An unofficial theme of the 11th Annual Family Business Forum was culture—defining it, living it and understanding the difference it can make for family businesses, their employees, and customers.

The event began with a conversation between Chris Shepler, president and third generation of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry, and Dr. Don Steele, co-author of Undefeated: The True Story of How the Family-Owned Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry Service Survived and Advanced through Three Generations.

Dr. Steele was hired as a consultant to help the Shepler family through the transition of leadership from the second to the third generation—a transition that he notes only 12 percent of family businesses make successfully. In getting to know the Shepler family story, Dr. Steele suggested the idea of a book, and from there Undefeated was researched and written.

Chris and Dr. Steele shared several family stories, but their words about Shepler’s workplace culture stood out. It is widely known as the thing that sets them apart from the competition. When it came to developing their culture, Chris explained that it started with a family trip to Disney World in the 70s. Chris’ father was struck by the beauty and cleanliness of Disney and further impressed by the attention to detail and hospitality provided by Disney’s “cast members”. He carefully studied the Disney way and brought it back to northern Michigan.

Years later, that attention to detail and top-notch customer service remains part of Shepler’s culture. Their commitment is first class service for every guest, every day. From the landscaping to the cast (which is how they refer to their employees), everyone is trained to go the extra mile. In addition to quality service, cast members have fun and consequently, many remain employees for decades.

Following Dr. Steele and Chris, there was a panel discussion focused on attracting and retaining talent in family business. Culture remained a focal point here.
Panelist Amy Saunders-Ferrell, VP of Human Resources with Praxis Packaging said that businesses need to be able to know how to describe their culture. If you’re not sure of your business’ culture, Amy suggested talking to employees and asking them what keeps them coming back. “For family members, culture can be hard to define. Often it’s just the way you grew up—it’s what you do and how you make people feel. If you ask non-family employees, themes will quickly emerge,” she said.

Lou Rabaut, Partner at Warner Norcross and Judd added that saying that something is a core value and not living it erodes culture. “A core value is something you believe in so strongly that you’re willing to go to the mat or be punished for it,” Rabaut said.

Moderator Bill Benson, Partner with WilliamCharles noted that keeping a poor performing employee too long is also a culture killer. “Keeping a bad employee is a sure way to get your best person to leave,” Benson said.

Sandy Buchanich, Director of Talent Development and Engagement at Byrne explained that culture is part of their screening process. “We screen for culture, not talent.” They also find that employee referrals are the best strategy for filling vacant positions. “If an employee recommends you to a family member or friend, that is the ultimate nod. We also find lower turnover with people who enter the business knowing someone—especially if it is one of the family members,” Buchanich said.

Top Tips from Panelists:
• Define your business’ values and culture. Make sure they are authentic, not just buzzwords.
• Include family as part of your brand. Rabaut referenced Study: Customer Really Do Trust Family Businesses More from Harvard Business Review.
• Engage employees and value them as whole people. Work to create a sense of purpose and belonging.
• Do less recruiting and focus more on training, development, employee growth and mentoring.
• Have a strategy for managing poor performers, especially if they are family.


Marci Schafer, Interim Executive Director of Family Business Alliance. Marci can be reached at or (616)771-0574