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When Women Lead

Many women can make inspired CEOs of family-owned businesses. Here's why:

  • More women are earning business degrees at the undergraduate and graduate level, thus providing them with the skills necessary to take over a company. "Education has become a lever for daughters to be taken seriously," says Timothy G. Habbershon, director of the Institute for Family Enterprise at Babson College.
  • Daughters often find learning the business from their dads is easier for them than it is for their brothers, who can get into testosterone-driven intergenerational struggles.
  • While many male CEOs of family firms take a command-and-control approach to management, women overall take a collaborative, team-building approach. "This can be very welcome," says Nan Langowitz, Ph.D., co-founder and faculty director, Center for Women's Leadership at Babson College. Coupled with listening, this can give women the edge in obtaining information about the company and the employees, says Dan Rottenberg of Family Business magazine, who points to the quiet effectiveness of the sheriff in the movie Fargo as a model of these traits in action.
  • A Babson College/MassMutual report, "Women in Family-Owned Businesses," found that woman-owned family firms in the United States were more productive than those headed by men, more likely to retain family members as workers and more concerned about philanthropic endeavors in their communities.
  • Many daughters don't view taking over the family business as an automatic entitlement. They work hard to learn the business and earn workers' respect. Often the daughters ask to become involved.

Encouraging Girl Power

If you want to raise a daughter to become CEO of your family firm, Judy Preston, a family firm consultant suggests:

  • Resisting a parent's instinct to protect daughters to the point where it damages self-esteem and sense of achievement.
  • Giving daughters and sons positive reinforcement about their abilities.
  • Challenging all children to solve situational or mathematical problems, so they use their thinking skills.
  • Encouraging hobbies that develop problem-solving skills.
  • Exposing all children to the business at an early age and making sure to teach them all the same parts of the enterprise.
  • Employing them in the business while they're still in school so they can determine if they're interested in it.
  • Sending them off to gain experience after college so they know the pluses and minuses of working elsewhere.
  • Selecting the child, male or female, with the skills that best fit the job.
Prodigal Daughters
The Ritz-Carlton, Winter 2005


Kelly Gray, the iconic ice-blond model in the St. John advertisements, started by wrapping samples for store buyers at her parents' company when she was just 12. Nell Newman began by persuading her dad, actor and gourmet entrepreneur Paul Newman, that organic pretzels needn't taste like animal treats. Alessia Antinori launched her career laboring the Italian vineyards owned by her father. Jennifer LeRoy started with menial jobs in her father's glamorous Manhattan restaurants, including Tavern on the Green.

Though their beginnings may have been varied, these and other women have gone on to take leadership positions in their family firms, changing the way business is done and highlighting a shift away from one of the oldest traditions in family-owned businesses: passing control to the eldest son.

All in the family

One factor in particular seems to be driving the trend of bequeathing a business to a daughter. While women have excelled in business for decades, more "senior-generation males," as business experts call them, are now comfortable working with women as their bankers, lawyers, analysts and consultants. "When all these fathers were just starting their business. the model was the heroic, commanding patriarch who knows all the answers and makes all the decisions, and everyone else just implements them," says Joyce Fletcher, Ph.D.,, a professor of management at Simmons School of Management in Boston. But times have changed. Even for traditionally minded fathers, working with accomplished women makes it a shorter leap to seeing your daughter as the right person to take your company to the next stage of its growth.

It's a trend that seems destined only to pick up speed as time goes on: Thirty-nine percent of family-owned businesses in the United States will experience a change in leadership in the next five years as CEOs retire or take on a reduced role, found the MassMutual/Raymond Institute American Family Business Survey. In companies where a successor has been chosen, the survey did find that it's likely to be a 40-year-old male with a college education. But in cases where a successor has yet to be tapped, m ore than 34 percent of firms said their next CEO might well be a woman - up 9 percent from when the same question was asked in 1997.

"There's so much change ... over the next 10 years, it will be much more natural" for women to be taking over family businesses, says Amy Millman, president of the non-profit Springboard Enterprises, which has been tracking women in business for 25 years. "Sons now have role models mothers running companies. Daughters are getting MBAs and are coming to take it to the next level. We're light-years from where we were 10 years ago. It's a tipping point in time."

