Blessings and Burdens: Family businesses a ‘marketplace ministry’ of reconciliation

By Christopher Clymer Kurtz | May 24th, 2019

Sally Landis Derstine ’82 talks about family dynamics in the meeting room of the Delaware Valley Family Business Center in Telford, Pennsylvania, where she is managing parter and senior advisor.

FAMILY AND BUSINESS are each complicated in their own right. And family businesses?

“Family business is complex,” said Sally Landis Derstine ’82, “because there is an overlap of three different systems: family, business and ownership.”

The managing partner and a senior advisor at the Delaware Valley Family Business Center in Telford, Pennsylvania, Derstine grew up in a family with a business, and so has first-hand experience of the accompanying “blessings and burdens.”

While family businesses are “the backbone of our economy” – a widely-quoted statistic is that they make up 90 percent of US enterprises – most don’t make it to or survive second-generation ownership.

“That’s not because families are defective,” Derstine said. “It’s because they don’t understand the complexity and how to manage it.”

She’s developed a unique model that depicts the teams and structures – family, shareholder, board, advisor and management – that families in business together must develop and foster to have healthy relationships and sustainability. Multi-generational business leadership and ownership is decidedly more mountain-climbing marathon than sprint, she said.

“This work requires leaning into awkward, crucial conversations and lots of naming reality or ‘telling the truth in love,’” she said. “I enjoy guiding business families to ‘make peace’ and create the futures they want instead of ‘keeping the peace,’ or avoiding delicate discussions.”

Derstine joined the center in 1992 and became its managing partner in 2014. Founded by Henry Landes in 1988, they have served hundreds of families, in part through a Family Business Learning Community that Derstine helped launch in her first year.

“I feel a deep sense of gratitude and delight when our clients find their voice, gain clarity, make wise choices and are reconciled to themselves, their family, to God,” she said. “Every day confirms that my work is marketplace ministry.”

As a student at EMU, Derstine “deeply appreciated” communication and business classes with Loren Johns, psychology classes with Galen Lehman ’73, and playing field hockey for Sandy Brownscombe. (The team was the first in EMU history to qualify for a national tournament, and was inducted into the Hall of Honor in 2012.)

But her career training, she said, began in the cradle.

“I am grateful to my parents, siblings and extended family for teaching me about what’s really important in life, what it means to live compassionately and simply, love deeply, forgive and extend grace,” she said.

She and her husband Douglas Derstine ’82, who completed 36 years as a middle and high school teacher, delight in their growing family, which includes three children and a granddaughter. Derstine’s generational impact, though, also includes the families she helps through her work to “find their voice and make wise choices.”

And that, she said, is “a sacred privilege.”