US Courier is a family affair. Mary Ellen DiTucci founded the company in 1985 with her oldest son. Three of her four children, a son-in-law, and a daughter-in-law have all worked there. And her husband runs an affiliated facilities-management company. That could get stifling, but US Courier seems to be doing fine -- it now ranks among the top five couriers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Key to that success is the annual retreat.

At the DiTuccis' first retreat each family member drew road maps for business and life, then explained them to the group. That led to a commitment to grow US Courier to $2 million in the next year, and to a strategic plan. Other retreats have concentrated on family concerns. Steve Swartz, consulting principal with McGladrey & Pullen's Family Business Group, in Minneapolis, says a retreat as successful as the DiTuccis' requires the following:

A facilitator. Every family member has a private agenda, and all agendas must be voiced. So ask an outsider to facilitate. A professional will charge anywhere from $1,500 to $3,500 for one day, depending on the size of the group. DiTucci found her facilitator, Nancy Upton, through Baylor University's Institute for Family Business, in Waco, Tex.

Inclusion. Swartz prefers that all family members (and spouses) involved in the business attend. "Some people think spouses add fuel to the fire in disagreements, but I find quite the reverse."

Preparation. Before the retreat begins, the facilitator should ask every participant what he or she wants to discuss there. Those confidential interviews help the facilitator structure the retreat and encourage participation.

An agenda. The facilitator uses the preretreat interviews to set an agenda, whose length can vary. DiTucci's family worked enthusiastically for a long day and devoted the next day to play.

Ground rules. The facilitator should encourage participants to share thoughts and feelings but should rule out abusive behavior. If people become abusive, the facilitator should remind them of the rules and ask them to restate their opinions.

Follow-up. Nancy Upton encouraged the DiTuccis to continue the work they started at the retreat. Families may form groups to research such topics as succession, then present the results to the family and write policies. -- Michael P. Cronin