The family business had done much right. Two bright young siblings were in the business. Each had excellent educations including MBAs from top business schools. Each had several years of related outside experience, working in large public businesses. Each returned to the family business to fill challenging positions with clear bottomline accountability.
And then the rubber hit the road. Reality proved intolerant of neat plans. The siblings’ jobs turned out to be much more challenging than expected. Problems they were expected to solve turned out to be intransigent–requiring years of trial and error, of frustration, additional unbudgeted investments, and, ultimately, a change in management philosophy that Dad only slowly embraced.
Family tensions escalated. The siblings’ competence and suitability for leadership were deeply questioned. Tears were shed. On many occasions, career choices were doubted as the next generation mused about jobs in other, less stressful, environments. There was talk of selling the business.
But slowly, painfully, the ship began to turn. Step-by-step, business performance was improved. The younger generation’s argument that hiring talent and experience made more sense for a growing business than “doing it all” (as Dad had done in the early days), gradually prevailed. Red ink turned to black after years of persistent, disciplined learning from experience.
As the years passed, young people matured, older folks mellowed, and all learned to work more effectively as a team. Father and siblings grew to appreciate each others’ strengths and to accept each others’ inherent foibles. Children learned that they could not change their father. Parents learned that their adult children would have their own approach. Those mutual recognitions, however, formed the basis of a new respect and flexibility. They became an ownership team and just as importantly, became perceived as an ownership team. It truly became not just Dad’s business where the kids worked, but a family business in the truest sense.
The process required a decade and millions of dollars. The outcome was often in doubt. The father, a powerful entrepreneur, astute businessman and strong, original personality, deeply hoped his children could succeed in building constructive and satisfying lives. His presence, persistence, and perceptiveness were key elements of the success of the process. Ultimately, his flexibility and willingness to accept his mature children’s differences in managerial style and philosophy also proved essential.
The children exhibited similar patience and persistence related to their father, business conditions, and their own maturity and development. Ultimately, their own talents, applied to a well-structured organization, proved effective from the perspectives of business and family success.
The third crucial element, however, was the constant development of the business organization– attracting and learning to manage talented non-family executives, learning from experience, attending to detail, chipping away at problems and gradually finding ways to succeed. When all of the key business units ultimately produced strong profits, it felt as if the company had weathered a fierce storm at sea. Thanks to an experienced captain, committed crew, a worthy vessel and a little luck, through hard work and by never saying die, the ship of this family business now sails on smoother seas in bright sun. While the future can’t be known, it is embraced with confidence by two generations who found ways of working together.