The Perils of the Family Business

Anna started working in the family business when she was in grade school and never worked anywhere else. When other kids were playing or reading, she was in the store, sweeping up, straightening stock. That’s where she wanted to be. She spent weekends and summers learning inventory, working production, fixing machinery. She wanted to learn how to do every  job there was and figured it would all come in handy.

When Anna graduated from high school her parents wanted her to go off to college but she convinced them to let her work during the day and take evening classes at the local technical school. She never finished a degree. She didn’t see why she should be wasting her time studying when she knew what she wanted to do with her life.

Anna knew the business. She had rotated through every department, had worn every hat, and everyone of them fit. She had as much grit as any man and plenty more than her brother,Tom.

Tom never seemed to care as much or work as hard as she. Yet she knew he’d take over the business. Her father was old school and her mother wasn’t about to take him on: Tom would inherit the company and if she wanted , she’d have a job working for him. Anna challenged her father’s resolve only once, and regretted the toll it took on all of them. It would all belong to Tom, that was it.  Her father died before he had time to reconsider or retire,  and her mother followed soon after.

Anna stepped aside and let her brother take the helm. She figured Tom would let her run the operation and he’d run the front office. Tom had different plans. He told her he didn’t like the business and wouldn’t spend his life anchored to it. He sold it. Just like that. He pocketed the profits and moved away.  Other than a Christmas card or two, Anna never heard from him again.

The new owners asked her to stay on through the transition. She knew it was only a matter of time before they’d let her go but she was afraid to leave on her own. After a year they gave her notice. In three years the company went belly-up.

Her grandparents were midwesterners who were newlyweds when they moved south. They spent all they had on a small parcel of land and did what farmers do. When grandma started having babies, she had to stay home to tend them.  To make ends meet, she opened a small business she could run from the house. It wasn’t long before they were making more money from the store than they were from the farm.

Their children followed them into the business that began as a roadside stop and became the town’s biggest employer. Their son (Anna and Tom’s father) took it to the next level. Tom did it in.

It’s a cautionary tale of basic yet flawed assumptions that deal with family businesses and the roles that children play within them. It challenges the misguided notions that what was, will always be.

Most owner-parents wrestle with  the same concerns: Should we sell the business or turn it over to the children? The problem is riddled with complexity. If it’s one you struggle with, you need a starting place for your discussion. You’ll find it when you tell the truth, first to yourself and then to your family members. What are your plans for the business, now and into the future? What role do you intend your children to have in its future? Equally important: What do they want? What are their aspirations and expectations?

It’s not usual for business owning parents to project a larger than life presence. They can look controlling, intimidating, all knowing, unforgiving, enabling, take your pick.  If you want your grown kids to be honest with you, give them a fair chance. (You might benefit from coaching on this subject).

Whatever the direction or outcome of your discussion, always encourage your children to expand their education, work, and life experience beyond the boundaries they’ve grown to know and expect.

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Yes! You may use this article by Executive and Career Coach, Joyce Richman, in your blog, article in your blog, newsletter or website as long as you include the following bio box:

Joyce Richman ( has been specializing in executive and career coaching since she started her own practice in 1982. She works in a variety of environments including: higher education, manufacturing, sales, marketing, media, technology, pharmaceuticals, medicine, banking and finance, service, IT, and non-profit sectors. A member of the adjunct faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership, Joyce is certified to administer a number of feedback and psychological instruments. Joyce is a weekly guest on WFMY-TV and the career columnist for The Greensboro News & Record. She is the author of Roads, Routes and Ruts: A Guidebook to Career Success and co-author of Getting Your Kid Out of the House and Into a Job. A popular speaker, Richman conducts seminars and workshops throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. Her coaching profile can be found at

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