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Comparing family businesses

Family-run businesses still exist and it is likely that they will continue to exist for a considerable time. How did these firms come into being and, above all, how are they developing today, tackling social and economic turbulence which could not be predicted up to a few years ago? The subject is an important one in many respects, last but not least because some of the most important and representative family-run businesses trading today are in Italy. A better understanding of these special enterprises therefore means a better understanding also of the path taken by many of our companies in past decades. All in all it also aids in understanding some of the reasons behind our current economic situation. If then a survey of this kind is performed by comparing Italy with other countries then everything is even more interesting.

A similar survey has been carried out by Andrea Colli and Mats Larsson, the former from the Bocconi University in Milan and the latter from Uppsala University, in their Family business and business history: An example of comparative research, a study recently published in Business History which has two objectives: efficient use of the method of comparative economic analysis and the identification, by this method, of how family firms have evolved in Italy and Sweden. More important still is the result achieved by the two academics and which they themselves effectively explain in their work.

“A comparison between family firms in Italy and Sweden shows that the development of family business in these two countries exhibited extensive similarities during the early decades of the twentieth century. However after World War II the two countries became more diversified in terms of their industrial structure. While Swedish family firms became an important part of national big business, Italian family businesses developed into smaller and more flexible organisations”. However this is not enough as the two continue by explaining how in Sweden family-run businesses have succeeded in covering important roles in industries of high technological intensity; whereas in Italy “even if present among the largest in the country”, the same types of company are mostly found in areas other than high-tech ones and demonstrate an inferior organisational sophistication compared to similar firms in Sweden.

A question of corporate culture or of social and institutional context? Difficult to say for sure. One thing certain is that the work by Colli and Larsson aids in understanding how much has happened and what is still happening.

Family business and business history: An example of comparative research

Andrea Colli, Mats Larsson

Business History – Taylor and Francis, 23 September 2013

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