Lessons from the Cornell Families in Business Conference

We recently concluded the 3rd Anual Families in Business Conference at Cornell. The event brought together over 175 family business owners, Cornell alumni, and students for three days of exploration on the theme of “The Future of Family Business.” 

I was pleased to receive this email shortly after the conference, from Bruce Werner, Managing Director of Kona Advisors LLC, and a member of the Werner Ladder family business. With his permission, I share it with you:  


I have been told that getting to Cornell is difficult, but it is beautiful once you get there. That is certainly true. Here are a few thoughts I brought back from the Smith Family Business Initiative Conference.

The lessons of family business are timeless, but each family needs to learn for themselves. Being on campus, it reminded me of the freshman introductory courses. The same textbook is used every year,  but it is still new material for each class.

Like physics, the principles are universal, but what matters is how you apply this knowledge. I was in a discussion with two people. One recently sold a $1B business, while the other was the owner of a $250K business. Everyone was engaged in debating the issues, but they will use what they learned differently.

Managing conflict is everything. Good family governance allows owners to manage family conflict, which allows them to run a successful business. For obvious reasons, these issues don’t exist in public companies.

Money changes almost everything: expectations, effort, risk/reward appetite. How you deal with these changes likely determines your happiness. You can be successful, but not happy.

While these topics were discussed in the context of running family businesses, much of it equally applies to privately owned businesses.

Thank you for sharing Bruce. 



Entrepreneurship, Family Business and the Global Enterprise


At a business roundtable hosted by Johnson’s Smith Family Business Initiative, Peter Cuneo, managing principal at Cuneo & Company, shared his views on leadership today and family businesses at Entrepreneurship at Cornell Celebration 2015.

By Jay Wrolstad

Successful entrepreneurs are made, not born, with demonstrable leadership attributes that all too often are lacking in people seeking positions of power in business today, Peter Cuneo said in opening the Entrepreneurship at Cornell Celebration 2015 on April 16. His roundtable talk, hosted by Johnson’s Smith Family Business Initiative, was followed by a discussion moderated by Daniel G. Van Der Vliet, executive director of the Smith Family Business Initiative, and including Rhett Weiss, executive director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute.

Cuneo, a business turnaround specialist and architect behind several high-profile success stories in rescuing firms, including Marvel Entertainment and Remington Products, also touched on the dramatic changes in corporate America since earning his MBA from Harvard 40 years ago, and a new international family business initiative he helped launch.

“Today, there are 1,000 billionaires in the world, some of whom are 25 years old. That’s a far cry from when I got my MBA and entrepreneurs were few and far between,” he said. Big corporations dominated back then, he noted, and operated at a snail’s pace compared to the real-time, 24/7 business activity ushered in by the digital revolution.

There are some positive developments for entrepreneurs from these swift advances in technology, said Cuneo, such as enabling instant communications that essentially shrink the world through Internet-based global conferences and allowing a business to start anywhere, at any time, including a garage or a dorm room. “It’s a very different world; there are great opportunities now, more than ever before,” he said.

Still, there is a downside to this reliance on technology and instant gratification that prevents new business leaders from seizing the moment. “Younger people are glued to their screens — phones, computers; they are locked into online social media, Cuneo said. “There is little face time, which is the best way to communicate, especially when there is conflict, or bad news.”

In fact, he added, many among the new generation of business leaders can’t deal with conflict or failure, or learn from it, because they lack exposure to meaningful misfortune that builds character and a willingness to accept criticism. That, in turn, makes them avoid risk, a critical component of entrepreneurship. “You cannot become a great leader without experiencing great difficulty in life,” Cuneo said.

Most MBAs today don’t know how to lead; they’re smart, but they can’t work effectively in a corporate setting, he said. “They rely on what others tell them defines success rather than focusing on what makes them happy. We have 30-year-olds seeking venture capital who have big dreams of striking it rich and retiring when they are still young, which rarely happens. Dreams are good, but you can’t be delusional about your professional goals.”

Leadership skills are the single most important thing young people can obtain to achieve success, said Cuneo, who maintains that leaders are made by experience and by mentors.

