Can privately held companies benefit from a board of directors? For sure! Observations from the third-generation of family leadership.
Ever since my grandmother made her first batch of "Constant Comment"[R] tea in the kitchen of her New York City brownstone in 1945 and started Bigelow on the path to transforming the way America drinks tea, there had been this understanding in the ranks of management: my family knew what we were doing and thus, to be honest, didn't feel a need for advice from an outside board of directors.
Not only did we believe we had the formula for success, we did something that was progressive in business, family or otherwise: we listened to the people who worked for us, and we listened to our customers. This, we believed, was an enlightened view that gave us all the insight we needed.
A decade ago, as a family business that had 60 years of experience, we were doing well. We had an internal board that met once each year for about an hour, so one could easily ask, "Why would we need outsiders to tell us what to do?" But to me that is exactly what I believed we did need to ensure we remained a successful family business for future generations. That is why, 10 years ago, I decided to create a board at Bigelow Tea that included members from outside our family organization.
Three generations of leadership
I'm the third-generation president and CEO of America's largest family-owned tea business and the U.S. market leader of specialty teas. The company employs some 350 people across three manufacturing facilities and today produces more than 1.7 billion tea bags annually.
After I graduated from Boston College with a B.S. degree in marketing, I received my M.B.A. in finance and marketing from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. While we studied many things that served me well in my career, the need for a family business to have a board of directors was not one of the topics to which I paid much attention.
In 1986, I started full-time at the family company as the cost accountant and then, after two years, joined with a team of co-workers that implemented a comprehensive ERP system. In fact, before assuming the role of president and CEO in 2005, I spent 20 years in almost all areas of the business, which my grandmother Ruth Campbell Bigelow started and which my parents, the next generation, would grow five-fold over their 30 years of leadership.
Why name a board?
So why create an outside board? Despite my...