SINCE 1623, the nation's oldest family business has passed from father to son. But now, 372 years after its founding, the Zildjian Company cymbal manufacturer, whose very name is Armenian for ''son of a cymbalsmith,'' is poised to name its first daughter as heir.
''This whole thing caught all of us off guard ... including me,'' says Craigie Zildjian, the first woman in the family invited into the firm and presently the company's general manager for North America. Nineteen years after joining the family business, she is next in line to succeed her father.
No longer are sons the only offspring groomed by their fathers to take the reins of the family business. Fathers are now starting to look to daughters as successors.
Much of the evidence, so far, is anecdotal, as statistics are hard to come by in this new-found field. Leon Danco, founder of the Center for Family Business in Cleveland, estimates that the percentage of family-owned businesses with daughters as successors is only in the ''single digits'' - still a microscopic fraction of the whole, he says, but larger than a decade ago.
Family-business consultants and experts in the field chalk it up to a combination of factors: Women are getting more business experience and earning MBAs; sons are unwilling or unsuited for working in the family business; and families, particularly fathers, are becoming more enlightened about the role of women in business.
''It's a very strong movement,'' says Paul Karofsky, director of Northeastern University's Center for Family Business in Dedham, Mass. What has changed, he says, is that ''men are finally beginning to wake up and listen a little better,'' and ''women are empowering themselves.''
Women are also less willing to accept being sidelined into nonmanagement positions or ''the invisible role'' in the family business as was the previous generation, says Fredda Herz Brown, a principal at the Metropolitan Group, a family-business consulting firm in Leonia, N.J. She notes that the family business tends to offer women a faster track to the top than corporate America.
When asked why more women are succeeding their fathers, Patsy Smullin replies: ''Women are realizing that they can, and their dads are realizing that they can.'' She is president of California Oregon Broadcasting Inc. in Medford, Ore.
Her father founded the independent broadcast company in 1933. Today, she and her sister, who does not work for the business, each own half of it.
The youngest of five children, Ms. Smullin says she never intended to work in the family business. ''A lot of it was fear of success,'' she contends.
Currently, about 85 to 90 percent of businesses in the United States are family-owned, operated, or controlled, notes Dr. Herz Brown, and they generate at least 60 percent of the gross national product. Many of these firms were established after World War II, so the US is just beginning to see the ''first big influx'' of successions in family businesses.
''I never had anticipated going into the family business because in those days ... women had never been involved,'' Zildjian says. It was her forward-thinking grandfather who brought her into the business in 1976.
Currently, she runs much of the day-to-day operations and is in charge of domestic sales and world-wide marketing for the Norwell, Mass.-based company. Her sister, Debbie, the only other sibling who works in the business, heads up human resources.
''I don't think there's anything unusual about this,'' says Armand Zildjian, Craigie's father, who is chairman of the board. Mr. Zildjian admits that he originally intended to have his son take over but says he ''didn't have the capacity for the numbers'' that Craigie has. ''I'm sure that people have grown to respect her in judgment and everything else,'' he adds. ''She's better than I am!''
But respect isn't automatic, daughters say. Company employees generally view children of family-business owners as suspect - that they've gotten the job because they're family, and ''that's more so for women than men,'' says Patricia Frishkoff, founder of Oregon State University's family-business program in Corvallis.
''The better prepared a woman is for her job, the more likely she is to succeed,'' she says.
The most important step a daughter can take, consultants advise, is to first work outside the family business for several years.
Marjorie Radlo, for example, spent 12 years working with high-tech companies, including eight years in Silicon Valley, before joining her family's bio-tech business, VICAM L.P. in Watertown, Mass., about three years ago.
''If I came in right after business school, I think I would have had the challenges of gaining credibility and also getting a higher position than perhaps I deserved,'' Ms. Radlo says. And ''the fact that I worked outside the business for so long didn't contribute to a 'Daddy's little girl' type of syndrome,'' in which fathers try to protect their daughters from the big, tough world of business.
As vice president, Radlo works in cooperation with her father. He handles the financial and research-and-development sides of the business, and she handles marketing and human resources.
The fact that more daughters aren't succeeding their fathers ''has more to do with the culture of America than how successful a relationship like that would be,'' says Jack Radlo, VICAM president and Marjorie's father. But, he adds: ''You are going to see a heck of a lot more of these [father-daughter partnerships] as family businesses try to survive.''
