Posted by jlubans on March 25, 2020


A BBC report, “How to leave a family business
brought to mind a story I’ve long thought about writing.
Before we go there, a little bit of personal perspective.
My father ran a small construction company; it was very much his company - his reputation for quality work and absolute honesty were integral to the success of the company.
I worked for him several summers and we mutually, if tacitly, concluded this was not the business for me.
While I could swing a hammer with the best and I could shovel more dirt and gravel than most, when it came to the finer points, like measuring angles and running a straight line of shingles or bricks, I lacked the aptitude.
Also, I did like my sleep and just could not emulate my dad’s 5AM rising, at least – interestingly - not for this calling.
I valued the opportunity to work with him especially since it finally sank into my hard head that this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I would need to go to college.
My point is that I never had to leave a family business!
That said, I have studied numerous organizations from orchestras to restaurants, several of which are written about in my book, Leading from the Middle.
The BBC report suggests leaving a family business is a fraught step.
I saw this up close and personal at a business I often visited as a customer and eventually as a researcher.
Over time, I befriended the boss, Fritz by name and he gave me carte blanche to study his organization. (Note: I have changed names since I do not wish in any way to sensationalize what I observed. I remain fond of this business and of the many people I met, including Fritz.)
The BBC report identifies common problems and sources of failure in family businesses: communication style, future vision and strategy, and balancing the needs of the family versus the needs of the business.
And, per the BBC, if you are the heir-apparent, 21.8% said communication style was the leading cause of conflict. As for the family boss, just 13.3% listed communication as the leading cause of dissent.
Now, Fritz’s is a very successful retail operation in a large city. Fritz, the owner, works very long hours and pretty much micromanages the business.
He runs it like a big family with him as the idiosyncratic patriarch with a large flock of children, some of whom he regards as “primitives” (his term).
An example of Fritz’s leadership style: An employee pushed another employee down some rickety stairs. Instead of dismissal for assault, Fritz told the two to shake hands and make up.
Another example: When a floor manager got fed up with Fritz’s butting in, he told Fritz to back off and to let him do his job. Fritz fired him on the spot.
An hour later, Fritz was on the phone with the employee apologizing and asking him to return to the business. He did, only to have this repeated every year or so.
Indeed, some department heads soon learned not to take any bluster from Fritz. Instead, they’d walk out. Invariably, he’d plead with them to return.
At Fritz’s there was one genuine heir-apparent, a daughter. Let’s call her Diane.
When I interviewed her – a calm, intelligent and confident young woman - she thought her dad could share more information with her – she worried that he knew so much that would be lost were he unable to work.
The implication was that he was holding back the real inside scoop on the business and was essentially unwilling to trust her fully.
Treated like a junior partner, she had little decision-making authority, if any.
Still, she was expected to work long hours (this is retail, remember).
She had recently married a wealthy man and they were expecting a first child.
And, there was a mother (Fritz’s wife) behind the scenes. A soap-opera-ish personality from whom – I concluded - Diane would be desperate for some separation, in space and time.
While I never interviewed the mother I did have several social visits with her and Fritz, some of which gave me insights into her mercurial personality.
I spoke to Fritz about what Diane had told me, about her wanting a real role in the business. He may have heard what I said but, as far as I could tell, he did little to improve Diane's role.
About a year or two later, I was back in town and went by to see Fritz in his office.
Heart broken and literally in tears, he told me that Diane had resigned and was moving into the suburbs.
Not long after Fritz stopped taking my calls. It’s now been years since I last saw him.
I suspect he – possibly encouraged by his wife - thought I was somehow responsible for the estrangement between him and his daughter; that I had helped, by asking questions, Diane articulate her discontent.
In any case, I imagine Diane had a hard time making the decision to let go.
Could this separation have been avoided? Would Diane (and her new family) stay on had Fritz been willing to treat her as a full and responsible partner?
Probably yes, but hard to know.

© Copyright John Lubans 2020

« Prev itemNext item »


No comments yet. You can be the first!

Leave comment