As the largest wealth transfer in history looms, business families need to put tough conversations on the table
Stories about bitter feuds in family businesses are everywhere these days.
From HBO’s Succession and The Righteous Gemstones to the recent feature film House of Gucci to the true story of infighting at Rogers Communications, the popular imagination can’t seem to get enough of sibling rivalry and other forms of strife in business families.
Our fascination with such conflict is hardly surprising, according to Shauna Feth, director of the University of Alberta’s Alberta Business Family Institute. Over the coming decade, the world will see the biggest mass succession in human history, she said – a multi-trillion-dollar transfer of wealth as baby boomers pass the torch to the next generation.
That seismic shift is bound to be rife with tension.
“It’s not even about avoiding conflict; it’s about getting it on the table and having a conversation about it because conflict is inevitable,” said Feth.
“Let’s be honest – there isn’t a single one of us that doesn’t have some sort of dysfunction going on in our own families.”
It’s one of the reasons the institute was founded almost 20 years ago: to provide family businesses with valuable advice on navigating emotionally choppy waters. It has since become the pre-eminent research centre on family business in the world, and former director Lloyd Steier is one of the most cited researchers in the field.
The Alberta School of Business has also graduated several doctoral students who have set up similar centres in Canada and the United States.
“We were early to the game,” said Feth. “There were several substantial family businesses in Alberta undergoing transition and experiencing some pain, and they couldn’t find advisers, especially when making tough decisions about which children would take over leadership. Those are difficult conversations.”
According to the Conference Board of Canada, family enterprises account for about 50 per cent of private-sector gross domestic product – amounting to almost $575 billion – and create nearly seven million jobs across the country, mostly in small and medium-sized family businesses.
Feth is quick to point out, however, that intervening in family crises is not the role of her institute. Its purpose is to conduct research and educate business families on the key guiding principles of governance, codes of conduct, aligning values, mission statements, conflict resolution, succession and estate planning – well before discord tears them apart.
“It’s about maintaining family harmony first and foremost,” she said. “No matter what happens with the business, it’s about keeping the family together.”
Sibling rivalry can be nasty in family enterprises, said Feth. “You might have three siblings who have worked in a company for 15 years, but only one has the competency to actually lead.
“It comes down to the idea of fair versus equal. When you’re looking at transitioning family enterprises, it’s not necessarily going to be equal. But the compensation system for the other siblings has to be fair.”
Families sometimes need to be reminded that their business is a legacy with the potential to last for generations. That means putting egos aside, said Feth, and accepting that healthy succession requires shared values.
“In my opinion, this is where the Rogers family fell apart,” she said, referring to the Canadian owners of Rogers Communications. “You could tell there was just a misalignment of values.”
The media and communications company famously aired its dirty family laundry in the Canadian press last fall when Ted Rogers’ son Edward battled with his mother and sisters over control of the company’s board of directors.
“Had the family engaged in conversation – not in the boardroom but as a family – had they started talking years ago about what was going on and how the sisters and the mother felt about it, they may have averted a very public kind of scandal.”
A popular theme in many fictional narratives of family conflict is the sidelining of female siblings. Consider the character of Shiv Roy in Succession, who gets more than her share of mistreatment from her brothers and is set up to fail by her father in the most recent season.
But when asked whether sexism in family businesses is prevalent, Feth said not so much.
“If you asked me that question 25 years ago, I would have said absolutely. But that’s not the case anymore.
“I’m sure it’s still happening in certain families, but we’ve evolved to a place where it’s much more about leadership. It doesn’t matter what sex you are – who is the best leader?”
The most successful family businesses are those seeking education years before trouble arises, said Feth. “Those are the ones I really like, where you have a lot of runway and you’re not dealing with highly conflicted situations.”
To that end, the institute provides an online resource library for business families seeking guidance, as well as a range of programs, from the Family Enterprise Leadership series to the Focus on Families Masterclass to “Passing the Torch – Not the Pain,” a workshop in succession planning.
“We’re one of the only universities in the world that offers such a robust education in the field of family enterprise, which we’re very proud of,” said Feth.
By Geoff McMaster
Courtesy of Troy Media.