Many family-business consultants profess that fathers and daughters tend to have a less contentious relationship than fathers and sons, which makes for a more successful transition period.
''In some respects, it's easier for daughters to work with their fathers than it is for sons to work with their fathers in that transition period, because [daughters] don't traditionally have the same ... power struggle and need to assert control,'' says Bonnie Brown, founder of Transition Dynamics, a family-business consulting company located in Irving, Texas.
The family business also offers women more flexibility to balance work and family, and still hold on to executive-level status, than does corporate America.
''For women, there is a very real need to have it all, and the struggle is to balance it all,'' Mr. Karofsky says. But women, he says, are finding that they can have it all by being the boss.
Part of the reason Radlo joined VICAM - which manufactures rapid-diagnostic test kits for the food industry - is that she had two small children and wanted to cut back on her travel schedule without relinquishing her executive position.
''The family business allows for a bit more flexibility than traditional corporate America,'' Radlo says. Initially, her parents were reluctant to believe she could balance it all; now they help her accommodate her schedule.
But don't be too anxious to proclaim daughters the new heir apparents to the family business, consultants profess. While the glass ceiling may have a few more cracks, it hasn't shattered.
''It's still so surprising how deeply rooted the assumption is that the [family business] is still considered the son's domain,'' says Colette Dumas, associate professor of organizational development at the University of Quebec at Montreal. ''Daughters are still considered kind of invisible for succession.''
Dr. Dumas cites cases in which fathers were considering selling the family business because their sons didn't want to run it, or they didn't have any sons.
Meanwhile, their daughters, who were also working for the firms, were passed over because they were not considered successor material.
''My father loves me very much ... but I think his generation doesn't automatically see women in the role of heading the company,'' says Bridget Baker, director of public relations for Guard Publishing Company in Eugene, Ore. The company publishes Oregon's second-largest daily newspaper, bought by Ms. Baker's grandfather in 1927.
Since then, the succession has followed in an unbroken line from father to son. Her cousin, a male, has just been appointed the next publisher.
''My father had a son, and he kept hoping that his son would go into the business, but he never did.... He was kind of holding me off to one side because he was thinking that his son was coming along,'' she says.
According to a 1994 survey of 1,002 family-business owners by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company in Springfield, 33 percent of family-business owners have at least one son involved in the family business, while only 14 percent have daughters involved.
The study also indicates that sons and brothers are more than twice as likely to serve as presidents and vice presidents of their family businesses than female relatives: Eleven percent of brothers and 6 percent of sons working for family firms serve as president, compared with only 5 percent of sisters and 1 percent of daughters. (See chart.)
Joe Astrachan at the Family Enterprise Center at Kennesaw State College in Atlanta, who worked on the study, cites two reasons for the discrepency: Many women are choosing to raise a family over staying on the successor track in the family business; and there is still prejudice concerning the idea of having women in senior levels.
Elisabeth Harris, executive vice president of Herald W. Young, a small food broker in Wellesley, Mass., contends that most of her peers in family businesses have decided to work part-time because they have young children and, as a result, have knocked themselves out of a successor position. ''Most women find themselves torn between their responsibilities to a family and their own career and career path,'' she says.
Currently, Ms. Harris is in line to succeed her father as president of her family's company, which her grandfather founded in 1928. But she says the succession plan is not 100 percent complete. Married with two small children, she contends that ''the responsibility of a business this size is something that you may want to share.''
But the issue for this next generation of women has to do with ''the gender of the business,'' Herz Brown says. Daughters must consider what it will be like as a female running a business in a male-dominated industry.
Take Jan Cook Reicher, who took over her father's Pittsburgh-based construction company when she was 21 after her father became ill.
''My father wrote me once a week when I was in college and detailed every job, and we talked business at dinner,'' she says.
''I was like my father's son, so to speak. I kind of took on that role, even though I have a brother. But he wasn't interested'' in running the business.
When Ms. Reicher took over, she shared the partnership with her father's former partner, who was 40 years older than she was. She handled primarily the administrative, marketing, and accounting areas of the business, much as her father did, she says.
''I was extremely successful, and I made everyone a lot of money,'' she says.
''But there were cultural differences about how [they look] at women and where they belong, and it's not in business.''