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Return of the Prodigal Son: Looking at Parable in a Family Business Context

Ben, a 38-year-old man, worked in his family’s manufacturing company from the time he graduated from college with an engineering degree. His father was president of the company, which was founded by Ben’s grandfather, and Ben assumed that he would be the third generation member of his family to lead the company. After all, he had dedicated most of his adult life to the family business, had forsaken opportunities elsewhere to remain in his family’s hometown, had tolerated his father’s constant haranguing over business decisions, and had convinced himself and the rest of his immediate family that all of the sacrifices would be worth it once his father stepped down and Ben assumed the company’s leadership. Unfortunately, it was not to be.


Ben’s younger brother, Samuel, 36 years old, was employed by an international consulting firm after he graduated with an MBA from an Ivy League University. Samuel traveled the world as a business consultant, developed an excellent reputation and identity, and accumulated a fair amount of personal wealth. He had never dreamed of working in his family’s business. That is, until he married. When Samuel married his childhood sweetheart, the couple decided that Samuel’s business travel would be inimical to the kind of family life they imagined having. So Samuel sat down with his dad and discussed the possibility of working in the family business. His father was thrilled, and let little time go by before he announced to Ben, the rest of the family, employees and almost anyone else within earshot that the company would now have two, third-generation leaders, with Ben in charge of operations and Samuel handling strategy and sales. Indeed, he also let it be known that he was now more confident and ready for transitioning out of the business himself.


Everyone was pleased with this new arrangement, except Ben. Ben felt angry and betrayed by his father and his brother. The relationship between Ben and his father deteriorated, Samuel’s entry to the family business was anything but smooth, and a successful company began to demonstrate serious operational problems. This story illustrates some of the complex dynamics that can occur in families and between siblings and reveals some lessons that need to be appreciated by families who strive to collaborate in managing their wealth. Of course the story is not new – a version was told 2,000 years ago in the New Testament’s parable of the Prodigal Son.


In the parable (Luke 15:11-32) a man has two sons. The younger demands his share of his inheritance while his father is still living, and he goes off to a distant country where he “waste[s] his substance with riotous living,” and eventually has to take work as a swine herder. There, he apparently comes to his senses, decides to return home, and prepares for his father’s anger, intent on apologizing and asking for mercy. ­However, when he returns home, his father greets him with open arms, and hardly gives him a chance to express his apologies; in fact he celebrates his son’s return. The older brother becomes angry and resentful of his father’s treatment of his brother and at the apparent lack of reward for his own loyalty. But the father responds: “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”


This parable is often referred to as a story about the value of redemption. There are however, implications, as well, on a more secular level. In my experience as an advisor to families, fathers and sons often have very complex relationships. This seems to be particularly the case for successful fathers and their oldest sons (while this is based simply my own personal experience, it seems these relationships are most complex when the oldest son is also the father’s namesake).


Fathers often have mixed feelings about their sons: On the one hand, every father’s dream is to have his son follow in his footsteps. For very successful fathers this seems to be even more important, and yet, tragically, even more difficult for the sons to accomplish. I have worked with a number of families in which oldest sons could not meet their fathers’ expectations, either because of personal limitations or because the expectations were truly excessive and unrealistic. In these situations, however, the son’s struggle to please the father becomes almost obsessive, and accompanied by anger and resentment from both parties. In these families, it is not terribly unusual for other children to feel freer to embark on an independent life. After all, most of the family energy around pleasing and disappointing Dad has been expended in the relationship with the oldest son. Furthermore, on a deeper psychological level, the father may have initially taken some pleasure in seeing his younger son set off on an independent track, perhaps even engaging in a lifestyle that at some level the father himself may have wanted.


While the return of the Prodigal Son may be seen as signaling his redemption, it can also be viewed from the Father’s point of view as signaling his redemption as well, since it may be seen by him as affirmation that ultimately his goal of having his children follow in his footsteps was correct. Seen from the point of view of the Oldest Son, however, the return of the Prodigal Son could set off a thought process of betrayal, disappointment and affirmation that his sacrifices have not been recognized.


What are the lessons that can be learned from this story that are applicable to family business, wealth management or estate planning? It can be terribly challenging for sons to establish identities separate from their successful fathers. Neither trying to mirror Dad, nor setting off on a completely independent path is likely to bring unqualified admiration and approval. Fathers and sons need to understand the complexity of their relationships with each other because often they may struggle over business issues, or decisions about wealth management and family leadership, when the real issues are about loyalty, recognition, admiration and approval.


We can learn from this story that, despite different paths family members may take, acceptance and understanding are key ingredients of a family’s ultimate success and stability.


This article is reprinted with the publisher’s permission from the JOURNAL OF PRACTICAL ESTATE PLANNING, a bi-monthly journal published by CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business.





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