Best laid plans

Be prepared, for the sake of the next generation

Family Business

Part three of a series

Family business owners are usually all about control.

Control inventory, cash flow, product quality, and even who takes out the garbage. Many family business owners report that they are jacks or jills of all things. They keep records and plan for every eventuality. They are so much in control that they even stay in the business too long to make sure it goes as they would have it go.

The frustration that many next generation owners speak of is palpable. “Dad micromanages everything!” One generation next reported to me that Dad even rearranges the direction the plants are facing in the greenhouse, turning them 5 or 10 degrees, just to keep his thumb in every pie – or plant.

To the business owner, often the founder, this minor shift is making sure their investment, often all the liquidity that they have, is secure. To generation next, this seemingly small turn of a plant is a defiant thumb in the eye, albeit a green thumb, to a generation just wanting to do things in a new, oft-perceived better, way.

Nowhere is this blood-feud more evident than in the financials. The owner guards the keys to the chest with the secrets of the business with a Herculean grip. Quarterly reports are not shared and this withholding of information is in fact a constant reminder of just who is in charge.

For a business that eventually will change hands, this is a mistake. Sharing of information, the good and the bad, is crucial for continuation and longevity and ultimately for the legacy of the owner.

For those of you who have been keeping up with my ongoing personal story, this has all gotten quite real for me. Back before Thanksgiving, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was doing fine until a routine exam exposed the hideous reality she was hiding on her back.  My father’s words – “We all have an expiration date” – he uttered immediately following that ontologically revealing exam. He then turned to me and told me how much had been saved, where it was and, as if to reassure himself, that we would have enough to see Mom through until the end. After all, “This is why we saved in the first place.”

Fast forward to January and a second oncological exam, which revealed three more areas of cancer, which just added insult to injury. That night, at an impromptu meeting called by Dad, he announced a new direction. He and Mom would live it up!

Pleased with the idea, I encouraged this recklessness only to find that, in their world, “living it up” meant going out to dinner three times a week.

Regardless, Dad had a plan and Mom approved. The next evening, while getting up to make the second of the nightly cocktails, Dad told Mom he forgot how to make hers. He had a massive brain hemorrhage and mentally died on the spot.

As his next gen, I was called to the hospital to see evidence I could not refute. Dad’s previous evening’s best laid plan had been laid to waste by a stroke from which he could not recover.  While we dutifully watched for five days as Dad struggled for breath, the generation next son was now generation current.

I did my duties on the business end, notifying the shocked attorney, financial advisor and accountant. Everything was in place. Dad was meticulous in his bookkeeping and left me with clear trails to follow, except for one thing. The keys! The key to the metal box – the key to the safety deposit box!

The hospice nurses at Froedtert told us daily during our vigil that he could hear us. We talked to Dad as if he was going to get up and walk out of there once the fog cleared. At one point I said to him, “Where did you put the damn safety deposit box key?” My answer came later that night when it tumbled out of an envelope I swear wasn’t there before. There they were, the keys to the empire.

I was prepared to lose one parent. I am not prepared to lose two.

But my plans are irrelevant. As business owners, you can plan and position your business for seemingly every eventuality and then your best laid plans can disappear all in one cerebral implosion.

My best advice is to share before it is too late. Inform, communicate and bring on board the next generation so that the company can continue to move forward. You worked too hard in your lifetime to see it all go to waste at your death. Confidence you show now in the next generation will yield a legacy that long outlives your presence.

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David Borst
David Borst, Ed.D., is a former dean of the Concordia University Wisconsin School of Business. He currently sits on several boards, teaches at the doctoral level and runs the Milwaukee Lutheran High School honors academy. He can be reached at

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