what makes a family business successful

Driven to Commit Patricide (Part 2 of 2)

When we left off last week, I was in the courthouse bathroom, having texted my wife about my surreal elevator ride up with the accused murdered. As I went to wash up, I sensed someone entering behind me. Yes, you guessed it, it was my “new friend”.

I thought about our similarities; same generation, only son of a relatively wealthy, successful man, a father with whom we did not always see eye-to-eye, having spent decades trying to live up to our parents’ expectations. Each of us had lost our fathers within the past decade, albeit under very different circumstances (cancer vs bludgeoning).

I tried to put myself in his shoes here today, and wondered about how I would feel, on trial for having killed my father, and having pleaded not guilty.

Had I been unfairly accused of killing my father, faced with serious jail time, I am reasonably certain that I would not have looked so calm, serene and, I daresay, happy.

Something didn’t compute in my head, there was a disconnect between what I was seeing and the vibe that I was getting, with what I had expected to see. In just a few minutes, my mind was made up, and in my head I had already found this man guilty.

In my heart, however, I was less certain. The stories that came up during the testimony of many witnesses over months of the trial painted a picture of the murder victim that made it very hard to accept that the “good guy”, the son, could go to jail for a long time for getting rid of the “bad guy”, the father.

The rest of the day was relatively uneventful, and the trial continued for another few weeks before the case was given to the jury. They came back with their guilty verdict after 4 days, the announcement met with shock and disbelief.

The case may be coming back on appeal in the fall, meanwhile my “friend” is behind bars, having already once been denied bail pending that appeal. There may be more courtroom drama coming, but we have plenty to chew on already, and hopefully some lessons we can learn.

No, this will not be about how to get away with murder, but more about the ways that wealthy families can go about their business and family lives without the murder instinct ever being triggered.

Parents usually control the family wealth, doing so as their children grow up and mature. There is often a tendency to want to continue to control not just the wealth, but also the children, for far longer than what would normally be considered a healthy and useful time period.

“It’s for their own good”, we tell ourselves as parents, “I know what is best for them, and I have their best interests at heart”. Besides, I worked so hard/waited so long myself (choose one, or both).

It takes a heck of a lot of courage to let go of that control, and to trust that the job we did as parents will be sufficient to allow our children to assume increasing amounts of decision making over the family’s wealth.

We have strayed from the case at hand to some generalities here, but that was always my intention.

“How could this family tragedy have been avoided” may be the specific question, but “how can families learn from the mistakes of others” is what I am really after here.

The natural order of things is for the older generation to die before their children, and thankfully this is usually the case. Having the children wish for their parents’ early demise is one thing, patricide quite another.

Transitioning family wealth, and the decision-making and control around that wealth seem far less intuitive, and not necessarily part of any “natural order”.

From my view, this was not a case of killing someone to get at their money. A son who finally snapped after having been controlled and belittled for his whole life, by a bitter man who clearly had issues in his own family of origin?

That would be my sad conclusion.

Driven to Commit Patricide (Part 1 of 2)

There was a court case in New Brunswick (Canada) last year that really attracted my attention. It was a murder trial, the result of the bludgeoning death of a high profile, wealthy man, just one province away from my home, and not too far from our family cottage.

What also raised my interest was that even though the murder dated back to 2011, the arrest was only made in 2013, and the trial was finally set to begin in September 2015.

Since I work with business families and families of wealth, the fact that the man being tried was the victim’s only son also piqued my curiosity. A person driven to commit patricide, wow, you don’t see that every day, certainly not in small town New Brunswick.

Instead of recounting the background details of this case, here is a link to a National Post story from Christie Blatchford, who has covered her share of newsworthy trials.

Trial of Dennis Oland, accused of murdering millionaire father, reveals dysfunctional family

This news account came after the first day of the long awaited trial, so it sets the stage nicely without giving away the ending.

I began following the trial on Twitter when it began in September. There were a handful of local journalists who attended every day, and they gave their followeres a blow-by-blow account of every courtroom interaction, day in day out, week after week.

Then one day in November, I was at my cottage, and I decided to take a two-hour drive to check things out for myself. I had no idea what a surreal experience I was in for.

I told myself that I needed to take this trip, as sort of a research project, because how many more chances would I get to have a front seat at a murder trial making headlines.

The trial that day was set to begin at 1:30 PM, so I left the cottage to make the drive to St.John around 11 AM. I parked my car around 1:15, having underestimated the time the drive would take.

I hurried to the courthouse and suddenly realized that I had no idea where I was going or even whether I would be allowed in. I noticed a small group of reporters outside, waiting, with cameras, for the arrival of the man on trial.

I approached the front door and noticed the security system, not unlike what you would see at any airport. I acted like I knew what I was doing, removed my watch and belt, and made my way through the metal detector. Once on the other side, I gathered my things, and while putting my belt back on, I saw a familiar face, a few years younger than me.

“Hey, who is that guy, he looks familiar?” I thought to myself. “Oh, that’s right, it’s the guy who’s on trial, that’s where I know that face from”. (WTF!?) The smiling man came through security right behind me, with his lawyer, and he politely said hello to the courthouse staff and headed for the elevator.

I suddenly realized that I still didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t want to ask, trying to look like I belonged there, not like some interloper. So without thinking about it too much, I raced for the elevator to join the party of two, knowing that the floor I wanted was also the one that they were going to.

A few hours ago I was at my cottage, and now I was riding in an elevator with an accused killer and his lawyer. The things I wouldn’t do to learn more about business families and the dysfunctions they breed.

The elevator stopped and I allowed them to exit ahead of me. I noticed a buzzing courtroom in front of us, and decided to try and find a bathroom.

During my visit to the facilities, I texted my wife about my surreal elevator ride, and she quickly responded, asking whether my “new friend” had been shackled and handcuffed. “No, but no worries either, he doesn’t have any reason to want to kill me”.

To be continued next week.

Family Business Flashback

Last week I was called upon to do the “good son” thing, and I obliged and brought my mother 6 hours down highway 401 for the funeral of her eldest brother. Meeting up with many cousins that I have lost touch with stirred up long forgotten memories.

The reflections that events bring about are only useful if we take the time to process them, and so thank you for accompanying me on this journey. I will try my best to make this entertaining and educational for you as well, as usual.

The flashback begins in the late 1970’s, when, as a teenager, I began my first summer job, working in the plant of the steel fabrication business that my father founded before I was born. The funeral that I attended last week was for the plant manager, uncle Stu.

My immdediate supervisor that summer was my cousin Mark, from my Dad’s side, and his boss, the plant manager, was my mother’s brother Uncle Stu.

Uncle Stu had initially been a partner with my Dad in the business, but somewhere along the way, during the early days and the struggle to attain profitability, Dad ended up buying out both of his partners.

I was still a kid while this was unfolding, so the details of how things went down are not clear to me, but I can tell you that, decades later, the relationship between these brothers-in-law was never the same.

My mother is a saint to me, and to learn that she was not 100% sold on making the trip to her brother’s funeral says a lot about how their relationship was strained. Going into business with family members can have its drawbacks, especially in the family harmony department.

So during this first week as a teenager in the plant, I soon realized that everyone knew who I was, because my Dad was the big boss. Uncle Stu would walk through the shop at least twice each day, and clearly everyone knew who he was too. His slow, determined gait, coupled with his menacing gaze, were hard to ignore.

Not that Dad’s trips through the plant were easy to miss, but the contrast, in retrospect, was huge. Dad’s pace and style was more “bull in a China shop”, but he was also more likely to stop and talk to someone after catching them doing something right. Of course you never knew if you were getting a compliment or catching hell until he was done.

So here I am, 15 years old, running this huge drill machine, with a whole 5 minutes of training. Everyone knows who I am, I know my cousin Mark and nobody else, except everyone’s bosses, my Uncle Stu and my Dad, who come through every once in a while.

Some seemingly random guy with a beard, a few years older than me (I had just started shaving) stops by to chat with me. I realize a few days later that the guy was my cousin, Uncle Stu’s son, Fred, who I had never seen with a beard until then.

So all these thoughts are going through my head during the funeral, while Fred is eulogizing his Dad, and I am sitting next to Uncle Stu’s youngest sister, my Mom, who is surely reflecting on their shared and complex past.

But the biggest flashback was still to come, after the ceremony, when guests were invited to share a bite to eat and continue sharing memories. Mom had another brother and a sister, both of whom have passed on, who owned neighbouring cottages on a lake, where we often visited them during the summers of my childhood.

Jim, a decade or so older than me, who had married one of my cousins, reminded me that as a youngster, I had confided in him at the cottage by the lake, that “I don’t wanna do what my Dad does”.

I do not remember sharing that thought with him, or anyone else for that matter. But I do remember thinking it, many, many times.

Family business. Plenty of drama for the whole family.

Rest in peace Uncle Stu.

 Does Father REALLY Know Best?

The expression “Father knows best” probably came before the TV show of the same name. But I could be wrong. I always thought that Yogi Berra was a nickname based on the cartoon character, but now I am pretty sure it was the other way around.

The subject of fatherly advice came to me this week as I listened to a presentation by Norman Hardie, a well-known wine maker, at a Toronto client dinner hosted by JC Clark Investments.

I was invited to the dinner by the good folks at JC Clark as their guest despite not yet being a client of theirs. Not only that, I was lucky enough to be seated next to the speaker during dinner, and learned a good deal about the art and science of vinification.

Hardie talked at length about the way he got where he is today, which was by no means a straight line, and how many times he relied on the same pieces of advice that he had received from his father.

His Dad had counseled him to always learn from the best, and to never be afraid to ask for help. Norm related a handful of occasions when these principles helped him make key advances in his career.

This also had me flash back to a time about a decade ago, when I was watching the stock market on a daily basis, and therefore also reading publications directed at investors like myself.

My favourite read was Richard Russell’s Dow Theory Letters. He was already well into his 80’s when I discovered him, and I can’t tell you how often he related the story about how he got started in finance.

His father, he repeated often, told him to go work for the banks. When he asked “why?” his Dad replied, “Because that’s where the money is”. This man then spent over 6 decades of his career based on some early key fatherly advice.

These days I have been putting some of my father’s advice into practice, and interestingly enough, there are some similarities with his words of wisdom and those of Norman Hardie’s dad.

I recall when we went from being a steel fabricator that sent almost all of its finished products out to others to be hot-dip glavanized, to Dad’s ambitious move to design and build our own in-house galvanizing facility.

Steel fabrication is something he knew well, having apprenticed in that in Austria as a teenager. But setting up a plant around a huge tank to melt zinc (to over 800 degrees) to then dip the finished pieces of steel into a bath of liquid zinc was quite another endeavour.

One of his first moves was to join the American Hot Dip Galvanizers Association, an organization that connected him to many experts who knew the field much better than him, and he in turn learned from some of the best.

This idea of collaborating, getting help from others and in turn sharing knowledge with a larger group was something that came naturally to him.

I have followed that path myself over recent years. Just because I had worked in my own family’s business, did that automatically make me qualified to consult to other families in business? Some people do just that, but for me it was not nearly enough.

I have joined the Family Firm Institute, the Purposeful Planning Institute, the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise, and of course the Institute of Family Enterprise Advisors. In addition, I have taken courses in conflict resolution, coaching, and Bowen family systems theory.

Dad’s advice has been serving me well recently.

You may not have noticed that the men in the stories above were all following their fathers’ advice in situations where Dad had nothing personal to gain from their sons’ actions.

Unfortunately, in business families, there are still too many occasions where Dads (and Moms) give their children advice, but in many ways that advice is self-serving.

“Go find something you love to do” and “come and work for me, you will love it” may sound similar to the person speaking, but to the listener there is a huge difference.

Yes, huge.