"Little People Become Big People"

The Family Business from a Business Lawyer’s Perspective
by Joseph B. VanFleet
VanFleet Law Offices

One does not need to work in a family-owned business to appreciate their importance. In fact, the first valuable lesson I learned about small family businesses happened while I was working at the international mega-law firm of Winston & Strawn in Chicago. There, I had the unique opportunity to work for James R. Thompson, the esteemed four-time governor of Illinois. “The Governor,” as he is still called today by his friends and colleagues, excelled at blending business, politics and law firm administration, and was able to lead an international firm by implementing an internal “small-business” strategy that made all employees feel like an integral part of the operation.

When I learned that this month’s InterBusiness theme was “family business,” I instantly thought of the Governor and his guiding principles. Although our law firm was hardly a family business, and had grown to employ over 3,000 people, he never failed to remind us of our humble beginnings, and he still referred to the entire workforce as his “family.” When asked today to describe a family business, I can’t help but remember the Governor and one of his most notable axioms. On almost a daily basis, he loved to tell the firm’s lawyers and staff that “little people become big people.”

As a young attorney working in this massive law firm, I was amazed at how rapidly the Governor’s law practice evolved after he retired from politics and joined our firm. His client base grew exponentially. Within six months of entering the private sector, he had developed one of the most lucrative law practices in Chicago. Within a year, he became Winston & Strawn’s managing partner. Watching the Governor market his practice and transition his public accomplishments into success in the private sector was one of the most educational business experiences I have ever encountered.

Lessons from the Governor
Nevertheless, as he ascended the corporate ladder and became the undisputed leader of the firm, I learned other, more profound lessons from him. For example, he always found time to counsel small businesses, even when they could not afford his rates. It was after one of these sessions that I first heard that “little people become big people,” but it was many years later before I truly understood its meaning.

The first time I heard the Governor say “little people become big people” was after we consulted with an elderly couple who were considering coming out of retirement, cashing in their pension and opening a small restaurant in Chicago. I remember doubting whether these people could afford the large hourly fee customarily charged by the Governor. After they left, I asked the Governor whether he thought he would actually collect his fee. His answer was simple and sincere: “One way or another, I’ll get something back from them some day.” Then he looked at me with his famous, mentoring smile and continued, “Remember that little people become big people.” At the time he said this, I thought he was metaphorically referring to the outside possibility that this small family business might some day evolve into a profitable national franchise. If it did, the Governor would no doubt profit, for he had just positioned himself to serve as this couple’s lawyer far into the future. Today, after 13 years of running my own small business and counseling hundreds of others, I understand that he meant much, much more.

Learning from the Family Business
These businesses are known by many different names. Some call themselves “close” or “closely held” corporations. They may have formal names, such as “limited liability” companies or “Subchapter S corporations,” or informal labels like “small businesses,” “family businesses,” “mom-and-pop” or “Main Street” shops. No matter how one describes them, these enterprises almost always start with one imaginative idea accompanied by a courageous grass-roots business plan. The potential rewards notwithstanding, small family businesses carry tremendous risks for their owners, and with all or most of the family members working at the business, there is typically little or no outside safety net. In short, the success or failure of both the business and the family are inevitably intertwined. Why, then, do people take such risks? The answer, of course, is that little people become big people.

As an attorney who counsels small family businesses, I have seen companies grow from a handful of blood-related employees into multi-facility conglomerates. I have witnessed firsthand how fast-paced innovation and development can be utilized to position a small business on a global map. Most often, and clearly most important, I have seen family businesses grow, employ others and stimulate our economy by ultimately feeding, clothing, educating and providing for the futures of hundreds of central Illinois families. Thus, the impact of the family business doesn’t stop at the four corners of its own facility. Their influence transcends these boundaries into a vast economic and social ripple effect throughout our community. Unrelated employees who are brought into the business learn from the family’s ideologies and philosophies. Outside vendors and customers also observe the business’ operations, often borrowing their successful strategies and incorporating them into their own business plans.

It has become clear that these observations parallel the growth of our own law firm, just as they did for the Governor. As I recall the past 13 years and the development of our firm, I realize that it has been our interaction with small family businesses—not the high-profile trial work—that has enabled the firm to learn and develop proper business strategies and ideals that have allowed us to prosper and grow. We have evolved from one lawyer and his assistant (who is still with the firm today) into a full legal staff of well-educated and experienced professionals. As we have developed our own mission and vision, we learned from our clients and utilized the best parts of their values and principles. In this way, we have both served and learned from our small family business clients. Make no mistake: I have also enjoyed the rewards of working with Fortune 500 companies. But these clients rarely have a business plan or strategy similar to our own. It has been our intimate relationships with grass-roots, small family businesses that have taught us the most about ourselves. In return, we hope that our advice and counsel has provided these family businesses with some insight toward their own development. In this circular context, we are all becoming a little bit bigger every day.

I have not had an opportunity to speak with Gov. Thompson for several years. When I do see him again, and he asks what I have learned in central Illinois, I know what I will tell him. “You were right,” I will respond, “little people become big people. I understand that now.” iBi

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