Examining the Medici family legacy: What are you doing that will stand the test of time?

Last updated on July 1st, 2019 at 02:04 pm

BizTimes likes it when I write about family businesses rather than historical legacies, but sometimes it is difficult to ignore what history shows us about both. 

In Milwaukee, we are blessed to have enduring names like Cudahy, Marcus, Bradley and Pettit. While these names are etched into the fabric of our community, with the toppling of a building, such as the Bradley Center, the names can disappear as quickly as the edifice.

I wonder if any of these family names will be remembered 700 years from now, like the Medici family of Florence?

The Medici family businesses had humble beginnings in the wool industry. In 1397, they began a banking practice, branching out from textiles, and are credited with developing the first double-entry form of accounting, widely used in accounting throughout the world today.

From the Medici line, four popes rose through the cardinal ranks. While it is unlikely that any of our local family legacies will include even one pope, one thing can be gleaned from this heavenly rise. Families in business with a strong faith connection – Christian or otherwise – have a greater likelihood of surviving in business longer. The reason? A common underpinning, and a shared ethical perspective.

The Medici were also known for their patronage of the arts. Donatello, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo and DaVinci all had patrons from the Medici family. What does this say to our community benefactors today? 

The Medici aimed high. They did not look to have naming rights, but aimed to support those things that would stand the test of time. The Medici name lives on because they supported works that were bigger than themselves. 

As we quibble about whether the Hoan Bridge should have lights and whether Am Fam Park has the same cache as Miller Park, remember this is not the Acropolis we are building here. We need to aim higher. What can we build here that will stand the test of time?

Another important aspect of the Medici family was diversification. They started in one business but branched out to others, including the mining of alum, a mineral used in the dyeing process for clothes. A natural integration for a business that started in textiles, the Medici diversification allowed the family to monopolize the industry.

One interesting note is that the Medici never served in government or the political class, as it is referred to today. Make no mistake, they greatly influenced politics; but they did not directly serve. They favored a republic-style government similar to our own. In fact, our forefathers, in planning our own national form of government, could easily have drawn from the republic style of governance favored in the Italian city-states. We are a democratic republic, a fact frequently lost on our own citizens when describing our government.

One last element to note from the Medici… Like so many family businesses today, the height was reached by Lorenzo the Magnificent, only to see it flounder and fail under his ill-equipped son Piero II. Too often in our present day family businesses, the company is inherited by a child ill-prepared to handle the reins. Passing along a business is not enough. The true building of a legacy includes preparing the next generation for the ascension to the throne, or in most cases, the keys to the company. Making the wrong decision on who carries those keys can lead to disaster. That disaster is often not realized immediately and languishes with the business for generations. With time, the error is revealed, and by then it is too late to reverse.

By most accounts, the Medici lasted until 1737. Close to a 400-year run for a family business – I think most of us would be pretty content with that. It did come to an end, but what a magnificent family to emulate. 

I had an opportunity some years back on a trip to Florence to see the legacy in person. Driving through the myriad of one-way streets and small alleys, I made my way through the maze that is Florence. Speaking no Italian but believing my understanding of European signage was up to par, I drove right up to the Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Del Fiore. Parking at the main entrance, I was shocked at the crowd I was drawing. Little did I know that the Duomo is off limits to automobile traffic six blocks around the perimeter to help keep the legacy safe from pollution. 

Sorry, Lorenzo! My mistake!

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David Borst
Dr. Borst is the retired Dean of Business at Concordia University. He started up five businesses under borstthebrand.com and is COO of the Family Business Legacy Institute. He can be heard every Saturday morning as Dr. Dave at 6:20am on WTMJ radio with the FBLI show- "All Business". Dr. Borst is an entrepreneur, author, speaker, and blogger of a variety of topics from religion to politics or any of the topics you are not supposed to discuss.