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Starting up any company is hard. Sustaining that company through multiple generations requires constant adaptation to external changes. That innovation through disruption begins with a keen understanding of the family’s identity, values, and traditions. It’s one of the reasons why successful multigenerational family businesses are such compelling illustrations of leadership.
Brandt and Belinda Louie are the patriarch and matriarch of the hundred-year-old H.Y. Louie Co. Ltd., British Colombia’s second-largest private company. They are also my good friends, advisory board members for our Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and among the most value-based and globally-minded people I know.
If you ask Brandt what the business plan or mission statement is, he would point you to the letters his grandfather, Hok Yat Louie, wrote, which now hang in the Burnaby headquarters of the company he chairs.
What was originally a seed and fertilizer shop started by an immigrant has grown—in just three generations—to become an enterprise with more than 8,000 employees and $4 billion in annual revenues. No matter how it transforms, it always comes back to its roots and values, etched in the letters that H.Y. Louie wrote to his children.
When H.Y. Louie emigrated to British Columbia in the late 1800s, he discovered a tough environment in which to survive. He worked many manual labor jobs. He later started a small store, which sold fertilizer and seed to the Chinese farmers in the province. 38 years after his arrival, and in failing health, he returned to his native country, leaving behind the store to his oldest sons.
Over the next year, he wrote a series of letters to his sons that served as guidance not only for how his children should live their lives, but also how they should conduct business. Of primary importance are customer service, doing right by others, being kind, working hard, and working with integrity.
Some of my favorite excerpts include:
“Be earnest, fair, and loyal in your dealings with customers. Discuss things with your fellow workers. Be amiable to them.” (Undated)(May 27, 1934)
“The execution for these plans is left to yourselves so long as you set your goals based on the business’s profitability. It requires work and care not to step out of the focal point.” (July 23, 1934)
“Life is for the pursuit of happiness. Young people should always be earnest in their work.” (March 30, 1934)
“When pursuing prosperity, you must follow the laws of Heaven. Don’t be afraid to be kind and charitable.” (March 30, 1934)
“The more you learn, the better you get…. Develop your own character as well as your working skills.” (July 23, 1934)
Little did he know that his words would guide the heart of the company. Throughout the years, the company transformed and expanded to include other grocery stores. In the 1970s, they branched into drugstores with the acquisition of London Drugs and and in 1999, the airline business when they opened London Air Services. Sonora Lodge and Resort was acquired in 2002 and under Brandt Louie’s careful leadership, has evolved into a world class Relais and Chateau property. Today, with his grandson, Brandt, and his great-grandsons, Gregory and Stuart, the company is poised to undergo another transformation. They’re expanding into the healthcare sector with medical imaging possibilities.
What makes Louies’ story so powerful is that each reimagination of the company and subsequent transformation grew from the origin story of the company. The Louies grounded every change in the original dream their ancestor had for his family’s business. The innovations, however they might differ from the context, were successful because they were authentic to the foundational values, family identity, and spirit.
A 2012 study in the Journal of Management found that authentic leadership and authentic followership positively correlates to workplace success. The study defined authentic leadership as leadership which occurs “when individuals enact their true selves in their role as a leader.” When leaders clearly demonstrated their values, they elicited higher performance from their followers, who reported higher job satisfaction.
Louie’s use of his grandfather’s letters in public spaces and in private reflection provided context for his business, enumerated the company’s values, and reflected authenticity in their mission statement. H.Y. Louie laid the seeds that his great-grandchildren still harvest today.
In my experience in working with leaders of multigenerational family businesses, including sports franchises, the successful ones that have innovated throughout the years are grounded in tradition and values. It’s more than a business, but an authentic identity that stems from an understanding of their origin stories, their sense of why, and their differentiators.
What does this mean for you? While not all individuals are wrestling with large scale transformations of multigenerational family businesses. But we are all facing new disruptions and external changes that necessitate personal or organizational innovation.
Start first with understanding who you are. Build a frame of reference that’s based on your roots, what you find valuable, and how you wish to make the world different for your future generations. Who are the people who have influenced you, given your story context, and promoted authenticity in your life?
Then write your story, or perhaps a letter to your future self. And make that the start of a guide for the next version of you.
March 15, 2019 at 03:13PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs