what makes a family business successful

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.