Changing times call for planning, flexibility and frankness in family business, say the fourth-generation leaders of Velvet Ice Cream.

Editor's Note: This column is part of an ongoing series by family business leaders and advisors with information and ideas about topics unique to family businesses, developed in conjunction with the Conway Center for Family Business.

By Joanne Dager

Over the past decade, the pace of change has escalated in every area of our lives. For leaders trying to properly steer the family business, it's more important than ever to be mindful of changing market patterns.

As a family-owned and operated business for 101 years, the staff at Velvet Ice Cream knows a thing or two about change. From the early days of hand-cranking a few gallons of ice cream a week, to producing and distributing more than five million gallons every year, change has been the name of the game at the Utica headquarters on the grounds of Ye Olde Mill.

In addition to rapid revolutions in both manufacturing technology and customer lifestyles, the Dagers have faced a fair share of transformations, not only in the business, but also as a family. In order to keep a successful family operation running into the next generation, it's crucial to create an effective succession plan early on. With Velvet Ice Cream's role as both a major Licking County employer and a community supporter, four generations of the Dager family have understood the importance of preparing for change in order to lead the company in the right direction. Planning and flexibility have been keys to creating a workable succession plan.

Growing up, the Dager sisters were always a part of Velvet Ice Cream. Generations of Dagers would get together to discuss the family business, with ice cream at the center of every one those gatherings. Through stories from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles the ins and outs of the ice cream business were illustrated. Family members also got to sample flavors and discuss new product concepts.

Talk eventually turned to the future of Velvet Ice Cream. The family worked together to develop a succession plan to guide the company from one generation to the next. That strategic approach is still in place as the fifth generation is introduced to the business and they consider their future -- and the future of Velvet Ice Cream. A few vital concepts have helped ensure success, including:

Creating an experienced business advisory group, which included both internal and outside members Joining the Conway Center for Family Business and actively using all of its resources Bringing in strong outside consultants for expert advice and objective viewpoints, including legal counsel and a consultant, both of whom specialize in business succession planning Being realistic and honest when identifying each individual's skill sets Clearly defining roles for family members and other company leaders Honestly considering everyone's leadership ability, personality traits, strengths and weaknesses Keeping an open mind about how family dynamics impact the business Involving younger family members -- even school-age children -- in some capacity of the business early on in order to gauge interest and begin considering talent of the next generation

By determining early on who would be involved in planning, and by holding frank discussions about the company's future, Velvet Ice Cream has successfully transitioned over four generations. That has created a strong future for Velvet Ice Cream, its employees and the Dager family.

The fourth generation to help run the family's company, Joanne Dager is vice president of Utica-based Velvet Ice Cream and serves on the Board of Directors for the Conway Family Business Center.