Business Talk, Family Talk

A Small Family Business

A Small Family Business (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In as much as I have held this blog sacred from being invaded by our family business in any form or shape, I have had people visit my site and ask why there is no mention of the family business at all anywhere in this entire blog. Well, isn’t it obvious?

A family business, especially one that has spanned more than one generation, like ours has, can be all-consuming. This is the domain of a particular breed of specially skilled people who are extremely passionate and committed to their craft, to their vision, to their obsession about that one goal. It’s not for the faint of heart nor the willy-nilly-dip-your-toe-to-test-the-water types. Yes, it has been known to break up marriages, drive spouses and offsprings to years of psychotherapy and all sorts of pharmacological concoctions from the resulting dysfunctions It has even resulted in sensational lawsuits and indictments. Famous examples are the stories of the Mondavis and the Guccis. (If you want the sordid details, get the books! They’re all entertaining reads.  They make the telenovelas and drama series on TV seem so amateur!)

On the other hand, because the bedrock of all small businesses are family businesses, most successful empires started out as good old family businesses. Some have continued on and have grown into formidable monster organizations.

Take such names as Rothschilds: They are the oldest family dynasty dating back to the 1700’s. They are known as the richest bankers in the world and then later for their much-coveted wines.  They have since branched off to a multitude of businesses.  There are the Murdochs, who have built their media empire, the Agnellis of Fiat, and the Waltons of Walmart, to name a few.

Certainly, given the right vision when the stars are all aligned, so to speak, partnered with a wise family member who has a solid long-term growth plan that includes an organized succession plan, it’s easy to see how the hard work, obsessive and unrelenting dedication from a group of related individuals can really pay off.  And it can become so intense among family members because each member feels they are working for each other, that each is looking out for the other, and that in the end, it will all be for the family’s glory.

Trouble begins when there is no plan, when parents play favorites, when unqualified members of the family are given plum positions with fat undeserved compensation packages, when immaturity is tolerated, when some narcissistic members pursue only their self-promotion, or when a faction becomes greedier than the others. These not only undermine more qualified family members but it demoralizes the professional hires who have to live with or even prop up the incompetent “COO” (Child Of Owner).

Did I mention about the children who end up neglected, ignored, unheard, and ultimately disrespected because of the obsession with the business? It is not unheard of for some members to live and breathe their work, to the extent that they have ignored the other aspects of their lives—-their family, spouses, children, other interests, or friends, if there are any left to speak of. It is also not uncommon for many family business leaders, and even their members, to just have one another as friends, although, if the business were not there, what would bind these people together, one wonders. There just is not enough time to cultivate outside relationships in such an intense all-consuming environment. All relationships need time with physical and mental presence, not the “I’m here but I’m not really here. I’m talking to New York negotiating a deal as we speak” type of scenario.

And so, to those of you who are in family businesses, please don’t make the mistakes our first generation members (and some of us too!) have made:

1. Don’t talk about the business at the dinner table or during your son’s soccer game or your daughter’s gymnastic meet.

2. Do go to your son’s football game, even practices, faithfully. Don’t be on your cell phone the entire time either. Watch, cheer, comment, encourage, praise. It can only be genuine if you’re engaged in the sport and your child.

3. Don’t go on a family vacation and take one of your assistants or subordinates, so you can put in a few hours each day of work. Not good if you want to stay married, with children.

4. Do have at least one meal with the family everyday, especially when your kids are young. When they are grown, they’re gone! You will have lost that golden opportunity to really get to know them and they you. Ever wonder how some kids say they don’t know their parents at all?  Don’t be that parent!

5. Same goes for your spouse. You chose him/her to be with you, hopefully until death.  But you have to be there talking, not paying lip service, genuinely interested in what’s going on in their lives.  And the fact that you work to get the bills paid (or contribute greatly to it) is beside the point.  Relationships need work.  Get off your phone, email, text, whatever.

6. Don’t pick up the phone after 2100h every weekday or on weekends from your co-worker-in-the-family-business parent or sibling when you know it’s to talk about work. They may stew over it but they’ll learn to respect the time. Unless it’s a dire emergency that can’t wait until the next morning, why does the conversation have to take place at night?

7. Try to go on vacation where your business is not. As your family business grows, this may be difficult. But at the outset, you just have to ask yourself, is this a working trip or a vacation?  Working vacations should ideally be few and rare occasions.  Come to think of it, isn’t that a contradiction of terms?

8. At family reunions, talk about the kids, your interests, aging parents’ issues, and a host of other things. Just not the family business. You dwell on that 10-14 hours a day already. Get physical with the kids. Watch a show with them. Play touch football. Anything! Just don’t congregate at someone’s patio and group-ruminate on your next business move on a sunny afternoon and the rest of the family is around. It’s so disrespectful of family as a biological, psychological, and even societal institution.

9. Do not solve a family issue with a business solution and don’t solve a business problem with a family solution. Say, Junior can’t seem to keep a job anywhere. Or maybe he has not bothered to look for one. You decide to bring him in and make him work at your hardware business. He is given a desk and a position. This can only spell trouble unless you will single-handedly mentor him and there are very strict rules you set forth and will not bend when it’s convenient. It would be a recipe for disaster. And even if you took it on, if Junior is unprepared, does not have the right education, does not have the personality nor the drive for the job, you risk having people you hired lose respect for you and for the business. You also risk losing whatever relationship you have with your son. Ever wonder why the Lauders of the Estee Lauder business empire sent their heir-apparent son to work somewhere else for eight years before returning to the family business and rise to the top position?

There are way too many issues to cover when it comes to family businesses and I have no desire to take them on here.

Enough said already. Just as there should be clear separation of church and state, so should there be separation of family time from business work time.


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2 Responses to Business Talk, Family Talk

  1. MOL says:

    A lot of elders said that money is the root of all evil. I disagree. Money is very neutral. It’s a series of coins and printed paper. However, it’s the worship of money that is truly evil. How many times have we heard the stories of families practically killing one another over money. It’s very sad. I have seen it happen even to some of my family members—my parents’ relatives, cousins, extended families. You know what? In the end, nobody wins. And relationships are forever destroyed. What a shame!


  2. Every parent and child should read this. family should come first and not money/work. I like the way you said it that family are there for each other. A lot of us forget that. Even close siblings part ways when they get older because of money and any form of material things like properties. People should not forget the most important things in life- you spouse, kids, parents, siblings. treasure them. great post.


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