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How Do I Bring My Son Back to the Business?

Dear Advisor:

My son, in his early 20s with a degree in economics, asked me if he could spend a couple of years pursuing his interest in writing.  He is pursuing his vocation with some degree of success and is able to support himself with his earnings plus interest on a bank account we set up for him.  He has had exposure to the business, working in the summers, and does not have a positive view of that experience.

We are a large industrial business, started by my father.  My wife and I own all the stock.  I am in my late 50s, have a good management team in place, and intend to run the business at least another 10 years.  However, I am concerned about our family’s role in the business in the future.

My question is how to approach my son now that the two years are about over?  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.  I do not know what steps I should take next besides the obvious one of talking one-on-one this summer.

Any advice would be appreciated.

Let me first commend you on your wish to ensure that your son not feel pressured to work in the business.  We sometimes see decisions to enter the business driven by guilt or obligation, and it is typically not a positive experience for anyone.

I see two things that your son demonstrates: commitment to a career and discipline in terms of fiscal management—both of which one would seek out in a family employee.  I also see a very obvious dissimilarity between his career and your business.  While your company is quite large and would surely have some opportunities that could capitalize on your son’s strengths and skills, the question remains, does he see any career appeal in the industry?

As you mention, the obvious thing to do is ask him.  I haven’t any knowledge of your son’s experience in the business (just that it wasn’t positive) or his relationship with family and non-family employees.  However, what I might suggest is that you offer him the opportunity to further explore his career and educational options moving forward, with the help of some professional guidance.  He is young and might well pursue several jobs before he settles into a career.  There are career coaches as well as a wide variety of analytical aptitude tools that might help him develop a better understanding of a “career fit.” Perhaps he would consider further formal education as well (an MBA perhaps)?

I would also suggest that you establish a somewhat formalized (if you have not already done so) educational process around the business for your son.  In our work as consultants to family businesses, next-generation development is a common assignment.  Opportunities for development include family meetings, working with sibling/cousin teams, educational programs on responsible ownership, inactive vs. active shareholders, governance, leadership development programs etc.  What we also find is that junior-generation members are sometimes more likely to share their concerns, hopes, and aspirations with a third party whom they feel is detached and objective.

In addition, while you did not mention any plans for retirement, there are many reasons to develop a succession process if you haven’t already started that.  In our experience, succession planning is a process that takes anywhere from five to 10 years.  And whether your children work in the business or not, they need to be a part of that process as future owners.  If your son chooses not to work in the family business, there are many other ways in which he can play a role (including a leadership role) as a shareholder.

So, please consider suggesting one or more of these options to your son as you approach him about his future career plans.





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