Based on Research By L. Gomez-Mejia, J.T. Campbell, G. Martin, R.E. Hoskisson, M. Makri and D.G. Sirmon

In A Family Firm, Some Things Are Worth More Than Money

  • Family firms invest less in research and development than their non-family counterparts.
  • When making business decisions, family firms weigh both economic and non-economic factors. These can include family prestige, emotional attachment to the firm or the legacy of a multigenerational link to the firm.
  • When a family firm underinvests in R&D, it may in fact be protecting its other, intangible capital.

Family firms are publicly traded companies in which family members own at least 20 percent of the voting stock, and at least two board members belong to the family. For obvious reasons, the central principals in these firms tend to have a longer view than principals in non-family firms. Yet family firms invest less in research and development (R&D) in technology firms than their non-family counterparts. Since investments in R&D are stakes in the future, why this disparity?

Robert E. Hoskisson, a management professor at Rice Business, joined several colleagues to answer this question. Refining a sociological theory called the behavioral agency model (BAM), the researchers defined family-firm decisions as “mixed gambles”: that is, decisions that could result in either gains or losses.

Because success in high technology relies so much on innovation, it’s especially puzzling when such a family owned business underinvests in R&D. So Hoskisson and his colleagues focused on the paradox of family firms in high tech.

According to previous research, family owners weigh both economic and non-economic factors when making business decisions. Hoskisson and his team labeled these non-economic factors socioemotional wealth (SEW). SEW can include family prestige through identifying with and controlling a business, emotional attachment to the firm or the legacy of a multigenerational link to the firm.

That intangible wealth (SEW) explained some of the families’ R&D choices. While investment in R&D may lower future financial risk, it can threaten other resources the family holds dear. Expanded R&D spending, for instance, is linked with competitiveness. At the same time, it is associated with less family control. That’s because to invest more in R&D, businesses typically need more external capital and expertise. So when a family firm underinvests in R&D, it may in fact be protecting its socioemotional wealth.

To further understand these dynamics, the researchers looked at three factors that they expected would raise families’ R&D spending to levels more like non-family counterparts.

The first factor was corporate governance. As predicted, the researchers found that family firms with a higher percentage of institutional investors invested in R&D at levels more like those of non-family firms. The institutional investors naturally prioritized economic benefits far more than the founding family’s legacy wealth (SEW).

The researchers also analyzed corporate strategy. Family firms, they found, invested more in R&D when it might be applied to related products or markets. Even families bent on preserving non-economic wealth could be lured by a big economic payoff, and related business are easier to control because they are closer to the family legacy business expertise.

Finally, Hoskisson and his colleagues looked at performance. When a family firm’s performance lagged behind that of competitors, they reasoned, the owners would spend more on R&D. A higher percentage of institutional investors, the team theorized, would magnify this effect. Interestingly, the primary data (from 2004 to 2009) failed to support this hypothesis, while an alternative data set (from 1994 to 2002) confirmed it.

Further research, the investigators wrote, could shed useful light on this puzzle. They also encouraged study of how family firms conduct mergers and acquisitions. After all, while families can seem inscrutable from the outside, most run on some kind of economic system. The currency just includes more than money.

Robert E. Hoskisson is a professor of management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Gomez-Mejia, L.R., Campbell, J.T., Martin, G., Hoskisson, R.E., Makri, M., & Sirmon, D.G. (2014). Socioemotional wealth as a mixed gamble: revisiting family firm R&D investments with the behavioral agency model. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 38(6), 1351-1374.