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2013/4 (Vol. 16)

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  • DOI : 10.3917/mana.164.0422
  • Éditeur : AIMS


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As remarked by Lumpkin, Brigham & Moss, “there has been a surprisingly small amount of research on entrepreneurship in family firms” (2010: 245). Luckily, however, we are in the growth stage of the life cycle of this literature. Only in the last three years, several books were released on the topic (Nordqvist & Zellweger, 2010; Stewart, Lumpkin, & Katz, 2010) and special issues on the topic appeared of Entrepreneurship and Regional Development (Nordqvist & Melin, 2010), the International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management (Sharma, 2011), the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal (Lumpkin, Steier, & Wright, 2011) and Small Business Economics (Uhlaner, Kellermanns, Eddleston, & Hoy, 2012).


In the present paper, we focus on firm-level entrepreneurship, better known as “corporate entrepreneurship” (CE). We adopt a wide definition of CE referring both to the firm-level entrepreneurial content (Sharma & Chrisman, 1999) and the firm-level entrepreneurial process (Lumpkin & Dess, 1996; Miller, 1983; Zahra, 1991). The former refers to CE as strategic renewal and as corporate venturing. The latter refers to entrepreneurial orientation and its components: innovativeness, proactiveness, risk-taking, autonomy and competitive aggressiveness. Similarly, we adopt a wide definition of family business. A family business is a company characterized by a considerable involvement of a family, in political, cultural or generational terms (Astrachan, Klein, & Smyrnios, 2002).


Our interest in studying CE in family businesses is rooted in three reflections. First, family businesses make up, worldwide, the largest form of business organization (Faccio & Lang, 2002; Holderness, 2009; Lopez de Silanes, La Porta, & Shleifer, 1999) and consequently make important contributions to job creation, gross national product and wealth generation (Beckhard & Dyer, 1983; Feltham, Feltham, & Barnett, 2005; Kelly, Athanassiou, & Crittenden, 2000; Shanker & Astrachan, 1996).


Second, CE is of vital importance today due to the economic downturn that European and US companies are facing. CE is especially beneficial for firms operating in hostile environmental contexts (Zahra & Covin, 1995). In particular, CE can positively affect firm performance through the accumulation and combination of knowledge-based capital (Kuratko, Ireland, & Hornsby, 2001; Rauch, Wiklund, Lumpkin, & Frese, 2009; Simsek & Heavey, 2011). Scholars agree on the facts that CE can innovate a company’s business model by reducing R & D costs and by incorporating external knowledge (Chanal & Caron-Fasan, 2010; O’ Sullivan, 2005) and that CE constitutes a source of competitive advantage which needs to be considered and protected (Frechet & Martin, 2011). Therefore, firms should devise processes that support and foster innovation (López & García, 1999) and entrepreneurship (Fayolle & Gailly, 2009), two levers that may truly influence the development and growth of economies (Audretsch & Thurik, 2003).


Third, family firms are characterized by distinctive features, i.e. different decision-making processes (Ensley & Pearson, 2005), socio-emotional attachments (Berrone, Cruz, & Gomez-Mejia, 2012), institutional overlaps (Tagiuri & Davis, 1996) and complex relational dynamics (Sharma, Chrisman, & Gersick, 2012), that may drive CE in specific ways.


In the remainder of the manuscript, we review previous studies on CE in family firms, distinguishing between older contributions (past research) and more recent ones (current research). We then sketch possible avenues for future research.



Within the past literature on CE in family firms, scholars have adopted either a negative or a positive perspective.


The traditional perspective is the negative one: to use a metaphor, we could say that according to this view, the family is the ballast that impedes the balloon of CE from properly flying. This view is rooted in the agency theory and has been supported by some empirical studies. According to such a perspective, family firms are less likely to engage in entrepreneurial risk-taking behaviors because of the overlap between ownership and management (Naldi, Nordqvist, Sjöberg, & Wiklund, 2007). Family owner-managers tend not to risk the family’s wealth lest they jeopardize the financial and social well-being of future generations. A recent content analysis run by Short, Payne, Brigham, Lumpkin and Broberg (2009) on the S & P 500s’ letters to the shareholders also reveals that family firms are less prone to communicating their entrepreneurial behavior, at least in terms of autonomy, proactiveness and risk taking.


On the other side, some scholars claim family firms present a unique and favorable setting for entrepreneurship (Aldrich & Cliff, 2003). This positive perspective asserts that the family instead acts like “oxygen that feeds the fire of entrepreneurship” (Rogoff & Heck, 2003: 559). According to Salvato (2004) and Zahra, Hayton and Salvato (2004: 363), it is the long-term nature of family firms’ ownership that “allows them to dedicate the resources required for innovation and risk taking, thereby fostering entrepreneurship”. Firms characterized by an external, decentralized and long term oriented culture are also characterized by higher levels of CE. Given that this kind of culture is typically present when a family is involved in the ownership of the firm, it can be stated that family firms are more inclined to CE. Zahra (2005) and Kellermanns, Eddleston, Barnett and Pearson (2008) also argue that the number of generations involved in the management of a firm positively influences CE because of an increased knowledge heterogeneity. According to Salvato (2004) this effect is particularly strong in founder-centered firms and, as Kellermanns and Eddleston (2006) add, such a relationship is positively moderated by the use of formal strategic planning techniques. To put it briefly, according to the promoters of this positive view, both family ownership and family management are beneficial for developing CE.


