Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations; rice paddy to rice paddy, ditto; kimono to kimono; clogs to clogs: an expression as old as writing itself and common in cultures the world over. Family wealth is rarely sustained. So when I learned about a family business on the West Coast that is 150 years old, in its seventh generation with 385 living members, most of whom attend a four-day "family summit" each June, it interested me.
"They are unique in the United States," John Ward, a professor of family enterprise at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago, told the Puget Sound Business Journal. "There are only ten companies in the world that have accomplished what they have in keeping the business and continuing to grow as a family." The Journal headlined the story: "The Family IS the Business."
The Laird Norton Co., made its fortune on the lumber business, sold the last link to that business in 2006 and has since then dived into other growing businesses to safeguard the family's future. The company is privately held.
What can we learn from their experience? All families say they do the same things Laird Norton does. The difference is this group actually does them.
Keeping the family unified and supporting everybody's education and personal growth is the central task, according to Robert Moser, president and CEO of Laird Norton Tyee, the planning firm that evolved over the years from the Laird-Norton brood's family office. It's also important to educate the next generation and help them understand what the family does. I met Moser at the Family Wealth Alliance conference in Chicago in October, where everyone at our table wanted to find out the details about the kids and money program.
Laird Norton was founded as a lumber company in Winona, Minn., in 1855 by two brothers, James Laird Norton and Matthew George Norton, and their cousin, William Harris Laird. In 1905, the company invested in nearly 1 million acres of Pacific Northwestern timberlands and was instrumental in the founding of major lumber companies in the Western states. The company moved its headquarters to Seattle in 1955 when the family began to diversify into financial services. It also focused on keeping the relatives unified as they spread to different parts of the world. In 1975, the annual meetings were opened to all members, including children, and the programs were expanded to include younger generations.
Lanoga Corp., the family's last link to the lumber business, was sold to Fidelity Capital in 2006. Even though over 98% of the family members voted for the sale, it posed challenges to unity. The family took care to inform all members of what the sale meant-that it would present them with their first opportunity to cash out. But family leaders also feared its members would drift apart now that they were no longer in lumber.
At the end of 2006, Jeanne Lang Jones of the Puget Sound Business Journal wrote an excellent story about the Laird Norton descendants, focusing on their values and philanthropy. "Old, widely spread families do not stay together by accident," Ward told her. "It takes work." Part of the work is to keep the business fresh and growing so that future generations will not fall back to shirtsleeves. The other part is to continue to grow the family. "As the family and business get older and larger, a critical function is to provide the family cohesion, unity and identity," Ward said.
Also key is to grow the business so that members do not identify with a specific product; instead they learn a way of doing business that reflects family values. The Laird Norton family acted on this in 2001 when Tim Taylor, CEO and family president, stepped down. For the first time the positions of company CEO and family president were split. Jeff Vincent, the first non-family member to serve as CEO, was hired, which allowed Chalan Colby, a Laird Norton descendant, to take responsibility for the family itself as their president. Part of her job is to offer that cohesion and unity the family needs.
Colby also works with individual members to find out their strengths and interests when they are "introduced" to their family at age 14. Then she must work with each child to achieve his or her goals. All family members are included; there is no bickering about that.
For example, Booth Gardner, a stepson of a family member, announced when he was 15 that he wanted to become governor of the state of Washington, a goal he achieved in 1995. He served two terms and was a popular governor.
One of the most important family activities is the annual family summit with Camp Three Tree for infants and young children. The professionally staffed camp offers a full range of activities as well as field trips to help the children get to know cousins and learn to negotiate with them, skills they will need as they grow up.
Working With Other Families
Laird Norton Co., the name of the family business in timberland, eventually moved into building materials and then set up a family office in 1968 called Laird Norton Trust, its first move into financial services. The firm began to accept other families in 1979. Today it consults with 400 other families and has grown to become the largest independent wealth management firm in the Pacific Northwest. Only 25% of its business still comes from the Laird Norton descendants.
The family bought asset management firm Tyee Asset Strategies in 2004 and merged it with its own private trust company to create the current firm.
What is "Tyee"? I asked Moser. It is a term familiar only to Washingtonians, he says. It can mean either a wise elder or a really, really large salmon weighing 30 or 40 pounds. But more important is that Laird Norton Tyee, or LN Tyee, is now a cohesive planning firm.
The company doesn't do concierge services, but it will find someone to do them. Ditto with health care. "We don't manage health care providers, but help the families do that," Moser said. He uses some of the techniques the Laird Norton family developed to work with other families. "We saw them as an incubator."
The firm does have a group in the company that provides elder service as well as one that focuses on kids and money. Moser lets the 85 employees choose which specialty they want to focus on.
I asked Moser about the problems many family offices face in 2012, when a Dodd-Frank regulation will require a family office to serve only direct family members or otherwise register as an RIA. Laird Norton Tyee has it covered: The firm is both a trust company and an RIA, making it exempt of all the regulations.
Kids are a special focus of the firm. Moser said that whenever he asks clients what they want to focus on, what are their hot buttons, what do they worry about, "It's always the kids."
That drove the firm to work with kids from elementary school to college age. With the younger kids, "it's about understanding inflow and outflow," Moser said. If a child has a $10 allowance, he or she needs to learn how to allocate that. "They catch on very quickly," Moser said. "We talk about charity and how the way you spend your money reflects your values. We ask them: 'Do you believe you have some responsibility for others in the community?'"
This year, Moser went to the family summit where he worked with kids ages 15 to 21, talking about investing, investing returns, financial risk. "I ask a series of questions: like would you rather get $10 today or $50 in three years," he said. "Time is a big factor in risk and we try to teach them that."
All parents want their kids to get jobs and study hard, Moser said, but often they don't pick the right time to have the "what money means" conversation. "I don't understand why parents who are dissatisfied with the way the kids use money choose to discuss it with them when they're on the private family plane headed for a ski holiday." Moser also holds sessions on various topics for kids and invites kids from all the different families to come because he said kids prefer a group meeting to a one-on-one.
Laird Norton Tyee also partners with the local community to educate kids about money. The firm employees teach an entire high school class on money, "so our company can give back to community," Moser said. "Also, we get better at what we do."
Many families worry that no one will be qualified to run the business in the third generation. The Norton Laird family members have patience because they trust the family. "Businesses go through their ups and downs," one of the family members told the Puget Sound Business Journal. "The family will be there forever."
Mary Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a business and personal finance journalist for 30 years and has written two books for financial advisors:
Best Practices and
In Search of the Perfect Model.