Family Business Alliance Has New Director

February 1, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — The new director of the Family Business Alliance comes to the position with abundant experience on two counts: successfully managing a nonprofit organization, and also managing a for-profit family business.

Mary Novello was recently named to replace former FBA director Jill Zielinski, who moved out of state with her husband.

The Family Business Alliance is a joint program of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and the Seidman College of Business/Family Owned Business Institute at Grand Valley State University. It is dedicated to strengthening the profitability, progress and continuity of West Michigan family businesses, and works with family business owners, executives and employees.

Novello comes to the position with 30 years experience in nonprofit management and leadership, including 13 years as the president and CEO of the Food Bank of Delaware, a membership association made up of organizations that provide food to people with limited resources.

"My Food Bank years were exciting," said Novello, who explained that she was "part of a team that grew it from infancy into the largest anti-hunger agency in the state."

"I feel the same excitement when I consider the possibilities for FBA," she said.

Novello attended the University of Delaware, where she earned a bachelor's degree in English. She remained in the state for years, during which she completed certificate courses in nonprofit management and advanced fundraising.

During those years, she was involved in two family businesses.

"I married into a family of entrepreneurs in 1973, and several years later, my siblings and I joined together in a real estate limited partnership, with me as general partner," she said.

"I experienced first-hand some of the unique challenges faced by members of families who own businesses," said Novello. "Back then, it would have been so helpful to have had a resource like FBA."

Her first husband worked as a real estate agent, along with other members of his family.

Then Novello's father gave her and her several siblings some money and "hinted it might be nice to have a family project." So the siblings formed a limited partnership and bought a small apartment building to fix up and "see what we could do with it."

Novello, who was in her late 20s at the time, was the eldest sibling and thus was chosen general partner. That meant she was, in effect, the day-to-day manager of the partnership.

The siblings owned the apartment building for 10 years, and during that time, each of them experienced big changes in their lives — as all people do. But when it happens to relatives who are also in business together, it can be difficult to separate the individual, personal experiences from the group efforts to earn a living or maximize investment results. There is a higher level of dynamics involved that is not a factor in other businesses.

"Over those 10 years, our situations changed," said Novello. Among the siblings there were three divorces and remarriages (including her own). At one point, her younger sister was the general partner. Eventually, Novello said, they sold the building and each sibling made a nice profit.

"I think the experience helped us communicate better as a family," she said. "It gave us the communication skills to take on some other family issues."

"We decided by chance, early on, that we would have regular family meetings," she said. Now she knows that having regular meetings is a standard tool in family businesses to help reduce conflict and, Novello said, “to make sure everyone has the information to make decisions they need to make as a group."

A "family constitution" is a new tool espoused by the FBA to help families in business together. It puts in writing guiding principles that define how the family members will make decisions about the business. It prepares them in advance for unforeseen circumstances so that split-second major decisions are not required in the middle of a crisis.

Having experienced the role of the wife in her first husband's family business, and her business partnership with her own siblings, Novello knows there is a lot of potential for differences of opinion, due to differences of vision and different financial needs.

One personal change after her first marriage ended led to Novello moving from the East Coast to Grand Rapids last spring.

"In 1997, I married the love of my life, Bob Schiesler, who became rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in May 2007," she said.

Novello has had 30 years of experience with nonprofit organizations. Most recently, she was employed at Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, Iowa; and prior to that, at Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey, in Port Newark, N.J.

Novello said she believes she can empathize with people facing the day-to-day challenges of being in a family business.

One of the major issues that seems to pop up is succession planning, she said. If it hasn't been planned in advance, a family crisis can lead to sale of the company to outsiders. On the other hand, a strong family business can help build a strong community, because the family members "have a vested interested in making sure the community where they live and work is vibrant."

One board member of the FBA mentioned to Novello recently that there are times "when it's right, all the way around, to sell a business, whether it's a family business or not." But he added that the goal of the FBA is to try to make sure that no family business is forced to sell due to a lack of advance planning for the life changes that affect all families.

The Family Business Alliance was organized about one year ago. Chairman for 2008 is Bob Roth, president of RoMan Manufacturing. Other board members active in family-owned businesses include Tim Schad of Nucraft Furniture; Mark Bissell of Bissell Inc.; Joe Erhardt of Erhardt Construction; Doyle Hayes of Pyper Products Inc.; John Jackoboice of Fourth and Fifth Capital Ventures LLC; Len Slott of Vi-Chem; and Bruce Young of Behler-Young and Warner Norcross & Judd LLP.

H. James Williams, dean of the Seidman College of Business at GVSU, is also a board member, as are Jeanne Englehart and Janet Wylie of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, and Tom Schwarz of the Family Owned Business Institute at GVSU.

More information is available at, or by contacting Mary Novello at (616) 771-0575.

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