Interview with Prof. Mattias Nordqvist, CeFEO, Jönköping International Business School, Sweden

Located in the south of Sweden is the Centre for Family Enterprise and Ownership (CeFEO), one of the most prestigious family business research centres in the world. Established in 2005 at the Jönköping International Business School, the CeFEO is one of the only Scandinavian centres specialised in family business. The centre, globally known for its innovative educators and published works, strongly focuses on advancing family business research. Tharawat sat down with Mattias Nordqvist, professor of management with a focus on family business and entrepreneurship, to discuss what brought him to the field, the state of family business education in Scandinavia is, and why more research-based knowledge is needed.

When did you join the family business field?

I have been in the field for 16 years. My parents had a business, so I guess it was meant to be. I have always liked this topic because you deal with businesses that look ahead.

Why is it important now, more than ever, to talk about family business in education?
Over the years I have seen the importance of this topic increase. Many ownership transitions are currently happening in Europe, which is one reason the family business topic is on the table. It is mostly family businesses that are facing succession. The preferred current trend is to transfer ownership to family members. A few years ago families were more inclined to sell the business by the time the managing generations were ready to retire.

Another reason why family business is on people’s minds is due to the increased emphasis on social responsibility. Corporations are under great scrutiny when it comes to responsible action. There is increased pressure on family firms to be transparent and show accountability, which requires increased knowledge in and surrounding the topic. We are also learning more about how business is conducted in emerging economies.

What do you think of the state of family business education?

The field has grown globally. There are more and more education programs emerging, and more and more courses taught by experts with research backgrounds. I find this trend positive. As the world becomes increasingly complex, knowledge needs to be more based on research and proven practice. What is taught should be based on scientific foundations. We have to legitimise what we teach as much as possible, as has been the case over the past few years.

The recognition of the importance of family business has not been equal across the board however. For instance, here in Scandinavia, we are pretty much the only business school with a family business centre. Unfortunately, I think that in the past business education in our region has concentrated on teaching students how to be good employees for big multinationals. We also have a large public sector and many graduates end up working in it. There has also been a lot of focus on start-up entrepreneurship. The lack of emphasis on family businesses as employers, or even as non-family managers, is surprising. About 60% of the Swedish economy is composed of family owned companies and yet we are not preparing students to consider this as a potential career path.

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Family businesses are highly individualistic. Is it contradictory to formulate general theories about them?

The only way we can even begin to understand family businesses is through research. We have to translate experiences from one family business to another. We must prioritise schemes, classifications, and comparisons between family firms. We know quite a lot about the differences between family and non-family firms. I don’t think we’ll get any wiser with another paper on performance differences.

Are there geographic priorities for the family business field?

As an international business school that attracts students from all over the world, we are interested in several geographic areas. In order to foster more research, we are also currently working on a few countries in Africa and other emerging markets.

What are your plans for the family business centre at Jönköping?

Our plan is to continue being one of the most important and impactful research groups. We currently focus on entrepreneurship and ownership within the family business and want to expand our research internationally by adapting a more global approach. We want to be relevant to actual business while remaining focused on research. We want Scandinavian family businesses to have the opportunities to do business with other global players. We want to become even more relevant in educating family businesses in the region by taking our courses to other institutions.

What particular topics would you like to see addressed?

I would like to see more research focused on non-family members in family businesses. For instance, what can a non-family member do to have a successful career in a family business? We should also start engaging business families rather than purely the family business. The family as ownership group might be involved in different businesses. What, for example, does this mean for succession, exit, and entry? Such a focus requires a different way of teaching. A third topic I would like to see tackled is the influences of families spread out across the globe and the impacts on the cohesion of family businesses. All in all, there is still a lot to do!

Tharawat Magazine, Issue 28, 2015