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Digital archive of theses discussed at the University of Pisa


Thesis etd-02202020-104341

Thesis type
Tesi di dottorato di ricerca
Thesis title
Family Firms and Regional Economics: Current Debate and New Empirical Evidence
Academic discipline
Course of study
tutor Prof. Lattanzi, Nicola
  • Agglomerations
  • Embeddedness
  • Family Firms
  • Regional Economics
  • Space
Graduation session start date
Release date
In the last few years, there has been a growing interest toward family firms as peculiar form of business wherein the dominant coalition shaping the organizational goals and strategy is controlled by a family defined, in a broader sense, as a social unit constituted by a group people sharing legal or genetic bonds. From a purely sociologic perspective, the primary function of the family is that of ensuring the continuation of the society, both biologically though procreation, and socially through socialization. The provision of the means, both material and immaterial, to satisfy the primary needs of its members entails the conduct of an economic activity, that is a set of actions consisting in the production, trading, selling and distribution of goods and services, and which is instrumental in this respect. In doing so, the firm rises to conventional organizational device through which such an economic activity is carried out by the family and which, by combining production factors, becomes involved in business or, put differently, becomes “entrepreneur”. Hence, family stands out as the basic foundation of the society, responsible for the process of reproduction and transmission of norms, values and ideologies across the time and for the wider social cohesion and, in a more distinctly economic perspective, as multi-generational economic unit that, when involved in business (i.e. family firm), show distinguishing characteristics as compared to traditional enterprises.
Family firm studies have been continuously committed in providing evidence about how the involvement of the family members in the business shapes uniquely the behaviour of these organizations. In doing so, an inner dimension has been traditionally privileged, that is one aiming at exploring the internal dynamics among family members and those between the owing family and the business that makes the family-sized nature of the firm as source of either advantages or disadvantages as reflected in some organizational outcomes. Among the first, for instance, reduced agency costs due to the coincidence of ownership and control, long-run objectives and perspective in the investment horizons (i.e. family firms as “patient capital”), stronger emphasis on non-economic objectives, faster-decision making and, stronger culture and firm-specific social capital. However, some disadvantages are found characterizing family firms such as lack of resources, risk-aversion, nepotism, resistance to change and less professionalization.
In the face of an ever-growing evidence on the interrelationships between family and business domain, family business research has overlooked, with some exceptions, the role of geographical space as platform in which the economic activity take place, for a better understanding of family firm phenomenon. In other words, does exist limited evidence on how family-owned and managed firms and space interact and which arises as generator of distinctive advantages and behavioural patterns for family businesses. In this perspective, space has to be regarded not only in physical terms, that is the space as “container”, but also in relational terms, that is a territorially bounded area with an administrative, political and social identity (e.g. regions, cities, local productions systems) consisting of a set of relationships among economic actors (e.g. people, firms and institutions). In particular, it is believed that the investigation of micro-territorial foundations of family firms in combination with the micro-behavioural ones may unveil further distinguishing traits that have contributed, among other things, to gain progressively legitimacy among scientific community, practitioners and policy makers and, as such, worthy of autonomous scientific investigation, specific business consultancy and tailored public policy interventions.
The aim of this Ph.D. thesis, as organized in the form of collection of research papers, is precisely that of provide new evidences about the “family firm-territory nexus” thereby contributing to the intersection between family business and regional studies. The present manuscript is organized into five parts that, ideally, retrace an ongoing attempt to the embrace, both theoretically and methodologically, the spatial context in the investigation of family business phenomenon. The first chapter provides a general overview about the concept of space, regional development theories and agglomeration economies as source of firm and territorial competitiveness. In doing so, the relational or social capital as stock of relationships that firms establish and nurture with other economic actors and which become “territorialized” is being emphasized. Relational capital stands out as crucial dimension for the understanding of mechanisms of knowledge transmissions (i.e. knowledge spillovers) among local actors and which are at the foundation of dynamic advantages (e.g. enhanced innovative capabilities). In explaining the different degree to which firms are bounded up with the territory and thus the strength of localized social relationships, the last section re-proposes the concept of “embeddedness” but, this time, as essentially spatial as opposed to its traditional sociological conceptualization. The second chapter describes the distinguishing characteristics of family firms. Starting from the family business definitional dilemma, the chapter introduces the main construct, namely “familiness” and “socio-emotional wealth”, which are conventionally adopted to explain their distinctive behaviour. But, above all, the link between family firm and its territory is being explored. In particular, by drawing on family business and regional studies arguments, the chapter theoretically explores family firms as peculiar regional actors whereby this distinctiveness has to be construed as way to which family firms are conditioned by and able to influence the socio-spatial environment in which are located. In this vein, the following three chapters, each introducing a stand-alone research paper, provide an empirical evidence on the role of spatial context on family firm’s behaviour and outcomes. In chapter three, the urban space arises as source of advantages but at the same time constraints on family firm’s employment decisions when an exogenous shock (i.e., economic crisis) occurs. This is particularly evident in small urban settings where the strength of social relationships and the territorial anchorage of family firms lead to socially responsible behaviour towards workers as salient stakeholders to ensure adequate protection in period of crisis. The fourth chapter represents an attempt to link family business and export spillovers literature. Because of their rich social capital and strong embeddedness in the local networks, family firms are particularly able to intercept and exploit information and knowledge with the result to reduce the sunk cost associated with the internationalization choices. The fifth and last chapter explores the role of external source of knowledge on the firm’s innovation capability. Due to their ability to build, develop and nurture socially proximate relationships, family firms are in a position to extract a higher value, as reflected in the innovation propensity, from R&D cooperation and, even more interestingly, to catalyse the diffusion of territorial knowledge creating in this way a regional environment particularly conducive to innovation. Aside from the attempt to intersect family business and regional studies, the aforementioned research papers emphasize the implications for public policy making and therefore, the practical relevance of the evidence shown for the local and regional decision-making processes.