“You know you’re playing with fire, right?”
When I was formulating my thoughts for a book about family businesses, I told my brother about the idea. The above quip was his response. He’s not alone—throughout the interviews I conducted while gathering tales for this going-nowhere book this was a common response. People continually shared some trepidation about telling the tales of their family businesses, usually out of some combination of shame and regret. Even I, the author, had many second thoughts when I decided to begin this collection.
But why? Businesses come and go, and everyone has a family. Shouldn’t these just be tales of various businesses that have the added spice of having related people working there? Maybe, but that’s certainly not how it plays out in real life. Why do these tales of family businesses—large, medium, small, old, new—why do they all have the common thread of being somewhat volatile?
I think it boils down to a fundamental fact about people, and what makes us uncomfortable. Family businesses combine two things that routinely make us crazy—family and money. Many people find respite with their families after a long hard day at work—that line becomes very “blurry” in family businesses. Conversely, there are those who use work to escape family dysfunction—not so with those in family firms. When you work for or with your parents, grandparents, or other people involved in your personal life—the clock doesn’t stop at 5, even in the best situations. And if money is the root of all evil, then the implications for money plus family are dire.
Questions abound, usually unanswered, those in family employment. Where does the job description of “boss” stop and the role of “parent” begin? Which employees are “qualified” and which are there for “family patronage”? What happens when a family patriarch/boss becomes incapacitated or dies? Who carries the mantle from generation to generation? How does expansion affect the family dynamic? What happens when there are no more heirs willing to carry on said mantle?
It's a situation I have some familiarity with. My grandfather, Roy G. Monde, Jr., started a wholesale electrical supply business in 1965. Though there were lean and difficult years, the business—Progress Electric Supply Company—was largely successful. At one point in time, it was the largest single-site electrical distributor in the state of Pennsylvania, and the business employed about 40 at its height. Grandaddy, as we called him, passed away in 2002, and the business became entrusted to my mother and grandmother, both of whom had worked there for many years—my mother managing the lighting showroom and retail aspects of the business, my grandmother as the secretary/treasurer. During the 40 years of the Monde family operation, no less than eight family members worked there—including my brother and I. This doesn’t even include those relations who would provide temporary assistance during busy times. In 2005, after much debate, the difficult decision was made to sell the business to a local chain and former competitor who immediately began remodeling and restructuring.
I was strangely depressed when I saw the gutted building—more depressed than when we had moved homes. I attribute this partially to having grown up there (seriously—we were there all the time as little kids), and partially some uncertainty about my mother’s future employment situation…but mostly my feelings were because it was like losing a family member—a family member with whom we all had a strange, mixed, love/hate relationship that was at times quite stressful and at other times very rewarding. And really…what other kind of family member is there?
It is often said of the families of immigrants that it takes three generations to fully assimilate and become a part of average American culture. To quote my favorite fictitious businessman--Jack Donaghey--"The first generation works their fingers to the bone, making things; the next generation goes to college and innovates new ideas; the third generation…snowboards and takes improv classes.” The immigrant family experience and the family business experience overlap in this way--it is usually the third generation that makes or breaks a business.
And while I neither snowboard nor take improv classes, I had a freedom that my mother did not have--I chose my career...and my choice didn't involve selling light bulbs. My grandparents worked more than anyone I have ever known to build their business (generation one). My mother expanded the business two-fold (generation 2). My brother and I....well, I hung chandeliers in the showroom and my brother stacked boxes in the warehouse, and then we went to college for completely unrelated things--digital art and music education (generation 3).
People in families with businesses often feel pressured to enter the business. I only recall one conversation with my grandfather involving my future. I had been putting in a lot of hours at the store through the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, and one day he nonchalantly asked me what my career plans were. Grandaddy was a loving grandfather, but he certainly could inspire fear when he wanted to. He was a no-nonsense former Marine who saw active duty in World War II and Korea. So naturally I fumbled a bit when I said I wanted to study piano and music education. He immediately said, "Oh, good!" That was the most we ever talked about it. He was always supportive of his grandchildren.
My mother never pressured me to make it my career either, though it certainly was an option. My mother's chosen career was as an art teacher (very similar to my career choice), but after having kids she found it hard to reenter the profession, so she chose to continue her work with the business. She puts it a bit more pragmatically--"I needed to work, so I worked." Had my teaching career not panned out, it is likely I would have landed exactly where she did. I don't regret my choice not to keep the store going, and neither does my brother. But there is a lingering sense of "what if"...and if the third generation "makes or breaks"....then we broke. We didn't break with expectation...but we did break with tradition.
It's always hard to end a tradition. Granted, 40 years is not so very long in the grand scheme of things. Kongu Gumi, a Japanese construction company, recently folded up shop and sold to Takamatsu conglomerate after 1400 years of business. Yes, you read that correctly. Our family dynasty lasted 1/35th the length of Kongu Gumi's--imagine the guilt of the owner who ended their reign!
But times change, circumstances change, and people change.
Light bulbs eventually burn out.
Light bulbs eventually burn out.