All’s Fair In Love And War (And Family Business)

Every Business Owner wants their small empire to become a Success Story for the ages.

That’s why many of us become entrepreneurs in the first place, to risk life and limb and lines of credit to turn $100 into $101, then multiply that to infinity — or whatever the equivalent is in your industry.

But what happens when a family business Success Story leads to a sequel with a plot so downright awful, no one will ever want to speak to each other again?

Enter, my client.

This woman is the matriarch of a family business that she and her husband rebuilt after her father’s poor decisions took it to the brink of collapse.

Together, she and her husband picked up the pieces and gradually nurtured the business back to health while their children grew up running around the office and watching their parents work. There was nothing more important to this woman than family, and having a business that allowed her to play an active role in her children’s lives remained a top priority.

By the time she reached out to me, her children were grown, working in the business and bringing their own kids with them. The joy of having the opportunity to help raise her grandchildren was more important to her than the profits on the balance sheet.

But while the business excelled and grew every year, the ghost of her father’s failure haunted her, leaving her reluctant to share a single financial detail about the business with her family. This made projections and planning for future growth very difficult, as you can imagine.

In the context of this fear also resided a major succession challenge.

Her children had grown up knowing the business would be theirs when the the time came for Mom and Dad to retire.

Where was the challenge?

Her son possessed her work ethic, driving the business forward almost singlehandedly. From his initiatives alone, revenue doubled over the previous 5 years, and the next half-decade looked to turn out even better.

My client’s daughter had nothing to do with any of it. She had not paid attention to the family business as a child, so she possessed zero knowledge for running, managing, or growing it.

The original plan to offer her children a 50/50 split now made no sense given the mismatch of effort.

At any time, her son could leave the family business and start a competitor, leaving his sister with a shell of a business.

In this close, loving family, what exactly would be fair?

My client’s son had it in his heart to be generous toward his sister even though she had earned no share in his success. At the same time, if she insisted on honoring her parents’ original promise of a 50/50 split, her brother and father would leave to start a competitor, decimating both family and business in a single move.

Yet this young woman’s pride kept her focused on what she wanted, not what she earned. The story she had been told since she was a little girl was no longer true.

“This will belong to both of you when we are gone,” was a promise she took literally — as in, that 50/50 split she expected.

That’s why I facilitated a series of family meetings so everyone could share their perspectives without judgment or criticism.

Once I was able to allow everyone to see themselves on the same page and agree on the priority of keeping both the business and the family together, an easy decision emerged.

No, I cannot say that a single feather remained unruffled. But my client’s daughter relented on her demands for 50/50 ownership, while her son agreed to give her more than a fair share in the end.

Today, that company has grown from a local business to a regional powerhouse and embodies the matriarch’s vision of everything that a family business should be.

Yes, business is messy. And family can be messier.

But put the two together, and you get something that can only thrive if everyone is willing to chip in and be fair.

Are you ready to become the next success story?