Interview with Valérie Denis, Advisor at Altando

The big question at family-owned businesses: How to get the kids to agree to take over?
Ayoub Assabban
Ayoub Assabban
August 29, 2022
mn. read

Family businesses involve the whole family

As a stonecutter and construction contractor, Valérie’s father was ostensibly the entrepreneur in the household, her mother being classified as a stay-at-home mom. But throughout her life, Valérie saw how her father and mother worked together to make the business a success: her father might have been out on the job site during the day, but her mother was the one making calls to suppliers, keeping track of invoices and calendars, and having everything ready to welcome clients to their house in the evenings (with Valérie and her 3 younger siblings also called into service when needed, playing with the clients’ children in the living room while the adults huddled over plans and discussed options in the kitchen).

As she grew up, Valérie became interested in how to help people like her parents — people who we now talk about as “entrepreneurs”. These entrepreneurs are all those people who accept the risk of not knowing exactly how much they’ll be paid at the end of the month, of having to constantly find new ways to make their lives and the lives of their children better, of constantly improving their craft.

The thing that would always stick with her about these entrepreneurs? They bucked the trend of separating one’s work life from one’s family life, having a “work day” and “at-home” time. Given her background, she always saw work and family life as very connected: she understands entrepreneurship as one human being living a life that they’ve chosen, accepting the benefits and constraints of that life.

Developing expertise

After an ill-fated attempt at engineering school (undertaken in no small part to please her parents, of course, but also likely doomed due to the work-life model they’d shown her ;), Valérie began a job at ICHEC in Brussels, tasked with developing a department to study the intricacies of SMBs, which in most cases means family businesses.

In these businesses, she saw that the overarching issues tended to be related to management and governance. No matter if it was a company with 8 employees or 800, the company’s leaders often faced similar issues that were directly related to the fact that the ownership structure was, much like the operations themselves, artisanal and family-oriented.

That’s how she developed the “PME Plus” program, guiding family-owned business leaders as they tried to question their priors and upgrade their firm at every level. She also organized large-scale colloquiums that brought together up to 700 SMB owners to help them learn and see potential pitfalls and new possibilities in common problems.


Staying true to the feeling that she had as a teenager of wanting to help people like her parents, Valérie’s never been one to keep knowledge to herself. Her collaborative, multi-decade career has resulted in many publications including Bijoux de Familles (2010), To be or not to be a family business leader (2015), and A social exchange approach of spousal influence on intergenerational succession (2019).

That most recent area of research, on the influence of spouses within a business, is clearly linked to her experience seeing her mother being classified as technically unemployed, a stay-at-home mom, while she had a key role in not only supporting but indeed facilitating Valérie’s father’s work. It has also been a big part of Valérie’s work since 2011, when she created a new department focusing specifically on family-owned businesses at ICHEC.

It was thanks to this new focus that she began to see the big issues linked to the transmission of these family businesses. What’s more, she realized that she was one of the only interlocutors that was speaking openly and clearly with all generations involved in these businesses: both the parents, who had certain hopes and expectations for what would become of the business, and with the children, who often had an entirely different set of hopes and expectations for their lives.

Overcoming this lack of honest, authentic communication between generations has become one of the key aspects of Valérie’s work today, as she helps family businesses better manage the future of both the company and its owners/operators.

The knowledge produced during her studies of this topic produced another book, focused on the “Next Gen”, that shows the range of emotions and thoughts that occur within the children who grow up as ‘next in line’ at a family business. It also led her to dedicate 100% of her time to Altando, her consulting company specializing in family-business transmission.

Why has she had so much success in the field? Like so many entrepreneurs, she found a gap in the market:

“The people who have always advised family businesses — the bankers, the lawyers, the accountants — they all focus on the legal and financial aspects of transmission, and say almost nothing about the psychological questions that arise. But those technical aspects need to come second. First, you have to manage the emotional side of things.”

Valérie will be discussing family business transmission at the first Wholesaler Conference, being held on September 8 in Brussels. If you’re a wholesaler who would like to participate in an upcoming conference, let us know here.

Valérie is advisor in Family businesses, Entrepreneurship and Governance at ; Founder of the chair Families in businesses at ICHEC Brussels Management School.

You can reach her by email:

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Ayoub Assabban

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