Family businesses offer a unique opportunity to examine what it takes to transition from the entrepreneurial mindset of the founder to that of an established and complex enterprise. The oldest form of business, family firms represent the majority of businesses worldwide. Given that they are ubiquitous, one might assume their best practices are well understood. Yet most fail by the third generation.
One reason for family-business failure may be embedded in their very beginnings. While the founding entrepreneur’s decision to start a business may be intentional, the transition to becoming a family business may be less intention than something that ‘just happens.’ The entrepreneur starts a business, gets married and at some point has children. The children may get taken to work by a parent struggling to balance life and work issues. At some point the children start helping out, providing inexpensive labor, and ‘willy-nilly,’ learning the workings of the business.
Over time one of the children assumes a greater role in the business, eventually beginning to make important decisions. Another child may enter the business simply because there is a job opportunity. A natural hierarchy develops as the business calls forth and accommodates the capacities of each of the siblings.
As the children’s capabilities increase, the entrepreneurial founder spends less and less time working the business, and one day decides it’s time to retire. The children inherit the business with the condition and promise that their parents will be taken care of. A simple, straightforward transition has taken place.
Typically these grown children of the founder will marry and have children who become the family’s third generation. And here lies a critical family-business turning point.
When the time comes for this third generation to inherit ownership and control of the business, their parents look back at the transition model that functioned when they inherited. And it is found wanting. By now things have become significantly more complex. Not just siblings anymore; cousins are now involved. A new model of inheritance, role distribution and governance must be found.
Understanding this inevitable pattern is the first step toward a successful transition from entrepreneurial to multi-generational-family-business success.