’ll have a person from Key Bank who will be with us there. So those are examples of the education programs.

Rich: Right.

Catherine: We also do a holiday party that’s really fun, we have 125 people who come in December, and this year we’ll be at the Woodland. We do it twice a year, we do a family business spotlight where we highlight a family business. We did one May 20th with Pemberton Associates, and then on September 23rd we’re going to go to Mofield, it’s a beautiful historic home, and it’s in Cumberland, and it’s near the Cumberland Fair, so we’re going to give away tickets, you can bring your kids and go to the fair. And then we do a whole women’s program, too. I was talking about the wine and dine and the golf scramble. And then we also do what we call affinity groups, so those are private meetings that happen, and we work with CEOs, women in family business for the next generation.

Yury: A very personal question, when do you rest? How do you recuperate the energy to put on so many events?

Catherine: I love it, I love helping family businesses. And I know that what we do makes a difference, and each time I do one of our programs, if it’s an educational one, we do survey. And we’ve gone from 95 to 99 to 100% good to excellent, except I had one bad, one that said fair, because when we did our golf, the guys wanted to get into the women’s program. I said, “Okay, we’ll do a scramble.” So last year we had 40 women who did the wine and dine, so there were maybe 60 for golf, we had 86 came for the golf scramble and it became a tournament. And it got … it started a little later than we anticipated and they didn’t get through all their golf, so we had a really ambitious golfer who wasn’t happy that it got … it got slowed down. So this year we’re going to have 144 people, so we need to grow it. We’re going to take over the whole course and we’re going to get a good review on that, not fair.

Rich: Absolutely, sounds good. And depending on when people listen to the show, whether they miss one or another, it sounds like you’ve got a lot of programs going on. I’m assuming they can go to your website and see what’s next.

Catherine: Yes.

Rich: All right.

Catherine: Everything’s there.

Rich: So you’ve talked a little bit about this, but what would you say that some of the biggest challenges that Maine family businesses face today?

Catherine: I think the biggest challenge is one of the questions that we ask when we do our awards night, is what can the state of Maine do for you? And everybody’s looking for help, everybody needs talented people, needs help, that’s why we did a program last year on internships, how to set it up, how to put it together, we had somebody come who … a member, who participated, we had Chalmers Insurance Group and Janet Cole Cross who led it, they gave takeaways, they created their first internship and then they hired a person after they’d gone through the summer. So we did a round table discussion about that earlier this year.

Catherine: So trying to find-

Rich: I wish I’d been around for that one, that sounds fantastic.

Catherine: Yeah, it was good, we might bring it back.

Rich: All right. I definitely need help on that, in that particular category.

Catherine: Because like … for myself, I was doing this all by myself. I didn’t have staff. And then USM gave me a grant for an intern, and I was like well how do I this? How do I do it remotely? But if they’re giving me free money and free help, I was like I better figure this out.

Rich: Yeah, exactly.

Catherine: So I’ve used interns and it’s been helpful, and now my current staff, I have Brooke Stewart who’s my director of communications, she’s fabulous. And we all work remotely.

Rich: Yeah.

Catherine: And I think that might help with some of the issues, that people are trying to find staff. If you’re willing to be creative, there might be people in other parts of the country, or things that you could bring in and work remotely with.

Rich: Or you just don’t have enough office space, that’s something we’re dealing with, and even though I want to hire local people, I just may not have a desk for them, but with remote work, obviously that’s something you can overcome.

Catherine: Right.

Yury: Do you feel … sometimes it sounds it’s not necessarily the resource challenge, but maybe the lack of awareness about what’s available, or-

Catherine: Right.

Yury: The ways to overcome those challenges.

Catherine: A big part of what I do is resources for people. Because I’ve been in this market for a long time, and people laugh, “Oh Catherine, you know [inaudible 00:14:37]”, but it’s like three degrees of separation. If you need something, I can help them, and connect them in. And I kind of … we have two kinds of members at the institute, we have our family businesses, which are any two people in a family business constitutes a family, so husband and wife when it’s [inaudible 00:14:54] or over time, cousins, brothers, sisters. And then … but then we have our associate partners that are not family businesses, like yourself, the bank, Machias Saving Bank, the accounting firms, the law firms, individual consultants. And I kind of feel like we provide a good housekeeping seal of approval to them, because I meet with everybody. We do have a code of conduct, you’re not allowed to completely solicit and go after hardcore on the family businesses, because they won’t come back. Each time I do a panel or program I try to have family businesses. And they’re very open, and they’re very honest about what they’re trying to do, because it’s so hard to run a business. And then you put the family dynamics in, and you want to make sure that everybody has a nice Thanksgiving or Christmas, you know, whatever holiday they celebrate.

Catherine: And so we do these small groups, like I said, these affinity groups, and that’s led by a coach. And sometimes they’re talking about family issues, and siblings, or challenges, but sometimes they’re talking about what technology are you using, or what’s customer service. But what they do is they find a peer group that understands where they are. So I’ve had a person come in and sit down and say, “Oh, I don’t have to explain it, my family business,” because … so everybody gets it, you know? And then they all really want to help each other, and that’s what I think is special about the institute. I know when I was a chamber executive in Boothbay Harbor, it was heads in beds and butts in seats. If somebody joined the chamber, they wanted to have their business explode, right? Especially on the peninsula when it’s a short window.

