Family Business Awards navigates transition

A merger raised doubts about the future of the 16-year-old program, but this year’s event proves it has a strong future ahead.

For 16 years, Smith & Gesteland has run the Wisconsin Family Business of the Year Award program, but the firm’s merger last year with BDO USA raised some doubt about the future of a program that has honored more than 100 family businesses.

Fast forward to this year’s awards program, which was held May 9 at Monona Terrace, and it’s clear that BDO, an international tax, assurance, and consultant practice, has fully embraced the program and the event.

Nobody is happier about that than Julie Bogle, a former Smith & Gesteland employee who is now a tax partner with BDO USA. “This program is really near and dear to me,” Bogle states. “We’ve been doing this forever, and my big concern about merging with BDO was that we were going to lose this [program].

“They have wholeheartedly embraced this and, in fact, they would like to be more involved in it. So, this year, some of the legacy BDO folks have been involved. Mostly, it’s been run again by the legacy S&Gers, and that is not going to be the case going forward. BDO has just embraced this thing, so I’m very excited about it.”

BDO’s Neil Fauerbach, also formerly of Smith & Gesteland, says program organizers have placed winning nominations on the Family Business Award website for potential nominees to review. There, they can see that they quality of the writing is getting better and more concise, that nominees better understand the criteria, and they can see what the judges are looking for. “What’s very interesting is the places we’ve gotten nominations from,” Fauerbach says. “They are all over the state. This year, it was just remarkable, with companies we’ve never heard of from towns we’ve never heard of.”

Fauerbach notes that permission is granted from past winners and that winning nominations have been posted from Brakebush Brothers, State Collection Service Inc., and Badger Basement Systems.

As part of the transition, BDO representatives were invited to attend last year’s event, and they came away impressed. “The idea is that it’s not just a night,” Fauerbach states. “It’s a whole system around developing the connections that we’ve made throughout the state with family businesses. So, we have close friends who I can call up and do a plant tour, or just drop in and get some free sausage or chicken.”

Dan Kramer, a partner with BDO, served as the master of ceremonies for the 2019 Family Business Award program.

Dan Kramer, a partner with BDO, served as the master of ceremonies for the 2019 program, and like his predecessor (Fauerbach), he appeared in formalwear. Interviewed before the event, he was looking forward to his first ceremony. “I think it’s a fantastic way to represent the state of Wisconsin and recognize the stories that are untold,” Kramer says. “We’ve got such a wide breadth of small organizations and large organizations in this state. I guess it’s a showcase night and we let the families come up and be recognized.”

Kramer, who has represented clients of varying sizes with their own unique set of business challenges, says he’s never encountered a family business story that was not worth knowing. “With every story, there is something to learn from,” he states. “That’s hopefully what we’ll hear tonight — people telling their stories.

“Some things we’ve heard before, but they are such great reminders,” he adds. “There is always something unique that we can pull from it. There are always lessons that we can learn from those struggles and those triumphs.”



Large representation

An independent panel of judges drawn from the business community selected this year’s winners from among 19 nominees that ranged from bow-tie makers to wedding planners.

According to Bogle, there were an unusually large number of large company (150-plus employees) nominations this year, the first time that’s ever happened. “It’s great to see so many large companies in Wisconsin catching word of the award,” she says. “We had asked a lot of previous winners to be ambassadors in their community and draw in some of their fellow citizens, and they did. It was great.”

Bogle says the top worry of small and family-owned businesses is the labor shortage, but concern over the possibility of a recession, especially with an escalating trade war and even higher tariffs, is number two. “Employment — they can’t get enough people. That’s number one. Number two is the impending recession. Everybody talks about it. They want to know when it’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen.

“A lot of family businesses have accumulated some cash and some wealth, and we’ve had a good 10-year run and they are doing very well, and so they are concerned about that and wondering if there is a safe place to put their wealth.”

A third concern pertains to the national debt, which now stands at $22 trillion and counting, and when it will come due. “It’s a huge concern that I hear all across the political spectrum,” Bogle says.

See related story: 6 Wisconsin family businesses honored

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