What women do best

So what makes a woman a good fit for taking the helm at her family's company? As with any good leader, education, experience and pass are key, of course. But a woman may in fact be a better choice to run things in the current business climate: Studies show women tend to perform as well as or better than men in all leadership qualities, Fletcher says, and research reveals, too, that women are typically more skilled at communication and collaborations - both of which tend to correlate with increased productivity and profitability as a company matures (and which are more effective than a "command and control" approach, experts say). "Globalization and diversity have made teamwork and collaboration much more important," Fletcher says. "It's transformational rather than transactional leadership." Fletcher calls having a shared vision, listening to colleagues and employees and paying attention to people and what they need essential to effecting change, especially in a company going through a significant transition or in a turnaround situation. "The distribution model of leadership is that wisdom and expertise reside at all levels of the workplace," Fletcher explains. "The most effective leader creates and environment that's inclusive, in which all that knowledge is brought to bear."

Which describes, in short, what these prominent women did up on assuming leadership positions in their family firms. Antinori found that delegating was essential for her effectiveness, while New man learned the value of listening and artful compromise. LeRoy learned that "as long as you follow your instincts, no matter how young or old you are, you'll be successful." Gray came to better understand her biggest strengths - and weaknesses - to determine which responsibilities she needed someone else to handle. And Laudomia Pucci realized that limited resources would keep her father's fashion house from reaching its full potential. Here, a look at how these and other daring daughters learned to lead.

Alessia Antinori, 28
Winemaker//Marchesi Antinori Wines

For many, the name Antinori means Tuscan wines, thanks to the efforts of Antinori's father, Piero, with whom she shares sales and marketing duties. But Antinori's beginnings at the family business were decidedly more modest. After earning a degree in winemaking, she had to earn respect, even though she the 26th generation in the family business. "I never wanted to be considered the daughter of my father," she says. It took her several years to prove herself in the vineyards, traditionally a male preserve. She willingly did her share of backbreaking work during the harvests, driving a tractor to collect boxes heavy with just-picked grapes. "After they saw that I had the energy to do it, they saw a woman can also be a winemaker," she recalls. During that trial period, Antinori "learned to be humble," which she says is the more important lesson, a touchstone still in her everyday work. It helps her "recognize you can't do everything and that you have to delegate to other people that you trust so that they can do it for you in a better way." One of three sisters involved in the family business, she now focuses on expanding her family's centuries-old tradition of winemaking into Asian markets and oversees anew northern Italian winery that will produce methode champenoise sparkling

Kelly Gray, 38
Creative Director//St. John Knits, Inc.

Grey's family firm, St. John Knits, started in 1962, with her mother Marie designing the line and her father Bob as CEO. By age 14, Gray was modeling in the showroom in 1981, she began appearing in the company's print ads. Named advertising executive in 1984, she told her father her goal: to be creative director, which would make Gray responsible for selling, advertising and marketing, as well as selecting colors and fabrics and approving final designs. To prepare herself for the role, Gray spent two years learning the company's manufacturing and retail operations. In 2002, Bob Gray retired, naming his daughter and Bruce Fetter as co-CEOs. "The stock dropped 10 points that day," recalls Gray. "I had to convince analysts that the company hadn't made a terrible decision." Gray's father stepped aside - something family business experts say is crucial to the success of any successor - but being a CEO didn't suit Gray. So in September 2004, she chose to step down from her CEO post while retaining her creative director title, a move in keeping with the "do what is best for the company" attitude her parents instilled in her. "I'm a lot better working on the product," she says.

