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Helping Family Businesses
Prosper Across Generations®

Building Passion in the Business

By Jennifer M. Pendergast, Ph.D.

In many family businesses, the elder generation’s dream is to pass on the legacy to the next generation. The response of the next generation is widely varied. Some show no interest in entering the business, even to the point of resenting the impact the business has had on their lives. Others may enter because they see it as their best career option, but would not have chosen the business had it not chosen them. Many feel a sense of obligation to the family to maintain the legacy and ensure financial stability for future generations. And then there are the lucky few who truly embrace the business and can’t imagine pursuing another path.

If I were the elder generation, I would certainly hope that the next generation fell in that last camp. How rewarding to see your life’s work and family’s name carried forward by a group truly committed to building the legacy. So, what can the current generation do to increase the passion of future generations?

To some extent, this question can turn into a nature versus nurture debate. Some would contend that the decision isn’t in the hands of the current generation. In a previous Dear Advisor column, we responded to the second-generation leader of a large industrial business whose son wanted to pursue a career in journalism. We commended the father for his comment “I do not want to push him too hard, because if he does not have the passion for the business, he will not be successful.” He acknowledged that his son may never find a fulfilling career in the family business.

But there are certainly examples that suggest engendering passion in the next generation is possible. Ray Wicker Jr. is a third-generation member of a family crabbing business in Virginia. After taking a few classes at a local community college, Ray joined the family business. But, as the oyster industry began to decline and more and more oystermen started crabbing, Wicker saw that the competition exceeded supply. So he joined Ford Motor Company, but never stopped crabbing. “I’d work 10 hours on an assembly line, then get on a boat. I bought 100 crab pots with my first profit-sharing check; now I have 300 crab pots,” said Wicker. “In 1995, there were 40 crab-picking houses in Virginia. Now there are less than 10. It’s a way of life that’s going away and has pretty much been depleted. I feel like I’m on uncharted waters now, but this is my identity.” (The Virginian-Pilot, 4/18/08, page 10, Sandra J. Pennecke)

Across the globe in South Africa, fourth-generation family member Murray Dale found his passion in the family auction business after pursuing another path. Dale completed a business degree and was set to become an accountant. He went to the UK to work in banking and finance. But one day, as he was walking past a travel agency, he knew he wanted to return to South Africa and join the family business. He now manages the Durban branch of Dales Bros auctioneers, which specializes in furniture, collectibles, and cars. (Daily News (South Africa), 4/18/08, page 9)

Unfortunately, I don’t have the opportunity to ask Murray or Ray what drives their passion for the family business. And I suspect that if I interviewed 100 passionate next-generation members, their stories would each be somewhat unique. It is not likely that many would be able to tell you how their passion was born.

But, drawing from my experience with scores of family business clients, I believe that we can pinpoint a number of actions that will increase the next generation’s passion for the business. These actions may not result in achieving the level of passion the elder generation would hope for, but they certainly should help.


  • Speak positively about the business as the next generation is growing up. Painting an appealing picture of the business is much more likely to instill passion than complaining about the long hours, the tough competition, and the challenges of working with relatives.
  • Position employment as an opportunity, not an obligation. Next-generation members can only develop passion on their own; it can’t be forced on them. So, allow the next generation the opportunity to pursue their interests and find out where their true passions lie.
  • Create opportunities for people with different skill sets to participate. By allowing next-generation members to translate their personal passions, interests, and strengths to the business, you are much more likely to get a fit.
  • Leave the door open for family members to enter later in life if they need to try out something else first. Young adults take a lot more time to arrive at their final career paths today than they did even 20 years ago. By forcing a decision too early on, you may force the next generation to opt out of the family business rather than opt in.
  • Incorporate the family’s values into the business, so it is something the family can be proud of. The more pride you can develop in the business from a young age, the more likely that pride will turn to passion.

Following these suggestions will not guarantee a passionate next generation. But it should certainly increase the odds.





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