Catherine: When they came to the institute, I was like, “Well … ” you know, Lindsey Gifford from Gifford’s Ice Cream doesn’t join the institute necessarily to sell more ice cream. But she tied in with Planet Dog, they did a promotion with vanilla ice cream and they sold some. But she’s learned through being on the board how to run meetings, how to put things together. There’s a vast network, they know that once they meet people here, they can help each other. And everybody’s probably … somebody’s probably been through the situation that they’ve had, so it becomes a great resource for them to have just a helping hand or someone that can tie in.

Catherine: So a lot of them will reach out to me, I’ll get crisis calls from a family that needs a mediator, or needs somebody there, that they’re not doing well. And so what I can do is help kind of troubleshoot and direct them in the right way. I’m not a facilitator, I don’t educate them on family business but I put them in touch with the experts to help them.

Yury: Do you feel like the members of your institute tend to stay longer in business?

Catherine: Yes. There’s statistics and things that show that family businesses are usually good for the longer … although, there is … and the reason why is exist, there’s a 30, 13, and 3% chance that you go from the first generation to the fourth. So in Maine, we have lots of business that like Hussey Seating, Gifford’s Ice Cream, Hancock Lumber, Hamman Lumber, that they get beyond that third generation. That’s huge.

Yury: What’s the average number? In Maine? Do you guys have that?

Catherine: Well 80% of businesses in Maine are family owned. I don’t know how many are the generation, like-

Rich: Through the generations.

Catherine: We have had 89 plus seven, now somebody do the math for me. I think that’s 96, right?

Rich: That is 96.

Catherine: We do have data on past winners that we did when we did our awards night, and I’m sorry, I don’t have the number in my head right now, but we did do some statistics on how many of those were still family owned, and what generations and things like that.

Yury: Are there any particular preferences in terms of categories, which businesses usually … originated, someone starts as like a fisherman, or someone starts like a brewer, or-

Catherine: Well Luke’s Lobster that just opened up there, they’re a good example, they’re a fishing business and then … I’m going to go to the restaurant for the first time hopefully today and get it. That they have-

Yury: I think Rich actually went there the day they opened.

Catherine: Well, I couldn’t go the day because it was the awards.

Rich: It was, I actually … don’t get me in trouble, [Uri 00:18:41], I went the day after it opened up. I went there for the first lunch though, I think it had opened up at dinner-

Catherine: Yeah.

Rich: During your award ceremony, so of course I wasn’t there. But yes, great view, great food-

Catherine: Yeah, and there’s a fishing … I think the way family businesses succeed, it’s like an example with Hussey Seating, they started out making plows. Then they went into making fire escapes. Then they ended up getting into seating, now they make the seats at Gillette Stadium, and all around the world. So I think what needs to happen is the younger generation kind of comes in with ideas and sometimes the older generation rejects that, or it causes some-

Rich: Tension.

Catherine: There’s some strife, or tension. But if they’re open to look at both generations and to think about it, if they keep innovating, then the companies survive. So it’s the ones that are open to changes and innovation, and I think that’s part of why healthy businesses come to the institute, because they’re working with coaches, they’re working with people, they’re looking for help, they’re looking for the education. And when we do our educational programs, we ask them, “What do you want? What do you need?” And then we create unique programming for them each time. It isn’t something that you’re just going to get off the shelf. We tailor it to what they’re looking for. And that, I think, provides the stickiness for them, because if they’re going to come out of their business for a day, or two, or hour, they want to get something from it, because they’re already busy and working. So I like to put two elements, I like to have education, and I like to have fun. So I’m like, “Stick with me kid, and come and have fun.”

Rich: I definitely see that, I definitely see that in you. This has been really helpful, and Catherine, we always ask our guests one question, and it’s this. If you could change one thing to improve the business ecosystem in the state of Maine, what would it be?

Catherine: I would have the people who are elected, and tie into the legislature, have to run a business, and know what it’s like to run a business. Because when I ask those questions, “What do you need?” One is the help, though two is they need less regulation. They need … I think a lot of times people will bring forward a bill or something, a bill with good intentions, but then they don’t think about the consequences and what that means to a business as it trickles down. Maine can be though with that, and regulations, and that hurts family businesses.

Rich: Yeah, and you know what they say about good intentions, so …

Catherine: Right.

Yury: Well it sounds like it’s time to start the internship program for the legislators, so they can know-

Catherine: They should, they need to run a business and see what it’s like to make payroll, and when they make those laws, what’s … and a lot of them are. But I think a lot of times people don’t … they don’t realize the consequences of what they’re legislating. You know, there’s a few squeaky wheels or something and they’re like, “Oh, we have to fix this, fix this,” and then do you really have to fix it? I mean, is it really that important? And what is the trickle down affect of the businesses when you put that in?

Yury: It’s like are you fixing it, or are you helping to elevate it to the next level?

Catherine: Right.

Rich: Yeah. Definitely unintended consequences in many cases. So this has been great, and … so this has been great, and Catherine, I’m sure that there’s a lot of family owned businesses that would love to learn more, join, learn about the affinity groups, all of the amazing events that you guys have going on. Where can we send them?

Catherine: Fam, F-A-M,

Rich: Awesome. And Catherine, where can we find you online outside of the website? You on LinkedIn or anything?

Catherine: Yes, I’m on LinkedIn. I’m on Facebook, and you can find me around.

Rich: All right, sounds good. Catherine, thank you so much for coming by and talking to … literally coming by.

Catherine: Yeah.

Rich: Like this is our first in studio guest, so this is a lot of fun. So I just want to thank you for your time.

Catherine: Thank you.

Yury: Yeah, I really appreciate you coming here. Thank you.

Catherine: Thank you.

Yury: You’re great.