Jennifer Oz LeRoy, 26
CEO//LeRoy Adventures

When the flamboyant Walter LeRoy, owner of holdings that include New York City's Tavern on the Green and the Russian Tea Room restaurants, died in 2001, he left daughter Jennifer, then just 22, to oversee his empire. Media speculation dogged LeRoy, even though she had worked her way up from the bottom, starting by washing dishes, hauling produce and rolling 3,000 pats of butter a day at Tavern, the top-grossing restaurant in the United States. "I was the owner's daughter. I could have just walked around in a suit all day, but instead I was in the kitchen piping butter for four hours a day. I don't think anyone expected me to last very long," she says. For three months, at 19, she also shadowed the kitchen expediter, who assembles as many as 4,000 dinners daily; when the expediter left, Leroy stepped in. "The experience that really sticks out was the first holiday that I worked as an expediter - Mother's Day. I was in charge ... and I had to rise to the occasion and manage the entire kitchen staff." She was vice president of both restaurants before her father died, spending mornings at the Tavern on the Green and evenings at the Russian Tea Room. "And in my down time, my dad would teach me about the financial side of the company." So when she became CEO, she knew the business. "I knew more of the practicality of a restaurant than he did. ... He would consult me for practical advice." One of the first changes she made was selling the Russian Tea Room in 2002. It was a quick decision, with her accountant telling her mid-week that there wasn't enough money to pay staff through the week. She was advised to close quietly that night. Refusing to let her staff go unpaid, she told them of the closing, then "I went with my gut instinct" and told the press the coming weekend would the landmark's last. It was one of the best in the restaurant's history and allowed her to pay her staff. It also taught her an important lesson: "I believe that as long as you follow your instinct, no matter how young or old you are, you'll be successful. You just have to believe in yourself."

Laudomia Pucci, 43
Image Director//Pucci

When she was younger, Pucci never planned on taking over her father's fashion house, but the political science graduate received a warm welcome when she became CEO upon his death in 1992. She ran the business "as a little jewel" she recalls. "I was able to preserve it, keeping its image perfect," until making the difficult decision to sell 67 percent of the company's capital to luxury powerhouse LVMH in spring 2000. "I realized that such an important brand needed more in terms of human resources, know-how, structure and stores, all of which, of course, involved investment," she explains. Today, Pucci serves as image director, which is "very closely tied to my experience, on the one hand, as the owner, and, on the other hand, having been in the business for 20 years." She meets with the press and clients and lectures at fashion schools. She works closely with Christian Lacroix, who came aboard as designer after the LVMH purchase. Changes have been many and visible. In 2001, the company unveiled the first Emilio Pucci furniture collection, conceived with furniture designer Cappellini. Newly designed boutiques worldwide attracted another generation of shoppers, many of whom knew the brand from coveted vintage pieces. The flagship shop in Manhattan moved from its longtime location in an East Side townhouse to highly visible Fifth Avenue in July. Pucci pushed to revive designs identified with Marilyn Monroe for the Paris store opening. She guided the introduction of sneakers in signature prints, launched the Emilio Pucci bottle for Veuve Clicquot's "Grande Dame" Champagne and worked with Bulgari to create a look for Nicole Kidman's appearance at Cannes. She's directly involved in the Web site, packaging and catalogs, and has organized the archives " so they can be used for inspiration and product development," finding forgotten original designs and colors in the process. "I make sure we innovate and that Pucci's DNA doesn't get lost along the way."

Nell Newman, 45
Co-founder and president//Newman's Own Organics

Newman is quick to point out the natural progression from the company's first product - Paul Newman's olive oil and vinegar salad dressing - to her own organic-only line. "My dad refused to add artificial preservatives or artificial colors to his original dressing because he wanted it 100 percent natural," she says. Newman launched Newman's Own Organics with her partner and friend Peter Meehan in 1993, a year after convincing her father that "organic" wasn't synonymous with "tastes grainy" by feeding him a Thanksgiving dinner that was all organic. Convinced, "Pa" Newman then offered his daughter and Meehan $15,000 each and covered one year's expenses to research the feasibility of an organic product line - with one stipulations: If they started a business, they would return the seed money so it could be added to the profits he famously turns over to charity. The first product was an organic version of "Pa's" favorite snack, pretzels, and the endeavor took off. By 2001, Newman and Meehan's organic division had become and independent company with all profits going to charity; 2003 saw the introduction of organic pet food. Bagged organic salad greens and organic dried fruit were recently introduced. Newman's success is, she believes, firmly rooted in her passion for the environment, and sustainable agriculture in particular. Newman also says having a clear vision of adding organic products to an already successful business fueled that passion. "You have to be both passionate and vaguely nuts to go into a family business," she says, adding that passion may be something women bring to a business in greater amounts than men because of the way "they get involved emotionally in something they really care about." In her case, passion and vision propelled her into the business. Now she calls herself "an outspoken environmentalist who became a businessperson. I was always interested in the family business, but I've had to learn to listen, to deal with conflicting perspectives. Being in business has made me a better person."

