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Rice University research sheds light on what family office investors are looking for

Family firms aren't investing in research and development — but why? Getty Images

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.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Robert E. Hoskisson is the George R. Brown Emeritus Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Moonflower Farms grows lettuce hydroponically. Courtesy of Moonflower Farms

A Houston urban farm has earned national recognition for its innovative approach to water conservation. Moonflower Farms won the American Heart Association's Foodscape Innovation Excellence Award, which recognizes positive changes in the foodscape, a term for all of the places where food is produced, purchased, or consumed.

The Heart Association selected Moonflower's submission, titled "Sustainable Farming Through Water Conservation," from 26 entries. Dallas' Restorative Farms earns the Foodscape Innovation Consumer Choice Award.

"These two innovations demonstrate a way of producing food that promotes affordability and equitable access, and the American Heart Association is proud to recognize these efforts," AHA chief medical officer for prevention Eduardo Sanchez said in a release.

Located in a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse south of downtown, Moonflower operates what it describes as Houston's first vertical indoor farm. The method both reduces the amount of space needed to grow the farm's microgreens, lettuces, herbs and edible flowers and it eliminates the disruptions caused by adverse weather conditions, which allows the farm to produce year round.

Moonflower uses a closed-loop system for capturing rainwater to feed its crops. The water is treated and oxygenated so that it can be reused. Not having to pay for water from the City of Houston allows the farm to operate more economically and sell its produce at an affordable price to restaurants and individuals.

"Our hydroponic farm uses 90-percent less water than conventional farms," Moonflower founder and CEO Federico Marques said in a statement. "We provide year-round produce to residents in historically underserved communities and donate produce to local charitable food systems."

One of those charities is Houston non-profit Second Servings, which "rescues" food from restaurants and events and distributes it to food pantries and other resources.

"The donations we receive from Moonflower Farms are incredible," Second Servings founder and president Barbara Bronstein said. "Their hydroponically grown greens are so appreciated by the needy Houstonians we serve, who lack affordable, convenient access to fresh produce."

Recently, Moonflower introduced a SupaGreens subscription box that allows customers to purchase greens weekly, bimonthly, or monthly. The box is delivered directly to consumers.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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