Laird Koldyke ’89 and more than 400 family members prove that longevity is a possibility in family business
5/16/2013 - Laird Koldyke
’89 readily acknowledges the sobering reality: less than 10 percent of family businesses survive after the third generation. That oft-cited figure makes the Laird Norton Company, Koldyke’s seventh generation family enterprise, an outlier.
Founded in 1855 by Koldyke’s great-great grandfather, William Harris Laird, and his two cousins Mathew and James Norton, Laird Norton’s 19th century mill operations and manufacturing ventures supplied labor and lumber that spurred the development of the American west, while its 20th century investments in forest product companies solidified the company’s industry standing.
Tough decisions, lasting rewards
In 2006, three years after he was named company chairman, Koldyke and his peers reached the seminal decision to sell Lanoga, the nation’s second largest building supply distribution company and, more importantly, the family’s final touchstone to its forestry heritage. While emotion could have overpowered the situation, Koldyke, and the Laird Norton Board’s leadership brought levity, family involvement and consensus.
“It’s much easier to process the emotion of a decision like this if the business perspective is legitimate,” Koldyke says. “We showed the risks and opportunities at hand and allowed those with emotional ties to see the logic.”
Lanoga’s sale financed subsequent extensions in the Laird Norton enterprise, which today includes financial services, direct investment and real estate. In addition, a family office manages programs and investments for more than 400 family members, about 125 of whom play some role within Laird Norton.
Keeping the peace
Koldyke understands family leadership is no simple feat. “Adam and Eve had it easy because they had no in-laws,” the father of four jokes.
While petty jealousies and financial squabbles derail many family businesses, Laird Norton has survived for 158 years thanks to a long-term outlook and a strong governance structure that prioritizes open communication, family involvement and shared bonds.
“Our net worth is what we calculate, but our wealth — our history and ethics, our purpose and philanthropy — is what we celebrate,” says Koldyke, a founding partner at Chicago-based private equity firm Winona Capital Management, one of the Laird Norton companies.
In May, the Kellogg School of Management’s John L. Ward Center for Family Enterprises honored Koldyke with its 2013 Family Enterprise Leadership Award. Kellogg professor and center co-director John Ward called Koldyke “an obvious choice” as the award recipient.
“[Koldyke] has brought a stronger enterprise for the future of the owning family and all stakeholders; has strengthened family unity and commitment to sustain the family; and has shared his experience for the benefit of others throughout the family business world,” Ward says.
Indeed, Koldyke’s sharing of the Laird Norton tale, something accomplished in private chats and at family conference keynotes around the globe, has inspired many.
“Our story shows that longevity is a possibility,” he says.
Trials of a family business
The paradox of ‘family business”
John L. Ward Center for Family Enterprises