Both the positive and the negative perspectives are still alive in recent publications that adopt a cognitive approach to CE. On the positive side of the debate, in a theoretical paper by Patel and Fiet (2011) commented and extended by Sharma and Salvato (2011), it is argued that family firms are better positioned to discover entrepreneurial opportunities, both in static and dynamic environments, than non-family firms. Family firms’ peculiar conditions give them distinctive advantages in opportunity identification are abundant. These conditions include elements such as family relationships, noneconomic aspirations, low turnover, long leader tenures, prevailing socio-cognitive familial bonds and long term orientation. More negatively, Hayton, Chandler and DeTienne (2011) argue in an empirical paper that family firms are less likely to engage in opportunity identification processes that are impulsive, spontaneous and creative. As a consequence, the new opportunities identified by family businesses are less innovative than those identified by non-family firms.


In conclusion, if we look at the past literature, two competing views on CE in family firms characterized the academic debate.



Some more complex approaches have recently started to appear. They are characterized by the capability to overcome the dichotomy between the negative and the positive views of past research. In other words, they find a way to combine positive and negative effects in the same model.


A first approach in this style was developed by Gomez-Mejia, Haynes, Núñez-Nickel, Jacobson and Moyano-Fuentes (2007) according to which family firms can either be risk-takers or risk-adverse, depending on the possibilities of preserving their families’ socio-emotional wealth. Social-emotional wealth refers to all non-financial aspects of the firm that meet affective needs, for example, a sense of identity, the ability to exercise influence and the perpetuation of the family dynasty. In other words, the authors argue that emotions are the true point of reference for family firms’ entrepreneurial behavior.


A second approach consists of separating the different dimensions of entrepreneurial orientation to understand if some of them are positively affected by the presence of the family and some other are negatively influenced. Lumpkin, Brigham and Moss (2010), for example, argue that family firms are characterized by a long term orientation that, in turn, is able to increase innovativeness, proactiveness and autonomy and, at the same time, may decrease risk taking and competitive aggressiveness.


Building on this approach, Zellweger and Sieger (2012) not only separate the different dimensions of entrepreneurial orientation but also extend them and introduce a dynamic perspective to approaching CE in family firms. They separate autonomy into external autonomy (i.e. autonomy from external stakeholders) and internal autonomy (i.e. empowering people) and argue that the former is generally speaking high while the latter increases as the generations go on. Innovativeness is not always high but increases with generational changes. Risk taking is extended into performance hazard risk, control risk (i.e. debt/equity ratio) and ownership risk (i.e. undiversified assets). The authors then argue that the first and second types of risk are generally low in family firms, while the third one is generally high. Proactiveness can be high or low, depending respectively on the presence or absence of non-active owners. Competitive aggressiveness starts at high levels but generally decreases over time due to reputation concerns (Zellweger & Sieger, 2012).


Cruz and Nordqvist (2012) propose a generational perspective on CE and contribute to this research stream by arguing that opening management teams to non-family managers makes a positive difference for entrepreneurial orientation, albeit only in firms that have been in a family for three or more generations. Similarly, the significance of non-family investors on entrepreneurial orientation is particularly strong in firms of the third generation and beyond.


This approach is in line with Miller and Le Breton Miller (2011), according to whom the social context of ownership can shape owner identities and their entrepreneurial preferences. Hence different types of ownership (for example, lone founder, post-founder family, and founder family) induce different levels of entrepreneurial orientation. The scholars used identity theory to argue that lone founder owners and CEOs will embrace entrepreneurial identities and consequently their firms display high levels of entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, post-founder family firms, because of the ties to family in their businesses, tend to assume identities as family nurturers that limit entrepreneurship. Finally, family firm founders exhibit combined identities and run companies that reveal intermediate levels of entrepreneurship.


The fifth current approach to CE in family firms has been developed by Zahra (2012) and is learning-based. Zahra argues that CE is enhanced by the depth, speed and breadth of learning, but that not all of these features are increased by the presence of the family. Family ownership has a negative impact on the depth of learning and a positive effect on both its speed and breadth. The latter is also positively moderated by family cohesiveness.


In addition to the above, some scholars have started to study the effects of the family on the effectiveness of CE, i.e. on the relationship between CE and performance. More precisely, Casillas and Moreno (2010) and Casillas, Moreno and Barbero (2010) have explored the effect of the family on the relationship between the three main dimensions of entrepreneurial orientation and growth. They found that the generation in charge has a negative moderating effect on the relationship between risk taking and growth but a positive one on the relationships between proactiveness and growth and between innovativeness and growth. Even when analyzing the effectiveness of CE, the family presence appears to be beneficial or detrimental on the basis of the entrepreneurial dimension being referred to.


