Successful family business owner shares advice to local family businesses, aspiring business students

Aubrey Zych, Editor-in-Chief

On Wednesday, Feb. 26, some 50 business professionals gathered in the Grewen Auditorium to hear a presentation by Andrew Cornell, CEO and president of Cornell Iron Works. The event was hosted by the New York Family Business Center, a not-for-profit organization based out of the Madden School of Business that works to support local family businesses through tools, resources and seminars.

Cornell joined local family business owners and the campus community Wednesday to give his advice on how to run a successful family-owned business. Cornell stands as the eighth family president of Cornell Iron Works. Starting off as a blacksmith company in 1828, the company has gone through five generations of Cornell presidents, and now serves primarily as a provider of secure overhead door and closure products. Cornell has served as CEO for the last 17 years.

“What I’m here for tonight is to give you the gift of energy,” Cornell said. “I want you to go into work tomorrow psyched with new ideas and ways to get over [any] impasse.”

Cornell’s advice for running a successful and long-lasting family business boiled down to three main points: the work culture, leadership and team.


Developing a high performance culture

According to Cornell, what he does on a daily basis isn’t running a business; it’s energizing people. Energy is the key to creating a high performance culture within a business, especially those that are family-owned, Cornell said. Leaders within the business should work for the interests of the employees, not their own.

However, Cornell warned that culture is only effective if the results show.

“If your culture doesn’t point towards better results, your culture is misdirected,” he said. “Good culture is when you deliver great results in a way that makes people want to work with you.”

Additionally, Cornell emphasized the fact that despite his family’s company, he’s “anti-family business,” because it can discourage other non-family workers.

“We’re a business family, and less so a family business,” he explained. “Being family doesn’t mean you’re equipped to run a business.”

“Only one to two percent of the board members should include family,” he added. “Otherwise, what is everyone else working for?”


Leader’s actions

Cornell’s second point emphasized the importance of having strong leadership within the organization, whether it is a family member or not. He encouraged listeners to not have a “social class segregation” within the company, separating those at the top from those on the bottom of the work chain. He explained to listeners that Iron Works has been able to avoid any class system through some of his choices, such as having an office that is not much bigger than anyone else’s, not having a special parking space, and always going to peers to ask for help, input and feedback on his work output.


The amazing team

Cornell’s last and his most important point involves how to create a great team at work. Cornell said the first and most important step in creating a great team is removing “C-players” or those who don’t excel in the workplace. But, Cornell warned not to fire without being able to hire.

“Hiring is the most important part of the job,” he said. “Hire outstanding people.”

To find outstanding people, Cornell advised searching for candidates on LinkedIn, through former colleagues or friends, and at events like this.

Cornell concluded his talk with some of his hard-won secrets, such as how to recruit, interview and select candidates for a job, how to create a business family instead of a family business and more.

For more information about the New York Family Business Center or future events, visit or call [315] 445-4242. Their next event will take place Wednesday, March 26 at the Genesee Grande [1060 Genesee Street] from 7:45 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. featuring keynote speaker Jolene Brown, who will discuss how to build a sustainable business for generations to come.