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Moving Maine Forward with Catherine Wygant Fossett


Did you know that family-owned businesses make up 80% of all Maine’s businesses? While they are such a large and integral part of our state’s economy, they still face many unique challenges and obstacles–especially in our current climate.

We sat down (virtually) with Catherine Wygant Fossett, founder of the Institute for Family-Owned Business (IFOB). IFOB offers a wide range of services dedicated to supporting family-owned businesses and the unique managerial challenges associated with sustaining them. Catherine provided us with some insight into the challenges facing family-owned businesses today, as well as some valuable in-state resources.

Hi Catherine! Can you tell us some specific challenges that tend to affect all family-owned businesses, regardless of industry?

We recently surveyed our family businesses and their top concerns were workforce (talent – recruitment and retention, wellness, culture, and training), the business environment (uncertainty, technology, changing government policies and regulations, competition and finance), and growth or business/research development.

Other challenges include:
  • Succession planning
  • Working with different generations both in the family and with employees
  • Spending too much time in the business and not on the business
  • Having to constantly keep up with Human Resources rules and regulations
  • Having too many hats and not enough talent to meet their company’s needs
  • Setting boundaries and finding work-life balance among all generations

Running a business is hard enough, and when you add the family element it can be very rewarding, but also challenging.


Are there specific challenges to growing a business in rural areas of Maine compared to Portland or other populous areas?

Yes. High-speed internet and broadband access issues arise for digital transportation, and then regular transportation to move goods and energy costs. If the job is not remote, then finding talent can also be a challenge.


How much would you say Maine’s way of life enriches family-run business?

I think many businesses started in Maine and stay in Maine because of its way of life. As they get larger, many could move out of the state and do better financially with lower taxes and other financial incentives. They tend to stay in Maine because of the quality of life and sense of heritage and stewardship. Maine is a safe place to raise a family and Mainers care about their communities.

Here are some statistics about family-owned businesses from our website
  • They make up 80-90% of U.S businesses
  • They create 70-90% of GDP globally annually
  • They employ 62% of the U.S. workforce
  • Family-owned firms have a greater ROA (Return on Assets) than non-family firms by about 6.65%
  • Family businesses, both young and old, outperform non-family firms
    Source:  Family Firm Institute, Inc.
  • 96% of business owners agree it’s important to have an exit strategy. Only 13% have a plan that is current and documented. (Source: White Horse Advisors)
  • There is a 30% chance that a business will pass from the first to the second generation
  • There is a 13% chance that a business will pass from the second to the third generation
  • There is a 3% chance that a business will pass from the third to the fourth generation


What would you say to a business considering making their start in Maine?

Immerse yourself in all the resources we have in the state including but not limited to:

  • The Maine Small Business Development Centers
  • The Maine Department of Economic & Community Development
  • CEI
  • FAME
  • Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development
  • The Roux Institute
  • Maine Development Foundation
  • Small Business Administration
  • Maine MEP
  • MTI
  • Maine Venture Fund
  • Startup Maine
  • Local chambers of commerce

Maine is a welcoming place, and networking is key. Get involved in the community with nonprofits and other organizations, and you will find support if you’re not afraid to ask for it.

Additional resources:

U.S. Small Business Association: Maine District Office 

How do challenges differ between small and large family-owned businesses?

Challenges differ on the scale of business. Smaller businesses need to learn policies and procedures, how to juggle many roles, and how to manage growth–usually from an entrepreneur’s idea to the next generation.

Larger businesses typically have already mastered these skills by putting in place management teams and structure. Otherwise, they couldn’t grow efficiently. Larger businesses need higher-level management and financial resources including talent, venture capital, reductions in the cost of doing business, and more.


How can the state of Maine further assist family-owned businesses, and what resources can they provide?

The state can reduce taxes, regulations, and other policies that can be a hindrance to businesses. They can also expand on the recommendations from the Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee. Most importantly, Maine’s cost of doing business ranked 7th highest in the U.S., ranking worse than New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, and better than Massachusetts and Vermont.  Maine needs to look beyond the quality of life (which makes it a great place to live and work) and also make the business environment favorable, too.

Additional resources:

Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee

Measures of Growth Report 


Can you share any new Initiatives that IFOB is introducing in 2021-2022?

We’ve introduced nearly 75 programs for 2021 including our How To’s series, Wine & Nine Golf Series, Golf Scramble, and we’re bringing back our 21st Maine Family Business Awards. We’re hoping we’ll be open by October 6th and can celebrate at our awards gala both in-person and virtually.

We also expanded our NextGen Affinity groups to add an “Executive Blend” for family business members who have taken on a new role such as moving up from a finance manager to a GM. We offer seven Affinity groups including CEO Central, Women’s Leadership Forum, the Next Gens, and Leaders in Transition.

Since we don’t know when we can open, we’ve added the following new virtual programs:

  • Legal Lunches: This series will be a one-hour, virtual discussion with a legal representative from PretiFlaherty and a family-owned business.
  • Chit Chat with Cat: This series will be short 20-30-minute recorded interviews and storytelling with the family business and associate partner members, to learn more about them and the IFOB.
  • Tuesday Talks: This is solely a networking program based on my conversations with members. We have not been able to network as we traditionally do, now that we are not holding in-person events. We want to make sure our associate partners and other members are still feeling the value from their membership, and make this a fun, focused, networking event.
Additional Resources:

IFOB Event Calendar

What is your biggest piece of advice for Maine businesses in the current climate?

Take a deep breath. Take care of yourself, your employees, your customers, and other stakeholders. Always look to innovate, and take what we’ve learned from the past year, and see how it can be used for the future. Go outside and appreciate this amazing state and the people who live here!

What is your biggest piece of advice for Maine businesses in the current climate?

Take a deep breath. Take care of yourself, your employees, your customers, and other stakeholders. Always look to innovate, and take what we’ve learned from the past year, and see how it can be used for the future. Go outside and appreciate this amazing state and the people who live here!

About Catherine Wygant Fossett

Now in its 27th year, the Institute for Family-Owned Business (IFOB) is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to supporting family-owned businesses, which represent about 80 percent of all businesses in Maine. Catherine leads the organization which offers a wide range of services and programs including consulting, seminars, workshops, an annual awards gala, networking and more. The Institute assists family-owned firms in meeting the unique managerial challenges associated with operating and sustaining a successful family enterprise.

Prior to joining the IFOB in 2014 as its executive director, Catherine was the executive director of the Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce where she oversaw the 50th Anniversary of Windjammer Days, developed the Claw Down lobster bite competition, and annually produced the region’s definitive travel guide. She is a graduate of the Maine Association of Nonprofits’ Executive Leadership Institute.

Catherine’s prior experience includes 20 years in the travel industry, at Hewins Travel, as director of marketing, and Hurley Travel Experts, as director of sales. A graduate of Bates College, she has served on dozens of boards including the Advertising Club of Maine, the World Affairs Council of Maine, MidCoast Chamber Council, Mobilize MidCoast Maine leadership committee, Rotary, Maine Sports Commission, the Amputee Association of Maine, the Advisory Board for the MWM Maine Women Magazine, the Boothbay Sea and Science Center and she currently serves on the Maine Development Foundation board. She lives with her husband in the MidCoast, is an avid boater and outdoor enthusiast with a love of great food and local crafts.