Cuneo left Marvel Entertainment five years ago to form a consulting business with his two sons, and hopes to point future leaders of family enterprises and entrepreneurs in the right direction via iLEAD (Intergenerational Leadership Entrepreneurial Accelerated Development), an  educational program he helped establish that links Johnson with the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in China.

Cuneo describes iLEAD as a foreign exchange effort, creating new opportunities in China and worldwide through networking and collaborative learning. Among the key components, he said, are the transfer of cultural values and maintaining family wealth, particularly in China, where a one-child mandate makes establishing and maintaining family businesses very difficult.

Cuneo has learned a few lessons from his own family business. “You have to keep an open dialog. Working together means being open about both family dynamics and professional dynamics. Be open about family wealth and how that wealth is shared. In my case, our company is experiencing much smoother sailing than five years ago,” Cuneo said. “I am fortunate to have two sons with different skills who want to make their own way in the world and see their family members happy.”

During the moderated discussion following his presentation, Cuneo, Van Der Vliet and Weiss all agreed that problems arising in failing businesses start with failed or failing leadership, and anyone taking a leadership role in a family business must be especially clear about roles and sensitive to the family culture.

hili_PeterCuneo Peter Cuneo_page Photo Apr 16, 10 18 42 AM


I’TCAT_NFI_203m still getting adjusted to the Cornell community here in Ithaca. One of my first lessons was figuring out the local bus system, called TCAT (Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit). Bus drivers can be a mixed lot, I suppose like most any profession. It’s a tough job, often quite routine, and requires dealing with all manner of customers. Yet, each one of us places our trust, our lives even, into the driver’s hands when we board that bus and it leaves the stop. It’s on par with an airline pilot in my opinion.

In Ithaca, the TCAT operates the Cornell campus shuttles as well.  Most drivers are cordial, most passengers, students included, say thank when leaving the bus. One driver however, stands out among his peers. I’ve yet to learn his name, but I assure you any Cornell student or Ithaca resident reading this knows who he is. Rather than rely on the on-board automated voice system to register the next stop, he bellows proudly where we are headed. “NEXT UP FOLKS, RISLEY HALL. <deliberate pause> RISLEY HALL FOLKS.”  The bus remains nearly quiet until he speaks again.

For the last two weeks, when his bus is full, and it always seems to be full, he uses that stage to help garner support for his two daughter’s efforts this coming weekend to participate in the Binghamton Polar Plunge to benefit the Special Olympics.  “Now folks if I can have your attention for a moment here” he begins as we wait at the light. The full bus again falls silent. “My two daughters will be participating in the Polar Plunge to be held up at Chenango Valley State Park this coming weekend. They are trying to raise money for the Special Olympics of New York, a wonderful organization that does wonderful work for many people. My daughters keep trying to convince me to take the Plunge with them, but as of yet I am not sure I want to dive into that cold water. Until I decide however, I am asking for your support if you’d like to help them raise some money. They assure me that 100% of the money they raise will go directly to the cause so you can feel good about whatever you can give.”

The bus stops, almost as if on cue at the Uris Hall stop, which he again bellows proudly. “WE’RE AT URIS HALL FOLKS.  <deliberate pause> URIS HALL.” Students, staff, anyone riding the bus that morning, all approach the front of the bus as they depart and fill his manila envelop with cash. I am certain he must have raised well over $1000 by now for his daughters’ Plunge. He has a gift, a presence, which I hope each of those Cornell students will learn and take with them. That lesson will likely serve them just as well as anything they absorb in one of their many classes.

Here is what I know about leadership and presence. It does not matter whether you are male or female, tall or short, standing or seated. You need to own your message and deliver it as though it will benefit all those that hear it.  Command the space you occupy yet allow others to approach you to share in your message.  That driver makes students put down their cell phones and engage willingly. He changes the dynamic of an otherwise mundane environment, and whether I chose to donate or not, I left his bus more educated and changed, if only slightly.

I’ve given twice already, by the way. If he asked for my credit card number, I am pretty certain I would actually stop to consider that as well.