More Daring Daughters

Maria Asuncion Aramburuzabala
V ice Chairwoman, Grupo Televisa S.A.

Aramburuzabala ranks among the world's most powerful businesswomen. Her father, Pablo, grew family-owned Corona beer into an international brand; upon his death, she turned around one of Grupo Modelo's lagging divisions. By selling a non-controlling stake in the family business, Aramburuzabala was able to buy into Grupo Televisa, the largest media company in the Spanish-speaking world.

Christie Hefner, Chairman and CEO
Playboy Enterprises Inc.

Hefner, daughter to Hugh, joined her father's enterprise in 1975,when she was just a year out of college. In 1988, she succeeded him at Playboy, making her one of the first women to hold the title CEO at a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Hefner reorganized business operations and Playboy's financial structure, including closing the famed Playboy Clubs, and, in 1994, put Playboy on the Web. Hefner has transformed Playboy into an international multimedia entertainment company.

Abigail Johnson, President
Fidelity Management & Research Co.

Johnson is widely seen as being groomed to take over her family's firm, Fidelity Investments, where she started full-time in 1988 after earning an MBA from Harvard Business School and rose to head FMR Co., the investment advisor to Fidelity's family of mutual funds, including Magellan. Her grandfather, Edward C. Johnson II, founded the company in 1946, and her father, Edward C. Johnson III, 70, has been Fidelity's chairman and chief executive since 1977.

Aerin Lauder, Vice President of Global Advertising
Estee Lauder

In this all-in-the-family business, cousin William Lauder is CEO and Aerin Lauder is responsible for maintaining the upscale image of her late grandmother's enterprise. Her personal style and social presence keep the multibillion-dollar cosmetics empire, which now includes the Origins, Prescriptives and MAC brands, on red carpets worldwide.

Tami Longaberger, CEO
The Longaberger Company

Longaberger joined her father's basket-making company in 1984, when it had 625 employees and $19 million in sales. At the time, she was the only college graduate in the 12-person corporate offices in Newark, Ohio. "My father told me to spend the next five years learning," she remembers. "That was the start of earning respect." The Longaberger Company now employs 5,500 people. In 2003, it posted $833 million in revenue. The company's older handcrafted baskets sells briskly to collectors, with some fetching more than $1,000 in online auctions.

Pat Moran, Chairman
JM Family Enterprises

Moran heads this diversified automotive corporation, founded by her father Jim in 1968 and ranked as the 15th largest privately-held company in the United States by Forbes magazine. Now a $7.7 billion force in the industry, in 2004 JM Family Enterprises was ranked by Fortune magazine as the 19th-best company to work for in the United States (its sixth consecutive year on the list), owing to perks like on-site childcare, wellness and fitness programs, and a summer job program for employees' children.

Lubna Olayan, CEO
Olayan Financing Co.

Based in Saudi Arabia, Olayan now heads the company her father founded. In 2001, the group - which is involved in a range of activities from real estate and financial services to manufacturing - had estimated sales of $1 billion, more than $2 billion in assets and 8,800 employees.

Marjorie Yang, CEO
The Esquel Group

In 1995, Yang became chairman of the Hong Kong company started by her father in 1978. Every year, the company supplies some 60 million cotton shirts to brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Hugo Boss and Brooks Brothers, and to retailers including Nordstrom, and in the U.K., Marks & Spencer and Muji. Yang, who believes that business should contribute to society, has built primary schools and libraries in rural China.