At Niagara University business center, it’s all in the family

When Vince Agnello started the Family Business Center at Niagara University 15 years ago, his biggest fear was that the center would run out of topics and speakers.

A decade-and-a-half later, however, the center’s seminars continue to be just as relevant to the many family-owned businesses across Western New York that belong to the center, which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary with an event at Consumer’s Pub at the Park at Coca-Cola Field.

“The fact that many of the family businesses that started with us 15 years ago are still active members is testimony to the fact that as a center we have been able to consistently provide value to them,” said Agnello, who, in addition to serving as center director, is also a professor of law and chair of accounting at Niagara.

Count Timothy Palisano among those longtime members whose business has benefited. An NU graduate, Palisano is the president of Buffalo-based Lincoln Moving & Storage. The company provides moving and storage services for residential and commercial customers, whether they’re making local or long-distance moves, in New York and Florida. John Palisano started the company with his six sons in 1914.

Palisano has been a member of the center from the beginning. “When they first started it, they said they weren’t going to get professors to talk to business owners about fairytales. They said, ‘We know you want to hear about real life situations,’ and that’s what they do,” Palisano said. “Ninety percent of the time, you leave there having learned something new. It’s a great resource for any business owner.”

Founded in 2003, the Family Business Center serves the needs of family and privately owned businesses in Western New York through the exchange of knowledge.

The center offers a breakfast series each year on topics specific to family and privately owned businesses. The series features six or seven seminars, each held on the first Tuesday of the month. To date, it has offered more than 90 such presentations.

Experts in the field, who offer members strategic advice regarding the topic being discussed, lead the presentations. “We usually offer at least one presentation per year on succession planning, one on conflict resolution, and the remaining on topics selected by our members,” said Agnello.

Still to come as part of this year’s series are talks on stress management (March 6) and business ethics (April 3).

Agnello and his assistant also regularly help members on particular issues that arise in their business or family. Extremely complicated issues are referred to the center’s professional advisers.

Niagara University students have gotten involved through the center, helping to mentor startup companies on projects ranging from the development of a long-term marketing plan to creating a full business plan. A number of students have taken advantage of internship and job opportunities created through the center.

The center is housed within Niagara University’s College of Business Administration, which is among a network of more than 60 colleges and universities that have established a family business center to assist businesses in their geographic area.

In addition to speakers, the center offers:

  • a library of family business materials, including current research on family business.
  • consulting support for local family-owned businesses.
  • support for faculty and student research on family business issues.
  • development of curriculum to enhance student learning in the areas of entrepreneurship and family-owned business issues.

In its early years, the Family Business Center focused specifically on succession planning – for good reason.

“Less than one-third survive the first transfer to a child, and only 11 percent survive the second transfer,” Agnello said. “When a company fails, not only is the family hurt, so are the many employees who have lost their main source of income.”

As time went on, the center expanded its coverage of topics to include employee retention and motivation, hiring, security issues, social media, disaster preparedness, surviving economy slumps, and profitability opportunities.

A fourth-generation owner, Palisano took over the company from his father. Family Business Center presentations on transitioning a business were particularly valuable, he said, adding that, as the owner of a transportation company, he also learned a lot during a session on insurance coverage. “We took a lot of good notes during that one,” he said.

Ann Marie Ziske, vice president of sales and marketing at Kraftwerks, cites veteran business executive Robert Lane as one of her favorite Family Business Center presenters over the years. “He provides incredible perspective, bridging the gap between the past and future of business,” said Ziske, whose parents, William A. Kraft Sr. and Patricia H. Kraft, founded the Tonawanda-based business in 1991 along with Ziske’s three brothers.

While the company started off primarily as a distributor and sales organization for storage and materials handling equipment, it has since involved into a one-stop source for customers across the U.S. in need of High Density Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems, multistory catwalk and mezzanine systems, and ergonomic workstations and lifts, among other services.

Ziske appreciates the diversity of speakers and topics the center covers. Asked if the center has helped her be a better businesswoman, Ziske said, “Absolutely. It is very difficult to be an expert in all the areas of business and yet, all businesses require expertise in many fields, such as marketing, business development, and finance.”

While the center caters to family-run businesses, all companies are welcome to join.

“We have never turned anyone away,” Agnello said. “Our primary goal is to strengthen family and privately owned businesses in Western New York, but if we can help others, that is an added bonus.”

Read more articles by David Hill.

David J. Hill works in University Communications at the University at Buffalo. In addition to warmer weather, he's eagerly awaiting Buffalo's many cultural festivals and all the great concerts that have already been announced in the region.
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