At a recent trade association annual meeting, I was asked to do an afternoon "breakout" session with a group of fifty business owners and their spouses.
The subject matter, "Creating Shared Goals" among the owners of a family business, with a particular emphasis on "how did nice people like us get in a situation like this?"
Afterwards Ed, one of the business owners who had been in the session, approached me. I remembered him because he had been sitting in the front of the room, and I noted him because he seemed very interested in everything I was saying.
During the session, I saw that he would look at me and then look at his wife.
Over and over again, looking at me, looking at his wife. He asked for my card, which wasn't unusual in this type of environment, but most people ask out of a sense of obligation or good manners, and have absolutely no intention of ever calling.
A few weeks went by after the meeting and Ed called me. He said that if I was ever going to be in their part of the country, I should let him know because he would like to meet with me.
It seemed to me as though he was really frustrated and that there was something on his mind, but he didn't want to set up a consultation with me outright. A while after that, when I realized that I was going to be in his area for a couple of days between some other meetings, I called him for an appointment.
Ed and Betty live in a small town about 25 miles outside a major metropolitan area, where they own a large wholesale distributorship .
He gave me directions to his place, telling me to get off the interstate, drive through town, and turn down the street that bore his family's name. (This was an clue how important the family and the company are to this town). What he told me next really got my attention:
"Go a couple miles and you'll see a private road leading off to your left, and you can follow it back to the warehouse and the offices. Right there at the intersection, you'll also see a new ranch style brick house. Whatever you do, don't look toward the house."
"Just come on back, park where you see the sign for the office, tell someone who you are and they will come get me."
Needless to say I was a little confused about why I was supposed to avoid looking at the house, but I didn't ask him to explain. And when I arrived for the appointment, I did exactly as he told me - I turned up the two-track and drove toward the office.
Although I desperately wanted to, I did not look toward the house.
Family owned companies combine every slight, every misunderstanding, and every unexplained feeling into a web that seems at first too complex, too sticky to solve. And yet, when people do talk - it can make all the difference.
The quandary about treating the children (no matter how old they are) fairly when it comes to succession and inheritance is one of the principle stumbling block to planning. It is often the foundation of the "wait and see" approach that can so quickly lead to family, business, and financial disaster.
I wanted to illustrate the real-life situations I have encountered during a lifetime of working with family owned companies. So when Dan Elash Ph.D. and I collaborated to create an interactive consultant-in-print a couple of years ago, Ed and Betty's story was told in detail.
If you are a business owner how will you navigate these perilous waters. And if you are a professional solution provider how will you help your clients steer around these boulders just beneath the surface of an otherwise calm looking stream?
As the publisher of "Doing It Right" it occurred to me that we should open up the entire contents, put them on our web site where you can use then without charge. And so we did.
I hope you'll go there and read the rest of Ed and Betty's story!
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Wayne Messick is the publisher of "Doing It Right" an interactive consultant in print for business owners focused on exceptional success in the 21st.Century.
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