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August 31, 2022

Some Things You Learn When 75% of Your Clients are Family Businesses

Bradley Eshbach

Family Owned Businesses article.

I’ve now been at Creative Energy for six months. In those ~ 180 days, I’ve just about wrapped my head around how the Creative Energy sausage is made. I do believe I’ve even improved the recipe here and there. (It is delicious, by the way)

During that time, I received a master’s class in food marketing from Tony Treadway and everyone here. Creative Energy has an unparalleled knack for understanding food brands that cover the spread from the consumer at the shelf’s edge to the purchaser at the distributor. I’m excited about some of the new capabilities and offerings we’re unlocking over the next six months—plenty more blog posts on that in the future.

But today I want to talk about clients. Not the brands we work for but the actual humans that, as a marketer, you interact with nearly every day.

One of the first things I noticed when Tony and I were discussing Creative Energy last year was the sheer number of clients that are family businesses. It’s pretty bonkers.

I’ve worked with family businesses throughout my career. Some of my favorite memories are forging deep relationships with the Leinenkugel family of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. I taught 4th generation Jake Leinenkugel how to use Reddit for his first AMA to launch Summer Shandy. I drove around rural Wisconsin with 5th generation CJ Leinenkugel hawking Oktoberfest.

At Creative Energy, nearly 3/4 of our clients are family businesses. Some are 1st and 2nd-generation husband and wife companies that feel like start-ups. But many are 3rd, 4th, and 5th generation companies. Brands that have been passed down generation after generation, decade after decade.

When debating what strategies to implement, approaches to take, or the next move to make, you’ve always got to consider how we got to where we are now. And at so many major brands, the revolving door of MBA-touting corporate execs means the chance that there’s someone in that room with the institutional knowledge and context of why we are where we are today is nearly zero.

Now imagine that the people that had made all those previous decisions were your kin. Your dad debated with your uncle. Your mom helped her father figure out which thing to build. Where to invest. The generation before you figured out how to do that one slow thing, fast. A little higher quality. A little more efficient.

When the company has its roots in a family, institutional knowledge is anything but clinical. It’s canonical.

Big corporations move slowly because of bloat. Because of too many cooks in the kitchen. Because for some reason, they thought it was a good idea for a bottled water brand to have seven different agencies. “You can’t turn a cruise ship yada yada yada”

Family businesses move slowly but for a different reason. They operate on a different scale. They judge their decisions against the last 50 years, not the last 4 quarters.

Family businesses move slowly for the same reason tectonic plates move slowly: They’re foundational, rooted.

Family businesses are more active participants in their community because they live there. They’re from there. Literally, physically, spiritually, and invested. Often they helped grow and expand and evolve and improve that community. They didn’t just move to the area for their latest promotion. They won’t move on to the next tax credit.

And some family businesses grow up. Evolve. They take on outside investment to fuel growth generations before could only dream possible. They fortify the dynasty the first few generations built so that the next many generations can have the same opportunities.

Creative Energy is a family business and it goes beyond Tony and Teresa sharing a last name and loving everyone like parents. Some of our employees have worked at Creative Energy for longer than some of our other employees have been alive. Tony’s sister runs the warehouse! And my sister Bailey has been an Art Director at Creative Energy for years. (It is a nightmare for her inbox)

The experience of taking on client challenges alongside my sister, and the other deeply talented people at Creative Energy has reminded me of the special sauce that is a family business.

We all know the experience of forging a deeper relationship with a client over a drink. Really finally clicking with a colleague over a long lunch. The business trip when your boss finally started to understand you. Common shortcuts we all use to see someone as more than the business person character they play from 9-5. It’s how you find the human inside calling all the shots. The same thing happens when client retreats happen in living rooms rather than conference rooms. Real parks over business parks. When agency relationships last for multiple decades. (We’ve got a lot of those, too.)

There is nothing more human in business than a family business. At Creative Energy, we work daily to help family businesses realize their ambitions, protect their legacy, and fortify for future generations.