News & Views‌

Advance Iowa’s Family Business Forum continues to grow

April 26, 2019 - 9:35am
UNIBusiness Editor
comment card at Advance Iowa Family Business Forum table

Working with countless businesses through UNI’s Advance Iowa business consultation program, Dan Beenken noticed a trend. He steadily received requests from family businesses inquiring about exit and succession planning. The founders wanted to keep their businesses in the family — they just didn’t know how — and Advance Iowa's typical succession planning consultation didn't specifically touch on families. 

Those families weren’t alone. According to 2016 research from Family Business Institute, 70% of family businesses either fail or are sold before being passed onto the next generation. And poor succession planning is one of the biggest reasons why. Eight out 10 family businesses have no succession plans whatsoever, according to the same study.

So Beenken and Paul Kinghorn, the director of UNI's Center for Business Growth and Innovation — the office that includes Advance Iowa — set out to fill that need. They found family business succession programs in other surrounding states, but there was nothing being done in Iowa. 

“We knew some of our clients were actually going to other states to get this programming, so we wanted to make something unique for Iowa,” said Beenken, the director of Advance Iowa. “It’s Iowans working with Iowans.”

In 2018, Advance Iowa launched its first foray into family business planning, officially starting the Family Business Forum. It held three separate breakfast events in Ankeny in the fall and winter months. The first session featured a panel with generational owners from small, medium and large businesses. The second session focused on Chris Vernon, president and CEO of Vernon Companies, a fourth-generation company, in Newton. The third session emphasized growing family talent within the business.

Every session was extremely successful and allowed family businesses from around the state to network and share similar issues.

“It went over tremendously well,” Beenken said. “We had incredible interest. This was our pilot to see if this thing has some legs, and from this we knew that we wanted to keep this going.”

They kept it going and actually expanded programming for 2019 and 2020, moving beyond the breakfast series.  In late April 2019, Advance Iowa will host an all-day event at Vermeer Corp. in Pella. The Vermeer family has owned the business for more than 75 years and is a shining example of family business planning done right.

Vermeer, a manufacturer of industrial and agricultural equipment, was founded in 1943 by Gary Vermeer. Since then, three generations of the family have operated the business, including Gary’s son Bob, daughter Mary Andringa and grandson Jason Andringa.

The event has drawn immense interest and is sold out.

“We’re really excited to showcase the Vermeer’s family ability to transition the business through three generations,” Beenken said. “We’re going to have a big group of people coming down to Pella to learn from this great organization.”

The Vermeer event will serve as the kickoff for the second season of the Family Business Forum, which will include another Breakfast Family Business Forum Series. There will be five dates instead of three, and they’ll all take place at the Courtyard by Marriott in Ankeny.

An exciting addition to the program is the new Family Business Summer Reunion Tour. The goal of the tour is to take essential family succession planning lessons to Iowa’s rural companies. The attendees will also have a chance to network and learn from other similar businesses.

“We’re trying to emulate what most people think of as a family reunion,” Kinghorn said. “We’re bringing the program into various quadrants of the state. We know that time out of the business is lost money, so not every family business can make it to central Iowa. We’re hoping they find value in an event that is brought to them.”

Also in the works is a next-generation leadership development program. The goal of the series would be to help next-generation business leaders learn essential and fundamental skills needed to take over or rise in a company. The idea came from concerns heard in the first breakfast series, where leaders expressed a desire to incorporate talent development within their own businesses. 

“We wanted to make sure this program continued to grow to support a need within the state,” Kinghorn said. “The next generation leadership program will help younger family members ascending into these senior roles within the company.”

As the program continues to grow, UNI and Advance Iowa has received rave reviews from participants. Companies included in the series have been big — Sukup Manufacturing being one example — and small.

“I appreciate UNI [Family Business Forum] serving as a centralized, independent resource whose focus is family businesses,” said Emily Schmitt, general counsel at Sukup Manufacturing and a third-generation family member. “It acknowledges that a family business has a distinctive prospective, and it’s so valuable to have a forum to share best practices and solutions with other who share that prospective.”

The Family Business Forum is happy to help other companies as well.

“We’re proud that the participating companies run the gamut of small to large and in sophistication,” Kinghorn said. “In the end, it’s a pure learning opportunity and an ability for companies to be exposed to critical best practices that could help. We’re very excited about what this program represents and for it to grow going forward.”

Series Schedule

Paul Kinghorn instructs guests at the Family Business Forum

Paul Kinghorn, director of UNI's Center for Business Growth and Innovation, addresses guests at a Family Business Forum.


UNI Business

UNIBusiness Editor

UNIBusiness uses a team of writers to conceptualize, develop and share stories and updates with the public. If you have a story idea, an update on an alum or just want to say 'Hi', please email