University of Vermont

Making a Case for Family Business

UVM's case competition team
UVM's team: (from left) Jake Webber, Tom Bazzano, Liz Bernier, Kyle DeVivo and Dave Mount (Coach). Photo: Beth Parent

Senior Kyle DeVivo grew up working in his family’s transportation company and is well aware of the issues facing family businesses. That would seem like a major advantage heading into the Global Family Enterprise Case Competition on Jan. 9-12 at the University of Vermont. But with 40 of the 60 competitors also hailing from family businesses around the world, the competition was stiff.

Adding to the challenge was the fact that some case scenarios dealt with businesses in countries like Pakistan, where Sharia law prevents women from inheriting family businesses. Specific conditions like these weighed heavily on how DeVivo and his UVM teammates – Elizabeth Bernier, Jake Webber, Tom Bazzano – responded to questions from an expert panel of judges, following a 20-minute PowerPoint presentations they were given a scant three hours to generate.  

“It’s one thing to have practical experience working in a family business, but translating it into proper family business terminology using specific models that address each case situation is a lot different,” said DeVivo whose family owns DATTCO Coach & Tour Group in Connecticut, servicer of all Megabus routes. “I could relate to a lot of the situations that were presented in the cases like succession, because I’ve had these discussions with my father. A case competition is really mock consulting, and being able to practice in front of judges is a great experience for when we do it in front of future employers.”

The event, the first case competition ever held that dealt exclusively with family business, drew 16 teams from 10 countries and further positioned UVM as a leader in the growing field of family business studies. Despite an estimated 70-90 percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP) created by family-controlled enterprises, according to the Family Firm Institute, the education and scholarship about family enterprises has been slow to evolve.

“While family enterprises dominate the economic landscape and are the biggest contributors to job creation and communities, there was no case competition in the world that exclusively focuses on family enterprises,” said Pramodita Sharma, professor in the School of Business Administration who co-authored the book Entrepreneurial Family Firms (2010) and edits leading journal Family Business Review. “We were thrilled with the quality of this event and the feedback we received. We plan to expand to 24 teams next year.”

Playing host to the world

Four-member teams from Sweden, Spain, Netherlands, Mexico, Canada, Malaysia, Columbia, Argentina, Canada and the United States spent four days vying for the Family Enterprise Cup and the $2,500 that comes with it. That honor went to ESADE Business School in Spain, followed by Wilfred Laurier University in Ontario, John Molson School Business at Concordia University in Montreal, and Jonkoping International Business School in Sweden. The 16 teams were placed in four divisions and given scores of 1 through 4 on separate cases on each of the first three days with division winners advancing to the final four. Winners of each case received $2,000, while division winners took home $1,000 each.

“I’m amazed at how well this event went for its size and the fact that it was the first year,” said Stetson Coach Peter Begalla, adjunct professor and outreach director of the Family Enterprise Center at Stetson University, the first school in the USA to offer a degree in family business. “This is our specialty, so we’re very pleased that UVM started a case competition focusing on family business.”

ESADE established itself as the team to beat by posting a perfect score of four on the first day by offering a series of recommendations to a family business in transition that included: the creation of a family constitution; the use of scientific data analysis to guide the decision making of a newly formed strategy committee; bringing in outside consultants to change the business from a patriarchal model to a more corporate one.

“They were very strong,” said Sanjay Sharma, dean of the UVM School of Business Administration, who helped established Concordia as one the world’s top case teams while dean there prior to coming to UVM in 2011. “These competitions help students in so many ways. By competing against the best schools from around the world in front of industry judges they will be more poised, confident, and worldly when they go on job interviews. It does a lot for their confidence.”

Creating original cases

The event, privately funded by 30 sponsors including major sponsors Chuck and Robin Tauck, Stephen Ifshin, Cindy Lombardo, and Jim Keller, was designed to showcase exceptional case writing skills as well as case analysis and presentations. Traditionally, most case competitions focus on areas like ethics, marketing, strategy and accounting. Rocki-Lee DeWitt, a seasoned case writer and professor of management in the School of Business Administration, reached out to some of the world’s top case-writing and family-business experts for new case scenarios and received more than they anticipated.

“We chose cases that offered a comprehensive test of the students’ understanding of commonly occurring family business issues,” said DeWitt. “These included issues of cultural context and its influence on the range of available alternatives, multi-family situations, leadership and ownership succession, governance, as well as sibling conflict. A great case allows the possibility that the ‘situation’ may be seen in a number of different ways. That is why we have an academic, a business owner, and an adviser to family business on each panel.”

As anticipated, not every team focused on the same part of the case studies. For example, in response to a narrative about a company called Ruma’s Fruit and Gift Basket asking who would take over the business once 72-year-old Jim stepped down, one team focused exclusively on the middle daughter, Andrea, and what she needed to do to eventually take over the business from her father. Another team mentioned Andrea, but offered much broader solutions that focused on overall family harmony through the creation of a family trust.

On the final night of the event after comments about the importance of family business to the local economy by Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and UVM President Tom Sullivan, participants reflected on their experience while enjoying dinner in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel. Arjen Dekker of Windesheim University in the Netherlands talked about the challenges of the competition like presenting in English, but said he’d remember it most for the people he met and spending time in the United States. “I’ll never forget it,” he said. “We had a really great experience.”