Behind every great business is a great story

The new executive director of the Alberta Business Family Institute on the importance of telling these stories.

Behind every family business is a great story — or two. And no one knows this better than Matt Knight. In his new role as executive director for the Alberta Business Family Institute, he hopes to unlock the potential of these stories to empower the next generation of entrepreneurs and family businesses in the province. 

“We have a lot of strong entrepreneurs and family businesses in Alberta, but how often do we tell those stories on a global stage?”

Take, for instance,  a company Knight co-founded, Polar Park Brewing Company. It was named after a legendary game farm outside of Sherwood Park, which housed more than 3,000 exotic animals before eventually downsizing to focus exclusively on arctic animals and rebranding as Polar Park. Open until the late 90’s, the park was run by the grandfather of Knight’s co-founder Robert Oeming, who was inspired to start a brewery while visiting the former farm on the day of his grandfather’s funeral in 2014. 

For Knight, this origin tale tells the story of what makes Alberta uniquely fertile ground for business: the opportunity is there if you’re willing to innovate and try new things. 

“Every generation has that ability to define their own legacy and impact through their own version of guerilla entrepreneurship — no pun intended. Even if you grew up on a polar bear farm. With a bit of innovation and entrepreneurship, you can become a beer company,” he says.

Some of Canada’s most recognizable companies were founded by Albertans: Shaw Communications, The Brick, All Weather Windows, to name a few. While most family-run businesses in Canada have fewer than 100 employees, many of the country’s biggest businesses are family-owned. These businesses account for 50 per cent of our private sector GDP and support nearly seven million jobs. In fact, approximately 63 per cent of private enterprises in the country are family firms. 

Despite the fact that family businesses are a major driver of the Canadian economy, support for the sector is still lacking. That’s where ABFI steps in. Under Knight’s leadership, the institute will continue to support current and future family businesses through research, education and outreach initiatives, with an emphasis on sharing and learning from real-world experiences.

“We’re looking to take the experience and the stories of these amazing Alberta family businesses and connect them to the research of this world-class facility and then share that experience with the students who are here, who are trying to figure out the next generation of their family business or support a family business that isn’t theirs,” he says. 

Knight knows from first-hand experience the unique challenges that family-run businesses face — from succession planning to transitioning to the first non-family CEO, to finding sustainable models for work-life balance. Over the years, he has worked as an advisor and consultant for his fair share of local family businesses including Ledcor, Umay, the Latimer Family Trust and globally with companies including Estee Lauder and Molson Coors Brewing Company.  

But no story has moved him quite like that of the Hays, the family behind Scandinavian Building Services. They were the family featured at this year’s ABFI Signature Event, where they shared their harrowing experience of coming together as a family after their father, the head of the business, suddenly passed away.

“They showed incredible strength and determination keeping all of their customers and employees motivated, but at the same time trying to take the time to breathe and heal themselves.”

For Knight, the Hay family’s story embodies the grit that has become a hallmark of Albertan business leaders. In giving a platform to share this story, ABFI seeks to educate and inspire other family business leaders who may face similar challenges and successes. 

“One of the strongest things I’ve seen in entrepreneurs and businesses across Alberta is that tenacity to do what’s needed and always be committed to building that business not just for today but for the next generation,” he says.

Looking forward to the next three to five years, Knight plans to expand the institute’s reach and secure its place as the go-to place for education and research on family business on everything from strategy and leadership to governance and culture.

“We'll build an ecosystem with national and global partnerships to support and collaborate on meeting the institute’s goals and to better tell the stories of the family businesses that have helped shape ABFI, our school and our economy.”

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