Chirico, Sirmon, Sciascia and Mazzola (2011) suggest that realizing the benefits of firm-level entrepreneurship in family firms is a complicated matter affected by the synchronization of entrepreneurial orientation, generational involvement and participative strategy. Entrepreneurial orientation provides the mobilizing vision to use the heterogeneous yet complementary knowledge and experiences offered by increased generational involvement to support entrepreneurship. However, without a coordinating mechanism, generational involvement leads to conflict and negative outcomes. When, instead, it is also coordinated via a participative strategy, performance gains are achieved.


The last line of current research we identified focuses on corporate venturing (the only case in which CE is conceived in terms of content). Marchisio, Mazzola, Sciascia, Miles and Astrachan (2010) argue that corporate venturing has positive and negative effects, both at the individual and the collective level. On the one hand, corporate venturing activities can be a useful tool to better select and develop the successor, as well as to increase the next generation’s human capital. On the other hand, corporate venturing can also have negative effects: it can decrease the affective commitment of the next generation if the new venture is strategically distinct from the parent company. It can also reduce family cohesion if the financial impact of corporate venturing is high and there are several non-active family owners (that are usually risk adverse and more interested in dividends than investments).


In this last research stream, we can include a paper by Sieger, Zellweger, Nason and Clinton (2011) who studied the process through which family firms simultaneously own and engage in various entrepreneurial interests (portfolio entrepreneurship). They analyzed four in-depth, longitudinal family firm case studies to develop a resource-based process model of portfolio entrepreneurship in family firms. Six distinct resource categories were identified as relevant in the portfolio entrepreneurship process: industry-specific social capital and reputation (which had constant relevance over time), industry-specific human capital (which had increasing relevance at later stages of the process), meta-industry human capital, social capital and reputation (which also had increasing relevance at later stages of the process).



Future research on CE in family firms is surely requited to build on current studies by exploring the different dimensions of EO, developing the generational perspective, studying the complex dynamics of knowledge and learning, understanding the effectiveness of EO and investigating the processes of corporate venturing. Interestingly, many of the papers presented at the 1st CE workshop fit into these categories: we consequently believe that presenters are on the right tracks.


In addition, new trajectories for future research can be traced.

  • A first subject that could be explored is strategic renewal in family firms. After the seminal paper of Hall, Melin and Nordqvist (2001), the topic remained surprisingly unexplored. In these difficult days many family firms are required to engage in strategic renewal processes to survive. This research avenue thus appears to be extremely relevant.

  • International CE represents another unexplored topic of family business literature. With the exception of Sciascia, Mazzola, Astrachan and Pieper (2012), family business literature has not conceived internationalization as an entrepreneurial act resulting from the management team capability to identify and exploit entrepreneurial opportunities.

  • Another line of research could consist of the investigation of non-linear relationships between any kind of family involvement (in political, generational and cultural terms) and CE. For example, it would be of great interest to establish whether the relationship between family ownership or family management and CE is inverted-U shaped, as this would mean that intermediate levels of family involvement maximize CE, just as in the case of financial performance (Mazzola, Sciascia & Kellermanns, forthcoming).

  • A fourth fruitful line of research could be the building of configurational models of CE rather than relying on the currently dominant use of contingency models to investigate the relationship between family involvement and CE. It is very likely that more complex combinations of factors (family-related, resource-related and environment-related) are able to unlock the potential of families for CE.

  • Given scholars’ great interest in the process of strategic entrepreneurship (i.e. the orchestrating of resources to concurrently explore future business domains and exploit the current ones), another interesting research avenue would be the exploration of it’s the role of this in family firms. Webb, Ketchen and Ireland (2010) have already tried to sketch propositions on how the specific dimensions of family firms affect this process. Much more could be done in this respect.

  • Recent studies have started to tackle the nature of entrepreneurial conduct across different generations and to deal with the changing need for entrepreneurship behaviors over the life cycles of family firms. This concept of « Transgenerational Entrepreneurship » (Nordqvist and Zellweger, 2010) could be a fruitful line of further enquiry as it might reveal how CE could be successfully transferred from one generation to the next.

  • There is a huge amount of literature on succession in family business (Cabrera-Suarez, De Saa-Perez & Garcia-Almeida, 2001). We argue that another promising area of investigation would be related to the relationship between succession and CE. How could succession work as a tool to develop CE in family firms? What types of succession styles might favor the development of CE? Answering these research questions could strongly contribute to the literature on family business entrepreneurship.

  • Last, but not least, the literature has mainly looked at how the family influences entrepreneurial activity. The reverse relationship deserves equal investigation (i.e. the effects of CE on the family) in order to “put the family into family business research” (Dyer & Dyer, 2009). Such a suggestion is in line with recent calls for adopting the family as unit of analysis in entrepreneurship research (Zellweger, Nason, & Nordqvist, 2011).


In conclusion, we feel that much work is still to be done in the field and we hope our work will provide some valuable ideas on how to grow our understanding of CE in family business.


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Pour citer cet article

Sciascia Salvatore, Bettinelli Cristina, « 2. Corporate Entrepreneurship in Family Businesses: past, present and future research », M@n@gement, 4/2013 (Vol. 16), p. 422-432.

DOI : 10.3917/mana.164.0422

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