UK family firms bullish about growth, but may underestimate the impact of short-term challenges

Published at 07:00 AM on 22 February 2017

  • 93% anticipate growth but little diversification away from core markets

  • A third fear the impact of Brexit, but half plan to take action to reduce the effect

  • Fewer than half have a strategy fit for the digital age

  • Only 13% have a robust, documented and communicated succession plan in place

Although more than nine-in-ten UK family businesses anticipate growth, more than a third are concerned about the potential impact of Brexit. However, according to the latest PwC Family Business Survey, half of the UK family firms don’t plan to do anything to counteract the UK’s impending exit from the EU.

Published today [Wednesday 22 February], PwC’s eighth Family Business Survey says the sector has experienced a decline in financial performance, with only 60% seeing sales growth over the last year, compared with 73%  in the 2014 Survey.

Despite the recent slowdown in growth, UK’s family businesses remain bullish about the future. The spectre of Brexit has not impacted their pre-referendum growth forecasts, with 93% anticipating to grow over the next five years, with more than nine in ten (94%) confident of growing their core business in existing markets.

And, although 38% of companies expressed fears as to the impact of Brexit on their business, fewer than half have taken any measures to mitigate the potential impact that leaving the EU may have on their business activities.

Although UK family firms are hopeful of future growth and recovery, their ambitions and expectations lag behind their global counterparts. While 52% of family firms globally expect to develop new markets, only 34% of their UK counterparts anticipate expanding into new country markets. However, Brexit has failed to dampen their export ambitions as UK family businesses predict that their collective exports, as a proportion of overall sales, will increase from 19% to 24% over the next five years.

Commenting on the Family Business Survey findings, Sian Steele, UK family business leader, said:

“Despite tough economic conditions and the accelerating pace of change, the family business sector remains vibrant and ambitious, with almost one-in-five (18%) expecting to grow quickly and aggressively.

“In some areas UK family firms are not demonstrating the resilience and confidence of their global counterparts, but these issues may be more about confidence in the short-term future rather than the ability to grow and prosper.

“Family firms remain a vital part of the UK economy, offering stability and jobs, a commitment for the long term, and responsibility to their communities and employees.”

Protecting the long term future of the family business is the key goal for respondents in the UK (68% vs 66% globally) and ensuring the business stays in the family is more of a UK than a global priority. (41% vs 30%).

UK Family businesses also believe they have some advantages over non-family businesses.  Eight in 10 think they have stronger culture and values, while seven in 10 feel they are more streamlined, have a quicker decision making process, and take a longer term approach to decision making than non-family businesses.

Driving growth

PwC says that only a quarter of the businesses surveyed over the duration of the eight Family Business Surveys have survived more than three generations – a lesson for families to ensure that they have strategies to bridge the gap between the entrepreneurial vision that created the original business and long-term sustainability under succeeding generations.

And, while 94% of UK family businesses anticipate future growth based on core business growth in existing markets, a mere 11% of UK firms plan to diversify within their core business, and only a third (34%) plan to sell into new countries– well below the 52% of global family businesses planning to expand into new country markets.

In addition, just over half (56%) of UK family firms plan to finance their anticipated growth through external finance - significantly less than the global average of 78%. PwC says companies could find this cautious approach towards utilising outside funding a challenge to their bullish growth ambitions. The report points to other challenges facing UK family businesses -  whilst seven out of 10 feel they are more agile and streamlined in decision making than their non-family counterparts, more than half (52%) expressed concerns around attracting and retaining the right talent to help them succeed and, more broadly, around finding staff with the right skills.

Despite the threat of digital disruption being felt by senior executives across the globe, less than half of the UK firms say they have a strategy fit for the digital age. Despite a similar number recognising the importance of digital, only 54% discuss digital disruption at board level.

Sian Steele said:

“The UK is lagging behind its Western European peers in its appetite for exporting to new territories with only a third planning expansion into new markets.

“It’s also of concern that so few plan to diversify in their current core markets and have strategies to combat digital disruption. It will be interesting to see how these plans are impacted by new trade agreements being brokered post-Brexit, but overall, it does raise concerns about the survival of some of these businesses.”

Succession and the next generation

There are two key unique challenges facing family businesses, which are not faced by other non-family owned companies – transitioning the business from one generation to the next and developing family members to undertake leadership roles. Failure to tackle these challenges can ultimately result in a business failing.

Disappointingly, only 13% of family businesses in the UK admit to having have a robust, documented and communicated succession plan in place - and there are no indications this has changed from the findings of previous Family Business Surveys.

A third of family businesses in the UK plan to pass the business ownership (but not the management) onto the next generation, 38% will pass the management on to the next generation while 22% plan to sell or float the business.

Clare Stirzaker, UK family governance leader at PwC, said:

“A robust, documented and well communicated succession plan will stand the best chance of success. The next generation are the future. They bring continuity of family and business, new ideas, energy and enthusiasm. Engage them at the right time, support and nurture them and crucially talk to them about the shared value and purpose in the role they play.”

Sian Steele, UK family business leader at PwC, concluded:

“Family businesses are certainly up for a challenge and those that we speak to feel confident and excited about the future and the opportunity that it poses.

“There is no room for complacency and those that survive from generation to generation focus on robust, strategic planning, taking them from where they are to where they need to be in the long term.

“The family firm has to tackle issues around the family itself. Here the issues are more personal, more complex, and the risks if it goes wrong are potentially terminal - ‘family firm’s fail for family reasons’.”


Note to editors

About the Family Business Survey

For a full report, go to

PwC interviewed over 2,800 family businesses in 50 countries (100 from the UK) between May and August 2016, with turnovers ranging from US$5 mil to over US$1billion. The total turnover of all those companies interviewed was more than $500bn. A third of interviewees came from 3rd/4th+ generation businesses.

Following the 23 June referendum in the UK on leaving the European Union, questions about the potential impact of Brexit on their businesses were added to the questionnaire; 1,145 respondents answered these questions.


About PwC

At PwC, our purpose is to build trust in society and solve important problems. We’re a network of firms in 157 countries with more than 208,000 people who are committed to delivering quality in assurance, advisory and tax services. Find out more and tell us what matters to you by visiting us at

PwC refers to the PwC network and/or one or more of its member firms, each of which is a separate legal entity. Please see for further details. © 2016 PwC. All rights reserved

« UK strengthens its position as the largest G20 investor in India – CBI/PwC | Homepage | GDP data, February 2017 - PwC comments »

  • Contact us
  • +44 (0) 20 7213 1768

Specific and out of hours contacts