Success in a family business is a lot about love. Since we’re near Valentine’s Day, I would even say that a successful family business is all about love.
In my opinion, the closeness of family is what separates those who own a business from all other work relationships. The entanglement of business and family complicates the work environment because it is difficult to balance work with family. Family life and work life intertwine; there’s no place to hide when there is stress in one or the other.
The crossover can easily overwhelm individuals. Friction causes pain and isolation. Disagreements get personal. There’s no way to get away.
I believe the answer is disarmingly but deceptively simple: love. Regularly demonstrated among family members, love is the foundation of a productive, successful business family. I saw it unfold first-hand between two brothers and their family business.
Brothers in conflict
John and Jim grew up in their family’s manufacturing business in Minnesota. Older brother John became an integral part right after he graduated from high school. He sacrificed his college career to help his father complete crucial government contracts that greatly enhanced the business.
Younger brother Jim was able to go to college and earn a business degree. After graduating, Jim traveled in Europe for the summer.
When Jim returned from his three-month European holiday, his father, Franklin, recruited him into the business. Jim joined at the same pay level as his brother John. They both held titles of vice president.
John was deeply hurt. He felt taken for granted. For two years his unhappiness festered until he couldn’t take it anymore. John left the family business, moved across the river to Wisconsin and started his own company as a direct competitor. All communication broke down. John no longer had contact with his family.
Years passed. Children were born who didn’t meet their cousins. Both businesses thrived, but John and his wife and children never ventured across the river for family gatherings or holidays.
One cold December evening, John was driving on an icy rural road when he came upon a car angled on the side of the road. A good Samaritan, he stopped to offer assistance. As he stood there, another car, driven by a drunk driver, hit John’s car, pushed it into the stranded car and crushed his knee between them.
John was airlifted to a local hospital for emergency surgery. As he awoke from the anesthesia he became aware that his estranged brother, Jim, was standing beside his bed. He felt Jim holding his hand and heard him repeating, “I love you. I love you.”
The tragic event renewed their relationship. Eventually the family reconciled, the two companies merged, and the family business, as well as the family, was healed and whole. Love—expressed, demonstrated, initiated—started strengthening family bonds that overcame past hurts and misunderstandings.
Statistics of love
Family businesses comprise nine out of 10 enterprises in North America. Yet operating a business as a family is no easy task: personalities add an extra level of pressure and potential conflict. This is statistically evident when you realize that less than one-third (30 percent) of families control their business into the second generation, and only about one in 10 (12 percent) are still viable into the third generation. That’s why it’s so important not to take love for granted.
Based on my experience, the largest obstacle to family business succession planning is poorly expressing appreciation, recognition and love. This blind spot crosses genders, generations and ages. Working with family business clients, I have talked with owner-entrepreneurs who desperately want to know whether what they have done—creating and maintaining a successful business—is recognized as making a difference. They want to know that their families love them.
Of course, adult children love their parents, right? There’s the rub—many take their parents for granted and fail to tell them they love them or appreciate the business platform that’s been built.
Across generations I’ve often heard, “Oh, they know I love them.” Or “It’s obvious, I don’t have to talk about it all the time.” I usually reply, “Of course you love them, but let them know it, too.”
Strengthening the love in your family helps the bottom line. Here are three simple ways everyone can strengthen the family and the business:
Regularly and genuinely tell each other that you love and appreciate them and what they mean to you.
Spend time individually with other generations outside of the business to build the emotional equity of your relationship. Get involved with each other’s lives.
Actively engage each other through family meetings to share your family values on money and wealth, and help develop purposeful lives through stewardship and service.
With Valentine’s Day as your inspiration, create every opportunity possible to build the emotional equity of your family even as you build the equity of your company. It costs nothing, takes very little time and it works.
Tom Hubler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Hubler for Business Families, a family business consulting firm.