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Dr. Bertrand Piccard delivered the keynote address at the Kellogg School's Family Business Invitational Conference on May 15. A physician and pilot, Piccard encouraged attendees to embrace the 'adventure' of business.

‘Winds of change’ greet conference participants

Adventure of family business a theme during two-day Kellogg conference; annual leadership event sparks innovation and interaction

By Adrienne Murrill

5/17/2007 -

Whether it is at the farthest reaches of the atmosphere or the depths of the oceans, those who explore new horizons are likely to gain a different perspective on life at these extremes.

Although not everyone has the means to travel such distances, Dr. Bertrand Piccard has and those experiences have helped shape his philosophy on life. The physician, pilot and humanitarian shared his perspective with representatives from more than 115 companies as the keynote speaker for this year’s Family Business Invitational Conference, held May 15-16 at the Kellogg School.

Opening the conference with his discussion, titled, “Adventuring Spirit through the Generations,” Piccard described how his love of ballooning, which was inspired by his father’s and grandfather’s adventures, taught him to survive in the “winds of change.” Born in Switzerland, he is the son of Jacques Piccard, who executed the deepest dive and built the world’s first submarine for tourists, and the grandson of Auguste Piccard, the first explorer to reach a height of 16,000 meters in a stratospheric balloon. Bertrand perpetuated such daring exploration in 1999 as the commander of the first nonstop, around-the-world balloon flight.

“Life is an aerobatic flight,” he told the audience gathered in the James L. Allen Center in Evanston for the two-day annual event that brings leading family business professionals and scholars together. “In life everything moves. It’s unstable and we have to learn how to control everything we do to land on both feet.”

However, Piccard said he was always noticing that in life there are many situations where it is impossible to have control. “I was thinking, ‘There must be another way to learn how to be efficient that is not in control.’” When Piccard began to fly balloons, he soon learned “you have no control, no power. You don’t even have your own speed and direction because you are going with the winds in the speed of the winds.”

In life, trends, fashions, political decisions, stock exchange markets, health and love are the wind, he said. “They push us toward uncertainties and they make us lose control.” As a balloonist, the only element of control, he said, is altitude. Because the atmosphere is made up of several different layers of wind, when one position does not work, the balloonist must change altitude to find a better direction.

Piccard said that people need to learn to change altitude in their education, their profession, their relationships with themselves and each other “to catch other ideas, strategies and solutions to push us in other directions.”

There is a study, he continued, that says that 20 percent of life can be planned and controlled, but 80 percent is unpredictable. “We learn to use 100 percent of our energy to plan and control 20 percent of life.” Instead, Piccard said, we need to use 20 percent of our energy for that 20 percent of life, and think like a balloonist for the remaining 80 percent that is uncontrollable.

As part of the conference, the Wendel Family of WENDEL Investissement in Paris was honored with the Kellogg Award for Special Contributions to Family Business. Priscilla de Moustier, a family shareholder, accepted the award on behalf of the family. The award recognizes a business family that has made significant, generous and personal contributions to benefit other family businesses.

The Wendel family business story spans more than 300 years and nine generations. But this success is not why the family was recognized, said Lloyd Shefsky, clinical professor of managerial economics and decision sciences, as well as founder and co-director of the Kellogg Center for Family Enterprises, which sponsored the conference.

“She’s a lover of architecture and you all know that in Chicago our great architecture is most famous for the peaks of buildings. We think that makes it appropriate because we’ve selected a company that’s at the top of giving back to family businesses,” said Shefsky, who, along with Kellogg colleague John Ward, clinical professor of family enterprise and center co-director, is among those whose leadership is responsible for organizing the conference.

The Wendels have advocated for family businesses in many ways, including founding and supporting research and teaching at INSEAD Business School’s Wendel International Center for Family Business. They have shared their stories in published case studies and have set a model for leadership in the business community, both globally by participating in the family Business Network and in other events in France and the European Union.

De Moustier shared with the attendees what she identifies in the company’s history that has allowed it to continue its success. Throughout its three centuries, she said, the company has had a history of meeting hardships, from the French Revolution to the Franco-German wars and the steel crisis in the 1970s. Culture and values are also characteristics of continuity for the Wendel business. “We had a very strong commitment to the industry, to the region of Lorraine, to its people,” she said, “and we had the feeling of extended family [among] the thousands of workers in that region.”

Establishing a sense of family in the workplace was a common theme during the conference. One of several panel discussions, “The Invisible Organization,” assessed the positive impact that family members who are not directly involved with the business can have on the enterprise. Jamie Crane ’86 of the Crane Group Co., Marilyn Ofer of Ofer, and Liz Steinlauf of Edmunds.com discussed the roles they have played as mother, wife, daughter and more to their families and non-family members in the business. Steinlauf’s advice included treating employees like kin. “The home is an extension of the office, and the office is an extension of the home,” she said.

On the conference’s second day, a panel on “Enterprising Family Enterprises” included multi-generational wisdom from Robert Abt, president of Abt Electronics and Appliances, Lester Crown [NU McC ’46], CEO of Henry Crown and Company, Larry Levy ’67, co-founder and chair of Levy Restaurants and chair and CEO of The Levy Organization, and Jeffrey Vincent, president and CEO of Laird Norton Company. Focusing on how to create new growth opportunities, the panelists agreed that hard work is at the core of any successful business.

“You’re working for the next generation, not yourself,” Crown said. Successful family business owners know the importance of transmitting knowledge and information to the next generation.

Added Vincent, “When you create a sense of community and common purpose built around business, one plus one truly equals three.”

Approximately 115 companies attended this year’s conference, representing 16 countries and 23 states. Participants enjoyed networking opportunities to engage in peer-to-peer discussion, as well as the chance to interact with Kellogg School experts in family business. The Kellogg School Center for Family Enterprises was created in 1999 to providing research, teaching and case studies about family business strategy, family business governance, and other aspects of importance to family business professionals.

A panel of recent Kellogg alumni, who as MBA students several years ago had constituted a panel at the conference, returned to reflect on their earlier conclusions that they would not enter their family businesses. Their lesson for attendees was, “Never say never.”

The Family Business Invitational Conference is co-sponsored by Northern Trust, McDermott Will & Emery, the student-run Family Enterprise Club and the Kellogg School Center for Family Enterprises.