Profile: Courage - transferring family business knowledge

Marc-Michael Bergfeld: "We see ourselves as the high-performance, but humble, BMW of family business advisory..."

Marc-Michael Bergfeld: "We see ourselves as the high-performance, but humble, BMW of family business advisory..."

Marc-Michael Bergfeld knows his time zones. In the space of less than a week, Bergfeld flew over nearly 20 of them and still knew what the time was automatically in the UK from where Family Capital interviewed him over two separate occasions - once when he was in Buenos Aires and the other in Singapore.

Travel is of course part of the routine of any corporate high-flyer in the 21st century, even so Bergfeld would certainly make the top quartile of executive globetrotting. That’s probably because he’s on a mission to spread the gospel of family business best practices to a wide audience.

Bergfeld heads the German-based consultancy Courage Partners, which advises family businesses across the world - not just on the usual issues of succession and family unity, but also in the less obvious areas like strategic advice on structuring their wealth and buying companies.

“We help to create clarity and coordination across a family’s entire portfolio, which will probably include not just the family business, but real estate, foundations, liquid investments and other non-core direct investments,” says Bergfeld. “This might also involve advising them on upcoming opportunities to buy or sell, at home and abroad.”

Sounds a bit like what a family office might do, but Bergfeld says it’s different. “Family offices do financial asset management very well and even provide excellent concierge services, but can profit from a more holistic and strategic approach, overseeing all areas of business activity and assets, and all family members and their aspirations for the long-term,” he says.

“In some ways we see ourselves as a supporting ‘clarity and coordination team’ in the advice we give family business owners and their offices on their overall portfolios and how to swiftly link them to the family's interests and transition planning.”

Courage works mostly with family enterprises in Asia and Latin America; typically clients have operational businesses with revenues of at least $100 million, but most are much bigger, says Bergfeld.

Courage’s success - Bergfeld says there’s more demand than they can handle - is partly due to its leader’s impressive background and entrepreneurial nouse. Seven years ago he was made one of the youngest ever business professors in Germany when he was appointed to the post at the Munich Business School. Other career highlights include working for a big German family business - he won’t say which one for fear of being seen to be using it for his own promotion - sitting on a committee for small and medium-sized companies at the European Commission, and writing a book on leadership. Not bad for a 38 year-old.

But Courage isn’t all about Bergfeld. The consultancy has hired some impressive partners to help the ambitious German in his efforts. These include Sandeep Caberwal, a US-based serial entrepreneur who also teaches at the Munich Business School, and Rafael de Cárdenas López, with an MBA from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and many years experience building and running companies. Bergfeld says that all the partners have either set up companies and/or run companies ensuring they have the independent means to not just be doing their work for material gain. “They do it because they are dedicated.”

With a fair few of Courage’s partners teaching at the Munich Business School the academic link is also strong. Indeed, Courage helped create the Center of Global Family Firms at the business school, which coordinates research and teaching on the sector for business families, and those linked to the sector.

That academic link, coupled with the expertise at Courage on family businesses, especially in the context of Germany, means business families are keen to tap into the consultant’s resources. “Family businesses in emerging markets are hungry for knowledge on German family businesses. They see many of them as representing the best in class in what they do and want to emulate their success, especially in creating great firms, transferring wealth across generations and keeping families together.”

Not only can Courage bring that level of expertise, but they can also do it in a very efficient, process-oriented, and mentoring-focused German way, says Bergfeld. “We provide clarity and peace of mind to the owners, quickly. Indeed, we see ourselves as the high-performance, but humble, BMW of family business advisory - taking the family to where it really wants to go, in a safe and enjoyable ride.”

Family businesses in emerging markets might keenly desire knowledge on their German counterparts, but what about the situation closer to home?  Given the fallout from the VW scandal and issues like the possible pending inheritance tax for family businesses in Germany, is Bergfeld concerned about what’s in store for family enterprises in his own country?

"Many Mittelstand (mostly family-controlled) companies are still looking inwards in terms of their markets and innovation, and relying too much on past success and the ‘Made in Germany’ fame,” he says. “These companies will face a real threat to their existence. And this could be as many as 50% of them."

But for the ones not facing an existential threat - clearly there is still much to learn from them and no shortage of businesses that want to.