By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.
In January I was a speaker at the annual conference of the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship in San Diego. There were other presentations at the conference that were interesting and helpful too, but the one that really caught my attention was a panel of CEOs from successful family firms in the San Diego area. The title of the seminar was “What do family firms want from consultants?” The panelists discussed their most pressing concerns and the one that topped the list was how to create harmony among family members who work together. Although legal, financial and business consultants abound, these CEOs felt that they already had those matters covered. What they really want help with is communication and relationship skill building to create a meaningful and harmonious family/work life.
It’s not hard to understand why this is so important to these California CEOs, as well as those of you living in the Northwest. It’s one thing to run a successful enterprise, but if you have failed in your marriage, or you have alienated your siblings, or you have intimidated your children, then who do you share your successes with? Achieving harmony in personal relationships requires skill, time and commitment. As if that isn’t enough, accomplishing these goals is that much more difficult when you also work with the ones you love, which requires negotiating a business relationship as well as a personal one.
I have reported before on the research showing that entrepreneurs will spend exorbitant amounts of time at work and short their families. Entrepreneurs (both male and female by the way) are willing to work early and late almost every day, but rarely will they report to work late or leave early. Perhaps once a month, they may leave the office early on a Friday night to be with their families. Yet in spite of this entrepreneurs will tell you that their loved ones are more important to them than their work. It’s just that work is more compelling. Taking just one more phone call or putting the finishing touches to that important contract, or even solving an employee morale problem come before attending to the interpersonal relationships of CEOs in family firms.
When family members work together, it often turns into all work and no play.
The personal side of the family/business relationship is taken for granted. There seems to be a belief that “because we love each other and because we are family,” there is endless tolerance and support for work at the expense of the relationship. Apparently this lack of attention to the personal side is what ruined the Hanshaw brothers. While in southern California at the conference, I happened to read an Orange County newspaper and learned of the bitter feud between Jack and Randy Hanshaw. The brothers had been in business together for years, along with several other family members. They each had outside interests as well. Together and separately they amassed a fortune. Starting out as a milkman in the 1960s, Jack started buying liquor stores and then strip malls. His brother Randy soon discovered the untapped potential of Arizona real estate. Each invested in the other’s business and made it possible for others in the family to create wealth as well.
However, in 1994 Jack accused his brother Randy of cheating him and started a lawsuit. Randy hired his brother-in-law for his attorney, furthering the feuding within the family. In spite of repeated efforts to resolve the suit, it degenerated into “a highly emotional, mean-spirited war of brother against brother, with money no longer the real object” according to the judge involved. Because the brothers could not settle their dispute, the judge ruled to dissolve the partnership and appointed a reciever to divide the $6 million in property.
The receivership was humiliating enough for the brothers, but so enraged was Jack Hanshaw that he offered a $100,000 bribe to the reciever. Of course he was reported to the judge who then fined Jack another $700,000 for the criminal act. Oddly enough, it was discovered that Jack was the actual cheating brother. Not only did he attempt to bribe the receiver, a local bankruptcy attorney (and also my brother-in-law) but he had taken $500,000 of his brother Randy’s money!
How do these things happen? They happen when minute problems are ignored and business comes first. Left unresolved these minute problems grow into small issues, which grow into average-sized resentments, then expanding into large stone walls of bitterness. Brothers who shared the same bedroom as children grow into the bitterest of enemies, willing to do whatever it takes to get revenge.
How can these things be prevented? Obviously at the point where the Hanshaw brothers are, there is no turning back. They may never again be able to enjoy each other’s company. And sadly for the rest of the family, because the line has been drawn and sides have been taken, the entire family may never again be whole. But for those of you reading this column, prevention is simple if you follow the suggestions listed below. Remember that if you work in a family firm, most of your interactions with your family involve work. You need to give at least equal time to the personal side to keep communication, trust, love and respect healthy.
1. Take time away from work every day to talk with your family/business partners about something other than work. You might start the morning with coffee and sharing the crossword puzzle.
2. At least quarterly, arrange a retreat for the family firm that involves playing, such as a trip to the mountains to ski.
3. Discuss all problems no matter how small, whether they are work issues or not.
4. Allow for individual differences. Allow members to speak up in disagreement. Just because you are family and work together, does not mean you are all joined at the hip. So make room for new and different opinions and ways of doing things.
5. Hang in there when there is a problem. Don’t give up until you have a solution to the problem that is a winning one for everyone.
6. If things get out of hand, ask for professional help.
Families are composed of individuals who love each other and have a commitment to take care of each other. Businesses are composed of individuals too, but there is not always the same level of either caring or commitment. When you combine family and business the values of this hybrid may be confusing for people. Keep the rules clear. Healthy loving relationships should always come before business needs, just as those CEOs in San Diego realized. If you are communicating openly and loving unconditionally, then family members in family firms should be able to grow successful family/businesses.