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Don't Allow Family Conflicts to Fester
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Don't Allow Family Conflicts to Fester

Poor communication and long-standing resentments hurt families and their businesses.

The story began when a 63-year-old man I’ll call Peter came into our office and complained that his son, Lars, had changed the locks on the doors of their family business.

He was locked out. It was an artisan enterprise, which I’ll call Crafted Home Services, that Peter owned; he employed his adult son and non-family employees. He wanted us to help work out their father-son relationship.

In my experience, I’ve learned that there often are many layers to the family-business onion. We applied a systematic process to start the unpeeling.

Peter was 100 percent owner of Crafted Home Services, which had been started by his father, John, who was 91, but who seemed only marginally involved. Peter and Lars worked together, but they had major disagreements about how to run the small but successful company. A second son, Leif, had his own lifestyle enterprise that complemented Crafted Home Services. Leif ran his business out of the Crafted Home Services basement.

Lars did not get along with his younger brother, in part because he resented that Leif got a discounted price to rent the basement.

We held an orientation meeting where the family members could share their goals. This gathering included the entire family, including the grandmother, Peter’s wife, his sons’ wives and a sister. They wanted us to help them improve family harmony, clarify company roles and responsibilities, and manage the tension between the two brothers. It all seemed reasonable and routine. We had an agreement and got to work.

To get a better perspective of the issues, concerns and challenges that faced the family business, we individually interviewed each of these family members. We learned that the family had a history of poor communication and didn’t manage their differences well. In fact, tensions had been present for years, and grandfather John had not been in his son’s home for more than five years. We also identified that family members were concerned about Lars’ use of alcohol.

What would you do next as a consultant in this situation?

Many “isms”—alcoholism, sexism, racism, narcissism—frequently go unmentioned and are held in secret shame. In family businesses, these problems ruin the communication, trust and intimacy that are so necessary for an effective business. Lars’ potential alcoholism made it difficult to move ahead, and made it hard to think about succession planning, which arose as another layer of the onion.

That’s when we asked how the succession process had gone when Peter took over the business from the original entrepreneur, his father John. The story opened up the deepest problem and helped turn the family toward a healing process.

We found out that when grandfather John started going to Florida for winter vacations, son Peter would remodel the front offices. Each year, John’s office got smaller and smaller, until one year, when he returned, his office was gone; he had been reduced to a bench in the shop. That’s when John stopped going to Peter’s home. Communication within the family had broken down. Succession seemed more like revolt.

That sense of mutiny and rebellion also seethed between Peter and his employee son Lars, and in the jealousy between Lars and Leif over the special rental rate. We had reached the core and could now help the family meet their goals.

These were the elements of our action plan and we helped facilitate communication where needed.

  • With loving concern, the family requested that Lars undergo an assessment about his alcohol use.
  • Father and son (Peter and Lars) talked about their expectations of each other and what they needed from each other to thrive.
  • Family members learned and practiced collaborative team skills.

On the business side, we made other specific recommendations.

  • Father and son should openly discuss their working relationship and how to collaborate and manage Crafted Home Services.
  • The company should develop a business plan with formal succession elements for continued success.
  • They should create an active board of directors that included outside advisors.

Improvement took years, and life does not proceed neatly, like in a fairy tale. But we learned that, in time, Lars went through treatment and became emotionally and physically healthy. In his better frame of mind, Peter sold the company to his son, Lars. Brothers Lars and Leif communicate honestly and both businesses became more successful.

In a final healing, grandfather John reconciled with Peter, thanks to Peter’s wife and her daughter-in-law, Lars’ wife. He now goes to his son’s home for the holidays.

Tom Hubler (tomh@thehublergroup.com) is president of Hubler for Business Families, a family business consulting firm.

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